Quest for ‘power’: Each new plant means change in landuse, farming, forests, fishing, livelihood, ecological ethos, biodiversity

mundraBy Kanchi Kohli*

“Those stacks, can you see them? There are six of them not too far away, painted white and red. Can you spot them?” asked my companion in Mundra taluka of Kutch district in Gujarat. I did see them. Two fully functional coal-based thermal power plants stood tall. They belong to two large industrial and power conglomerates.

When we drove closer to these power plants we saw fly ash dumped on the road, dried-up mudflats and denigrated mangroves. The two plants had located themselves on ecologically fragile inter tidal areas – a place that was once home to artisanal fishing communities and a variety of resident and migratory birds that enjoyed unhindered shelter near the fishing settlements.

Today, life here is different. And people living just 25 km away from where we stood knew this. When I spoke to them, after leaving the Tragadi and Junabander fishing harbours, I realised the residents of the Randh bander fishing settlement knew exactly what they did not want to experience. They had visible evidence of what would happen to them if the power plant was allowed to draw water from the Randh. The natural water cycle of the inter-tidal area, critical for their daily fish catch, would be disturbed. All other impacts that residents of other fishing harbours faced would stare them in the face too.

It is not surprising that the people of Tragadi and Randh are involved in different kinds of struggle every day. At Tragadi, they need to ensure that their daily access to the harbour is sustained, that fishers continue to get their fish catch and the power plants don’t expand into what remains of their homes. At the Randh, after waging long street and court battles, fishers have managed to keep the plants away from the coastline and pushed the company into changing its cooling technology so that water from the sea is not drawn. But the final verdict from the environmental tribunal remains pending.

Over the years, conversations with affected communities and my environmental journeys have taken me close to many thermal power plants. These experiences have revealed myriad dimensions of how human lives evolved, survived and struggled ever since these power stations began to be set up from the 1960s onwards.

Far away from Mundra lies the Singrauli region cutting across the states of Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Madhya Pradesh (MP). Here, residents of Dibulganj village find themselves in the middle of four coal-based thermal power stations. This, said the villagers, was the biggest panchayat in Sonebhadra district of UP. The village was just off the main road from Waidhan to Varanasi via Robertsganj, the district headquarters.

The people of Dibulganj had been promised over 2,000 jobs when the first plant came up in 1985. Till three years ago, they were still demanding those promised jobs. Only 234 people actually got jobs. The people lived with air pollution, health issues, a dysfunctional medical facility and long electricity cuts. All the electricity being generated in the three other plants and the upcoming ones was not meant for Dibulganj. It was meant to feed a central grid that would fulfil the base load power demand of other industries and cities. Ironically, powerless Dibulganj in Singrauli, the power hub of India, meets the demands of our ever-growing industrial and commercial centres.

The older power plants in India don’t have these red and white stacks. Those built in the 1960s with older technologies were bulkier and visually more revealing. One such plant lies in Punjab’s Bhatinda district in the heart of the Malwa region. Since it is an old power station, the pollution it causes is taken for granted. Travelling in these parts back in 2010, my colleague and I recorded some testimonies of people working in these plants. Even though our objective was to understand the functioning of regulatory institutions, the conversations we had revealed some important facets of lives around some of India’s oldest power stations.

“When the plant is in operation dust flies into offices inside the complex too,” said one official working in the thermal power plant built in 1969.  Another person who was part of the workers’ union mentioned that “everyone knows that there is pollution but there is no indiscriminate dumping by the plant. Usually, there is thin ash that settles over mud mounds all over the city”.

The thermal power plant had four units but the equipment to control fly ash was only functioning in two units. Back then, we were told that there had been no move to get the dysfunctional units to function so that fly ash production could be minimised.

It is possible that problems in the Bhatinda power plants have been rectified today. Perhaps more people from Dibulganj have found jobs in the nearby thermal power station. But the lives of people living in coastal or forest ecosystems are likely to change drastically if one is to go by the number of such plants coming up in the country today. Each company seeking permission to operate a coal mine is often doing it because they have power plants to feed. And with each plant, there is not just a change in existing land use – farms, forests, fishing and related livelihood. The entire ecological ethos and biodiversity, in fact, is completely replaced by the quest for ‘power’.

The people of Jaigad in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra fought hard to prevent thermal power plant from coming up in their area because it would impact the production of their world-renowned alphonso mangoes. Our regulatory and judicial system did not uphold their plea and concurred that the impact on these mangoes could be studied even while the power plant is constructed and goes into production.

There is glib talk of balancing increased industrialisation and environmental protection. But the lives of people living near thermal plants in Mundra, Singrauli, Bathinda and Jaigad are all examples of how illusive that balance looks. We have permanently displaced the local milieu, ignored long-standing pollution, and we now allow this scenario to be repeated. Our regulatory authorities and political system continue to make place for them. As citizens of this country, we are all complicit in creating demand for such industrialisation through our consumptive lifestyles. Together, we create these spaces and leave them to their fate.

*Independent researcher based in New Delhi. Courtesy: http://www.civilsocietyonline.com/

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