The threat of environmental damage by coal-fired plants has triggered protests similar to those against the Kudankulam project
While villagers in a part of coastal Tamil Nadu are protesting against a nuclear power plant, in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh a more conventional method of energy production has been the trigger for widespread protests.
Three dozen or more thermal power stations are coming up at several places along the Andhra coast. In north coastal Andhra, fishermen and farmers have repeatedly clashed with the authorities, leading to police firing and deaths. The thermal stations, they fear, will deprive them of livelihood and cause serious health disorders in the long run.
Faced with a severe shortage of power, the Andhra Pradesh government has been inviting investments in thermal power generation at breakneck speed. In Nellore district alone, as many as 20 plants with a cumulative capacity of 24,500 MW have been proposed within a radius of five km of Krishnapatnam.
In 2010, E.A.S. Sarma, a former Union Power Secretary, wrote to the Union Minister of State for Environment (then Jairam Ramesh), urging him to stop what he described as “environmental vandalism”. Mr. Sarma warned that the projects would lead to diversion of over 17,000 acres of ecologically sensitive land and lands falling under the CRZ jurisdiction. The thermal plants, he said, would burn 3.17 lakh tonnes of coal, dump 1.33 lakh tonnes of toxic ash daily and release 2,100 tonnes of sulphur into the environment.
The plants would require 64 lakh cubic metres of water that would, in turn, spew out sewage, effluents, including mercury, arsenic and even radioactive isotopes into ground water as well as the sea, affecting the region’s marine ecology. “The Ministry of Environment and Forests has unwittingly (or knowingly) presided over the unimaginable environmental disaster due to the combined effect of all these projects,” he said.
Krishnapatnam is an area where the threat is imminent. Srikakulam district has already turned into a cauldron. Five fishermen and farmers have been killed in police firing in Sompeta and Kakarapalli since 2010. A nuclear power plant at Kovvada in the Ransathalam block of the district has added fuel to the farmers’ ire leading to frequent confrontations with police.
The protests have been so intense that the Centre suspended the environmental clearance to the 2,640-MW thermal plant promoted by Nagarjuna Construction Company (NCC) at Sompeta on a site which, environmentalists say, is wetland but wrongly shown as barren by the district officials.
NCC says farmers had accepted the handsome rehabilitation package it offered and backtracked later. Having invested a substantial amount of money, it could not back off but was willing to address the farmers’ concerns in consultation with the Centre. The Paryavarana Parirakshana Samithi (environment protection committee) headed by Y. Krishna Murthy, will have none of it. “We still have strong grounds to approach the court to stay any attempts to construct the project.”
Dr. Krishna Murthy says Beela, a large low-lying swamp with a unique habitat, would suffer irreparable damage if the thermal plant comes up. It is a registered water body, abutting the sea and lies close to the Eastern Ghats. Around it live 1.5 lakh people, mainly farmers and fisherfolk. Beela is the lifeline for two-crop paddy farming; three lift irrigation projects are operating in its purview.
Aside from the environmental, there are concerns, also pointed out by Mr. Sarma and others, that the State grid has no capacity to absorb the base load generated by these projects “by any stretch of imagination”. There are simply no transmission and distribution lines to evacuate power to other States.
Once operational, these projects will have financial implications on the State-owned plants that supply cheaper power. The latter would be forced to back down and the end result would be an enormous rise in power tariffs, he says.
The Vizag Zonal Council of the Confederation of Indian Industry denounces the obstructionist tactics. “How do they expect new industries to be established if they oppose thermal and nuclear power stations that will ease the power crisis. Technology has advanced so much that air pollution in thermal plants and ash disposal are effectively taken care of”, says K.V. Bhaskar, a former chairman of the council.
Energy department officials do not deny the environmental implications of the highly polluting coal-fired projects, but defend the approvals on the ground that there is no escape from using coal until an alternative, environment-friendly fuel is found. “The concerns are genuine and environmental issues cannot be wished away. But a price has to be paid. Are we not impounding water and halting the pristine flow of a river when we a build a dam for hydro power? Instead of obstructing power projects, the focus should be on ensuring that power plant promoters make emissions manageable and tolerable,” says Andhra Pradesh Energy Secretary Mrityunjay Sahoo.
Industries Secretary K. Pradeep Chandra cites viability to justify location of projects near the coastline, notwithstanding its fragile ecosystem. “A majority of the plants will use imported coal. It will be unviable for the industry to transport imported coal if the plants are located far away from sea-ports,” he says.
The energy crisis in AP is acute as the demand-supply shortfall is nearly 25 per cent. At the national level too, over a third of India’s rural population does not have access to power. In April this year, the total installed capacity crossed the two lakh megawatt mark but there is still a yawning 10-per-cent base load energy deficit.
Principal among the Planning Commission’s measures to tide over the crisis is the addition of 63,000 MW capacity through coal-based plants alone in the 12th Plan. But as the protests in Andhra Pradesh show, before the solution to the energy crisis become worse than the problem, a balance needs to be struck between meeting energy needs and the need to protect people’s livelihoods and the environment.