Yes, let there be light. But no pain


Ground Zero: Srikakulam, Andhra Pradesh

A whopping 63 power plants are coming up in coastal Andhra. Amidst bullets and protests. Is there no better way of doing this, asks Kunal Majumder

EVERY FEW years, the business fraternity in Andhra Pradesh goes into gorailamanda (‘herd mentality’ in Telugu). Some years back, the craze was for running software companies. Then came the surge towards medical and engineering colleges. Now, it is time to open power plants: no less than 63 thermal plants are coming up in the state.

This has triggered intense protests and many questions. The key one is, does Andhra really need all the power that is going to be generated? And at what cost? The state’s current installed capacity is 15,800 MW. According to a survey by the Central Electricity Authority, the peak electrical demand in the state is expected to reach 28,215 MW by 2021. But there are 117 proposed power plants in the state, geared to generate an additional 77,800 MW. Of this, 55,925 MW will be coal-based. Clearly, there is going to be an increase in demand, but the proposed supply far exceeds it. In a sense, it is this gigantic scale and the insensitivity with which most of these projects are undertaken that has created most of the unrest.

Unfortunately, instead of generating reasoned debate which would help arrive at the best formula, how all this turns out has largely become dependent on a play of politics. In July 2010, late chief minister YS Rajashekhara Reddy’s son Jagan Mohan was touring Srikakulam district, meeting families of those who had committed suicide after his father’s death. Villagers of Sompeta told Reddy how ecologically sensitive wetlands in their village have been declared barren and handed over to Hyderabad- based Nagarjuna Construction Company (NCC) to build thermal power plants with a capacity of 2,640 MW. Jagan instantly assured his support. Perhaps he had little idea that the permission to set up the plant at Sompeta in Srikakulam was sanctioned by none other than his late father’s government. Seven power plants are planned in Srikakulam district — six of them are coal-based, one nuclear.

On 15 July 2010, a day after Jagan’s Odarpu yatra moved to the next district, NCC decided to go ahead with the groundbreaking ceremony on the 1,100-acre plot in Sompeta. A curfew was announced. Extra companies of policemen and women were brought in. That day, the village looked more like a police camp. At the site, around 200 NCCworkers were present with lathis, wearing blue ribbons to distinguish them from the locals.

Defying curfew, villagers landed up to protest. The police lathi charge was followed by teargas. Soon, it was an all-out battle. Police and media vehicles were burnt. In their rage, the villagers snatched at cameras and pounced on reporters, accusing the local media of siding with NCC. Then the police resorted to firing, and two villagers — Joga Rao, 40, and G Krishnamurthy, 54 — were shot dead. The madness continued into the night — the NCC office in the village was burnt, and local politicians attacked.

A relay fast by farmers and memos to the district officials yielded little. Then a truck carrying debris to the plant killed a school kid

The next day came the news: environmental clearance to the NCC plant had been withdrawn. The National Environment Appellate Authority declared that NCC had indeed selected ecologically sensitive wetland and the environment clearance given by the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) must be immediately quashed. Opposition leaders Chandrababu Naidu and Chiranjeevi (then not with the Congress) came to ‘console’ the family of the dead. They announced compensation and vowed to side with the farmers in their fight against power plants.

SIX MONTHS later, the compensation had been received, statues of both Joga Rao and G Krishnamurthy built at the village entrance. But the wetland is still under the legal possession of NCC. The government hasn’t taken it back. The company on its part has announced plans to shift the plant to Nellore in south Andhra, where already 24 thermal plants are proposed to come up in a radius of 15 km near the Krishnapatnam port.

But the bloodshed in Srikakulam has not ended. On 28 February, there was a sense of déjà vu — just like last July, police opened fire at farmers protesting against a thermal plant. Again, two villagers were left dead in police firing in Vadditandra. East Coast Energy wants to acquire 3,500 acres in neighbouring Kakarapalli village to set up a 2,640 MW plant. Pradhan Krishnamurthy, a local lawyer, says villagers had given a go-ahead because of the promises made by the company, one which was to divert the two natural drains that flowed into swamps. But the company filled a portion of the swamp, leading to flooding. A relay fast by farmers and memos to the district officials yielded little.

