On July 14, two people were killed at Sompeta in Andhra Pradesh’s Srikakulam district when the police opened fire on protesters. The people were incensed at the Andhra Pradesh government allotting a tract of Sompeta’s wetland, or beela, to private firm Nagarjuna Construction Company (NCC). The company plans to build a 2,640 MW coal-fired power plant on 480 hectares of the wetland.
Former Union power secretary E A S Sarma, now with a civil society group, said the company got the beela declared wasteland with help from Andhra bureaucrats. “The environmental impact assessment (EIA) report, the district collector’s report to the state government and the state environment department’s report to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), misrepresented ground realities,” Sarma alleged.
VIMTA labs in Hyderabad that prepared the EIA report did not state that beela is a wetland. At the public hearing, mandatory for environmental clearance, more than 90 per cent of the gathering raised their voice against the project. The reports of state government officials to the Centre made no mention of the local disapproval of the project. The people’s movement is broadbased.
Doctors, lawyers and accountants have closed ranks with farmers and fishers. Matters came to a boil in mid- July when the National Environment Appellate Authority (NEAA) was deliberating environmental clearance to the project. “The police threatened us. They asked us not to roam the streets,” said Y Krishan Murthy, president of the Paryavaran Parirakshana Samithi, the people’s front leading the campaign.
A day after the police firing, NEAA cancelled the environmental clearance to the power plant. Ritwick Dutta, who represented Sompeta’s farmers, said 10 institutes in the country, including the National Institute of Oceanography in Goa, had declared the land barren without substantiation.
Beela and adjoining wetlands, including Kolleru Lak, are important ecosystems and biodiversity refuges. More than a thousand families, including those of fishers and small farmers, depend on the wetlands for a living. Three lift irrigation projects draw water from the wetlands.
The wetlands are winter home to migratory birds. They are repositories of rare medicinal plants like sarpagandhi (Rauwolfia serpentina) and bhringaraj (Eclipta alba), used to treat jaundice. NEAA’s cancellation does provide a ray of hope to the wetlands. But the fact remains that at least six thermal power plants are on the anvil in the ecologically rich Srikakulam and adjoining Vizianagaram districts.
Plans for thermal power plants in areas adjoining the wetlands could run counter to MoEF’s conservation plans for wetlands. The ministry recently invited suggestions from the public for a national policy on wetlands. It has also set up a committee to frame a wetland policy.
One of the members of the committee, ecologist Siddhartha Kaul, visited the NCC project area in Sompeta and nearby Bhavanapadu (site for another proposed power project) on June 29, along with J C Kala, member of NEAA. The duo’s report had a significant role in the revoking of Nagarjuna Construction’s environmental clearance.
It noted: “Sompeta has been a sad story of misrepresentation of facts from the district administration to the State and the State Government to MoEF. The site is fertile land and should not be diverted for industrial use”.
The lessons from the happenings in Sompeta are clear: stringent action should be taken against the individuals and organisations responsible for suppressing facts about the wetlands. A proper action plan should be drawn up for the conservation of such ecologically rich areas.
Srinivas Ganjivarapu is a freelance journalist and activist with Samata, a non-profit in Visakhapatnam
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