The power plants coming up along the Konkan coast threaten to turn the region into a wasteland, reports Prerna Singh Bindra
SEVENTY-YEAR-OLD MURLIDHAR Sadashiv of Nandivade in Jaigad taluk of Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district begins his morning by worshipping the earth. It’s a tradition he inherited from his forefathers, along with the orchard that nurtures him and his family. But it’s a legacy he won’t pass on to his grandchild, scampering up a mango tree nearby. “Come back in a decade, and this will be wasteland. None of this will remain – not the land, not the trees,” he says bitterly. He’s referring to the JSW Energy’s 1,200 MW thermal power plant in Jaigad. Nandivade is no exception in the region. In what is the largest concentration of its kind in India, a nuclear power plant and seven thermal power plants are proposed – on just 120 km of land. These plants stretch from Ratnagiri to Hanakon in north Karnataka.
In Ratnagiri, a notable casualty will be the prized Alphonso mango, which is very susceptible to air pollution. A study by scientists from the Lucknow-based Industrial Toxicology Research Centre has found that sulphur dioxide — a common pollutant from coal-fired thermal plants — affects the quality and yields of mangoes. This will hit more than seven lakh people in Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg who depend on horticulture, mainly mangoes, cashew and coconuts.
Pradeep Parulekar, a lawyer based in Ratnagiri, questions the logic of thermal plants in a region that, in 1997, was declared a horticulture zone. Encouraged by subsidies and special packages, farmers poured their savings into mango crops. Those trees — and their investments — are finally bearing fruit. Exports of Alphonso to Japan and Europe began last year. Not for long, since, “stringent quality controls specify that there should not be any coal-burning industry near the mango crop,” says Vivek Bhide, president of the Ratnagiri Zilla Jagruk Manch, an organisation leading the campaign against the power projects.
The reversal of policy is even worse in the case of Sindhudurg. In 1997, it was declared an eco-sensitive area and specially designated tourist destination, given its pristine beaches and forests and historical forts. In January, a resolution allowing thermal power plants and mining in the district was passed by the government. More than 20 villages along the Sindhudurg-Goa border have been zoned for mining aluminium ore.
The Jaigad power project threatens fishermen as well. Fly ash and hot waste contaminants raise water temperatures, killing fish. Dhamankhol is one of 50-odd fishing villages nestled in Jaigad creek. On a good day, a rich catch of mackerel, lobster, pomfret and shrimp might fetch up to Rs 4,000. These days, the dinghies and catamarans return almost empty. “Continuous dredging around the jetty changes the composition of the water and the seabed,” explains fisherman Bashir Sangre. If just a jetty can have such harmful consequences, what will happen once hot toxic waste is spewed into the sea? The locals of Dhamankhol are bitter. “Motha masa chotya mashala khato (Big fish eat smaller fish),” says Yunus Mohammed, grimly.
“The Konkan coast is strategically ideal for power generation from imported fuels – in this case, coal,” points out a senior official from the Ministry of Power, who requested anonymity. But is there anything like clean coal? “It’s like dry water – it doesn’t exist,” says the official. Anil Razdan, former power secretary warns, “We must achieve a balance between the imperative for power and environmental concerns. Power plants must follow environmental norms.” Realistically, few do, given that the plants were founded on deception. JSW’s mandatory Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) for the Jaigad plant has omissions that would be hilarious in any other context. Rather than list the myriad flora and fauna of this biodiversity hotspot, it says that the animals endemic to the region are: “dog, cat, pig, cow and buffalo.” It ignores the existence of reserve forests, mangroves and corals. It goes against the law and omits mention of any alternative site. And yet, this assessment breezed through the portals of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and was even passed by the National Environment Appellate Authority (NEAA). Hearing an appeal against the NEAA’s decision, the Delhi High Court recognised the shoddy manner in which the EIA was dealt with and has directed that the clearance be re-examined.
IN THE case of Ind-Barath’s Hanakon power plant in North Karnataka, intense local opposition and political pressure have won a temporary reprieve and clearances are under review. Ind- Barat’s EIA also brushes aside the potential impact on agriculture, fisheries and coconut, cashew and mango orchards – mainstays of livelihood in the region. There is also no word on how proposed dredging in the Kali river will affect local ecology and health. It also lies about its proximity to the Catigao Wildlife Sanctuary in Goa (five km away) and the Dandeli- Anshi tiger reserve (12 km away), clearly violating MoEF rules against such projects within 25 km.
All attempts to get in touch with both JSW Energy Limited and Ind-Barath (Hanakon) proved futile.
In neighbouring Raigad district in Maharashtra, five thermal power plants barely eight to 10 km apart are planned. The area is already under stress from heavy chemical industries. Jairam Ramesh, Minister of State for Environment and Forests, says, “It is important to assess the cumulative impact of these power projects and isolated studies draw an incomplete picture.”