On a roll The high-technology juggernaut wheels into areas that will probably not benefit, only suffer
On a roll The high-technology juggernaut wheels into areas that will probably not benefit, only suffer

Then in April 2010, a truck carrying debris to the plant area killed a school kid. The district collector asked the company huto construct a separate road. But this road disrupted the flow of water in the area and flooded it, agitating the villagers.

On 17 February, after many appeals to the district administration, around 200 villagers from eight surrounding villages attempted to destroy the road themselves. Criminal cases were filed against them. On 25 February, police reinforcements came in. “It became like a war,” recalls Krishnamurthy. Over 2,000 policemen and women were deployed in eight villages. The hunger strike platform was destroyed first. Cases of attempt to murder were slapped on 68 villagers. “Police came to our village with guns and then claimed we attempted to murder them,” says one of the elders who didn’t want to be named.

ON 28 February, the second incident of violence took place. Early in the morning, the police marched to Vadditandra, dragged villagers out of their homes, broke their doors and threw teargas shells on their roofs. Two villagers — 30-year-old C Erraiah and 36-year-old Giri Nageswar Rao — were shot dead. Mass arrests were made. The villagers detained in the Srikakulam jail for 15 days included women as old as 92. “They just came and picked us up. They saw no young or old,” says Gayatri Chandrama, 65.

Unequal fight After this incident, those detained in the Srikakulam jail for 15 days included old women
Unequal fight After this incident, those detained in the Srikakulam jail for 15 days included old women
Photo: Basheer

East Coast Energy’s Managing Director Krishna V Tatineni calls this incident a law and order issue. “As far as we are concerned, we are constructing the project in full compliance with the permissions and the clearances,” says Tatineni. He blames the incident on ‘instigators’.

One week later, Jagan Mohan Reddy, now separated from the Congress, went to meet the victims both in Kakarapalli and Sompeta. He even sat on ‘mahadharna’ with farmers and fishermen at the Collectorate in Srikakulam. The state is abuzz with rumours that he has stakes in East Coast Energy. But he rubbishes them and now wants both the plants cancelled.

There was pandemonium in the state Assembly. The Opposition led by TDP wanted the state government to explain the police brutality. The stakes are high, with powerful politicians like Congress’s T Subbarami Reddy and TDP’s N Nageswara Rao possibly having stakes in these plants.

Yet, in the coastal district of Nellore, where 24 thermal plants are coming up around Krishnapatnam port, TDP, along with other opposition parties like CPM, CPI, BJP, Loksatta and CPI(ML) has formed an agitation committee. “The government has to answer why it is planning so many plants on the coast. What about the cumulative impact of these plants on human life?” asks TDP’s S Chandramohan Reddy.

‘It became like a war. Police came to our village with guns and then claim we attempted to murder them,’ says one of the elders

Moreover, the plan to dispose of ash inside landfills is worrying environmental engineer Sagar Dhara. “The soil in Eastern Ghats, where these plants are planned, is laterite in nature. If it comes in contact with ash produced by power plants, it will turn acidic, allowing chemicals to seep into the ground water,” he says.

It’s not just ash: over 125 lakh tonnes of carbon dioxide, 4 lakh tonne of sodium dioxide and nitrous dioxide each would be produced every year. The impact will be local, regional and global, affecting human health, crops, salt pans — Nellore has an active salt farming industry, aqua-industry, water bodies and forest.

Apart from the accessibility to the port, the other reason for having thermal plants near the sea is the presence of water. Coalbased plants need huge amounts of water — 92 lakh cubic metres — to cool the steam produced and convert it into electricity.

Some power companies argue that many of these concerns can be addressed through advanced super critical plants and adopting best practices in land acquisition, environmental mitigation and creating honourable employment for those displaced by these projects. But companies that willingly adopt these measures are very few.

Activists like B Ramakrishna Raju of the National Alliance for People’s Movements question the very need to have so much extra power. “Where is the infrastructure to transfer so much of power?” he asks. Reddy points out that for each 500 MW produced, a new set of high tension power lines have to be set up. “You want to expose villagers to electromagnetic radiation,” he says.

After the Kakarapalli killings, the state government has assured the Assembly that it will revisit the permission granted to the thermal plants. The villagers wait and watch while 500 fisherfolk families wonder what to do next. If fishing becomes impossible, they’ll lose their livelihood.

Kunal Majumder is a Correspondent with Tehelka.


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