Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Hankon Thermal Power Plant - 5 - Fiery like the Kali - Article by Arun in Indian Express

Article Source

Time: Around dusk

Place: Hanakon in Uttara Kannada district

The plot: Jyothi Maruti Savant and Sunitha Suresh Naik are chatting. Hanakon gram panchayat secretary Syed Adam asks the two housewives to work at the site in their sleepy little village for clearing “unauthorised structures” constructed by a Hyderabad-based company that is launching an energy project. Next morning, Jyothi and Sunitha are among the 50-odd men and women who have gathered at the place where Ind-Barath Power (Karwar) Limited is setting up a 450-MW coal-based power plant. But Syed is nowhere to be seen. As whispers of Syed having taken ill spread, Jyothi and Sunitha decide to return home.

All of a sudden, they are battling the blows that the police are raining on them. Everybody starts running, screaming for help. Police round up the villagers, thrash them and bundle them up inside a van. Villagers are picked up at random and produced at the magistrate’s house around 3 am. Jyothi is angry and wants to tell the magistrate in no uncertain terms what she had gone through. But she is not allo wed to get off the van. Both the women, along with several others, are taken to the district prison in Bellary, 400 km away.

The charge: Attempting to sabotage the site of a proposed private thermal power plant.

Footnote: After the two are released from prison on August 2, Hanakon readies itself to become the Nandigram of Karnataka.

This drama in Hanakon is just one of the many theatres of the absurd playing out in the state. In the mining town of Bellary, villagers are performing the painful urulu seve (rolling bare-chested) on the road — for about 15 km and blocking traffic almost every other day. They say that agricultural land is being taken over for a greenfield airport — which will perhaps serve only the high and mighty of the area — by notifying it as barren land. In Uttara Kannada’s Tadadi, the government had to bow to public pressure and convert the proposed coal-based power plant into a gas-based one. The proposed hydel project in Gundiya earned the wrath of Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh when chief minister B S Yeddyurappa laid the foundation stone even before receiving the mandatory clearances. The list is endless.

Karnataka’s hunger for power

One doesn’t have to look too far to see why the state government is running at breakneck speed to sanction power projects. Karnataka’s unrestricted power demand is 10,500 MW while it generates only around 6,000 MW. The deficit is being managed through load-shedding. But with its inability to bridge the gap soon, the first Bharatiya Janata Party government south of the Vindhyas faces the prospect of losing power in the next elections.

Why Hanakon matters

With a population of just around 1,400 (1,284 according to 2001 census), Hanakon, on the northern bank of the estuary of the Kali River, has managed to stand up to the giants.

And the blanket of protests is getting stitched up with help from the nearby villages as Kali is their lifeline and a rise in the river’s temperature will have a devastating effect. Fisherfolk of the Gabit community have also joined in. Recently, they returned the palanquins donated by their MLA and fisheries minister Anand Asnotikar to the local deity for his ambiguous stand on the issue. During the 2008 elections, Asnotikar had assured fishermen of protection of their interests. “But he failed to do so. It became inevitable for us to return the palanquins,” says Uday Poshe, the leader of the fishermen.

Balakrishna Pai, an advocate leading the protests and exploring legal options, sounds a more defiant note. “If the authorities do not stall the project,’’ he says, ‘‘we will launch an agitation on the lines of the people’s protest against the Nano project in Nandigram. We are ready even for bloodshed.”

What is at stake?

The project is proposed to be located a few metres from the Kali estuary. The state’s forest department has identified 49 mangrove species, 93 herbs in the vicinity apart from a floristic composition of 133 species of trees, shrubs, creepers and climbers in the adjoining forest (most have medicinal value) which will be affected. Bisons, spotted deer, porcupines, and various birds and reptiles are at threat as the proposed project lies within 5 km of the Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary in Goa, and less than 12 km from the Dandeli-Anashi Tiger Reserve. The project is expected to consume 3,200 tonnes of coal each day generating not less than 800 tonnes of fly ash.

And that makes the threat of acid rain in this bio-reserve a distant reality. Since only 65 per cent of the heat is used for power generation the remaining 35 per cent heat will be discharged in the Kali, and that will affect the aqua-fauna in the estuary. This is where the sea fish come to breed in the mangroves.

Which begs the question: All this for 450 MW of power? And the government is not even sure if it will come to Karnataka. And even if it does, at what price?

Lack of transparency

In Bellary, the government pulled the wool over the villagers’ eyes. In Hanakon, however, it was ignorance that did the villagers in. Since most of the area is at a level lower than the high-tide level of the Arabian Sea, saline water gets into the paddy fields every month.

The Khar Land Bund constructed along the banks of the Kali adjoining the village is unable to stop the backwater getting into the paddy fields. Many families found a better calling in Goa and their land turned fallow after they migrated. Villagers allege that the power company has exploited this situation.

In 2006, during the annual fair at the Sateri Devi temple, somebody said a pharmaceutical company was planning to set up shop in Hanakon. Soon enough, agents of the company started buying land at a very attractive price of Rs 2.6 lakh per acre and acquired around 100 acres. Villagers claim they did not know that a thermal plant was coming up even when Ind-Barath obtained an NoC on October 4, 2006, from the Hanakon Gram Panchayat to set up a plant with installed capacity of 140MW. By June last year, panic set in when they got to know what was happening. The Hanakon Ushna Sthavara Virodhi Horata Samithi (a committee to fight against thermal power project) was set up and the villagers decided to oppose the project after a public hearing in October. Accordingly, the Hanakon Gram Panchayat withdrew its NoC.

Protests and the aftermath

After the handful of protesters managed to turn the issue into a big controversy, the district administration asked the company not to take up any work on the spot without getting clearance from the Karnataka Pollution ControlBoard. The National Environment Appellate Authority in New Delhi, based on an

appeal made by the people of Hanakon, ord ered a status quo. The Forest Department closed the cul de sac, the only pathway to app roach the project site from the Londa- Sadashivagad State Highway (locally called as Karwar-Kadra Road) by fencing it.

In the meanwhile, a committee of the Union ministry of environment and forests headed by the Chief Conservator of Forests of the regional office in Bangalore K S Reddy recommended that the Centre order a comprehensive impact assessment study of the site. It found more than 20 lacunae in the Impact Assessment Report prepared by the power company.

Meanwhile, Jyothi and Sunitha — and several other villagers of Hanakon — are awaiting the Karnataka State Human Rights Commission chairman’s report after the local police enquiry gave a clean chit to the officials.

Hanakon villagers have won a few battles but if they manage to win the war against the misplaced priorities and the might of the corporations, they will end up showing the way to protesters in Bellary, Hassan, Gulbarga, Raichur, Bijapur and countless other areas in Karnataka. In the end, it will prove that the “individual does matter”.

The backbone of the protests

He is better known as “Green Swamiji”.

Gangadharendra Saraswathi Swamy of Sonda Swarnavalli Mutt, earned the sobriquet for his fight against activities detrimental to the environment in Karnataka in general and Uttara Kannada district in particular. He has been a source of inspiration to villagers to protest against the thermal power project. During his visit to the spot last October, he called upon the people to participate in large numbers in the public hearing that was held on the last day of that month.

Environmentalist Ananth Hegde Ashisara, who has attended several such public hearings, says he never saw so many people attend a public hearing like when he did that day after the Swamiji’s call.

Swamiji is worried about the greenhouse gases and the impact that the project will have on the local environment. He says that Uttara Kannada district does not need another project, over-burdened as it is with seven large reservoirs and hydropower projects, one atomic power project (at Kaiga), the Seabird naval base and mining activities in addition.


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