Terror overwhelmed Sukharam Ramchandra Desai when he spotted the huge stripped predator stealthily padding across the field in Kalane, just beside the mines. A month later, he thinks of the big cat roaming his fields not with terror but with hope. The fact that the national animal chooses to live on that particular patch of land might save their village from the devastation of mining, might prevent the forests being destroyed. “After all, isn’t it the duty of the government to protect the national animal, if not us?” A senior forest official says on condition of anonymity, “there are at least three tigers in the Dodamar forests near Kalane.”
He understands the need for electricity — after all, he was a minister for power — but asserts: “while the demand for power must be met, the how is critical. Any decision cannot have only megawatts as the objective but must take into account environment and ecological costs and livelihood issues. Environmental concern cannot be removed from economic development. The two must be integrated at every stage.”
But, there are no easy integrations or easy solutions. Maharashtra currently faces a massive 5,000 MW deficit, while Karnataka has a 4,000 MW deficit. Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg require a mere 167 MW, the proposed power plants will generate 30,003 MW, an astounding 180 times the actual requirements of the region.
“We won’t reap any benefits. Why must we then bear the burden of ‘development’? What is the ‘greater common good’ that is destroying our life and livelihood?” asks Sadashiv Jog, who refused to part with his land. It is now being acquired and three transmission towers and a railway line for coal will run through his flourishing orchard. A groundswell of popular protest is building. In Pawas in Ratnagiri, villagers protested with a hunger strike and have also taken legal recourse. The women of Karwar interacted with women in Bhatinda to understand the impact of power plant emissions on their children’s health and farm produce. In Niweli, in Jaitapur taluka, villagers refused to accept compensation from the state government for their land for the nuclear plant, which, say officials, will then be acquired under the Land Acquisition Act. But the villagers are adamant and say they will fight till the bitter end. Like in Nandigram.
“Growth must be in sync with Konkan’s fragile ecology,” stresses Jayendra Parulekar, who is part of the Save Konkan Movement, “and the future is in horticulture and tourism.” Bhide agrees and gives the example of Ganpatipule. Ten years ago, the gram panchayat of this tiny village had an annual budget of Rs 15,000. Then, tourism came in, drawn by the unspoilt beaches and the ancient Ganesh temple. Local business expanded. People opened guest houses, small eateries, shops selling souvenirs and taxi services. Today, the gram panchayat has a Rs 12 lakh annual budget.
Yet, it cannot be denied that India needs power. Razdan points out that the country suffers from a power shortage of 1,18 lakh MW. “This shortfall must be bridged, especially if we are to meet our targeted growth rate of 8 to 9 percent. Our current per capita is 600 MW, and we need to increase this to 1000 MW.”
“The energy deficiency argument won’t suffice. Energy — coal or hydel — comes at a heavy cost to health (radiation, respiratory diseases), agro-horticulture, fish, diversity, ecology and tourism. This should be communicated to the affected people, who must then be made part of the decision-making process, not have projects thrust upon them. Is that democratic?” argues Ritwick Dutta of The Access Initiative, a group promoting environ mental democracy.
JSW lists ‘dog, cat, pig, cow, buffalo’ as animals endemic to the region, not its myriad flora and fauna
Senior conservation scientist Ullas Karanth insists that ‘nogo areas’ — critical biodiversity hotspots covering 5 to 10 percent of India’s landmass — be identified and mapped on an urgent basis through a scientific exercise. He agrees that the energy shortfall must be met, especially for rural areas where the deficit is high. “One possible alternative is a rational mix of nuclear power generated the modern way and gasbased energy. Both, of course, come with their own share of risks, which must be minimised with the best available technology,” says Karanth.
ALPHONSO: Sulphur dioxide from thermal power plants will choke and kill Ratnagiri’s prized mangoes
CORALS: Effluent from power plants will destroy corals, and the marine diversity of the region. Rare whale sharks are also known to frequent these waters
MANGROVES: Huge tracts of mangroves have been felled in Karwar and Ratnagiri, where the power plants are coming up. Mangroves are a natural barrier against cyclones and are nurseries for aquatic life
TIGERS: There are tigers in the Dodamar forests around Kalane, which will be pillaged by mining. The Western Ghats are a global biodiversity hotspot.
CASHEW: Pollutants from power plants and mining dust will destroy cashew production, the region’s other major cash crop
There are no easy answers, only tough questions. Perhaps the Delhi High Court said it best, in its September 18 judgement: “Economic growth and environment protection is a fine balancing act. Public interest requires protection and care of the environment. Public interest also requires economic growth… It has been accepted that ecological damage and prevention thereof for the sake of life and future generations should take precedence over other public interest.”