Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Plan to set up thermal power plant in Konkan generates heat

Meena Menon

Farmers and fisherfolk are convinced it will pollute the air and affect horticulture in the region

  • Low sulphur coal will be used we will adhere to all environment norms: company
  • Main crop to be hit will be Alphonso mangoes, fear farmers

    JAIGAD (Ratnagiri district): Angry mango farmers and fisherfolk in Ratnagiri district are questioning the decision to locate a 1200 MW coal-based power plant at the stunning Jaigad creek on the Konkan coast. They are convinced it will pollute the air and adversely affect the extensive horticulture in the region. They say that their land was acquired for a steel plant but is now going to be used for a thermal power plant. Many gram panchayats in the region have passed unanimous resolutions opposing the project.

    JSW Energy limited, part of the O.P. Jindal group, the company setting up the plant, says that its annual coal requirement of 4.14 million tonnes will consist of imported low sulphur coal and that it will adhere to all environment norms. But the farmers are not convinced. The fisherfolk who depend on Jaigad creek for their livelihood are also worried that the proposed port and the power plant will end their business.

    The Ratnagiri Zilla Jagruk Manch, which was formed soon after the two public hearings held about the plant, is questioning the absence of transparency in the process of establishing the plant. The Manch also describes as bogus the Rapid Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) carried out by the company for both the proposed port to unload the coal and the power plant. It has filed a public interest litigation petition in the Bombay High Court, demanding a proper hearing of their grievances. The court has served notices on the Collector, the company, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) and others.

    The project awaits clearance from the MOEF. About 784 acres is already with the company and it is buying up 200 acres more. JSW is one of the eight companies that signed MOUs with the Maharashtra Government in 2005 to set up power plants. The State is facing a massive power shortage and load shedding this year touched 5700 MW. Yet, although farmers acknowledge the need for power, they feel that locating such a plant in a fragile ecosystem would destroy it completely.

    Dr. Vivek Bhide, president of the Manch and a successful mango grower from Malgund, is proud that this year, along with 13 other farmers, he has exported Alphonso mangoes to Europe for the first time. He heads the Shree Mango Shetkari Mandal and, like many farmers, is apprehensive that once the power plant comes up, Alphonso mangoes will be the worst affected.

    Farmers are particularly upset about the way the first public hearing, organised by the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board, was held in August 2006. ``The company did not even provide the EIA report before the hearing. There was chaos at the first hearing as the company could not give information in Marathi and it was postponed to next month,'' says Dr. Bhide. A month later, the next hearing was held at Nandivde where the plant will be located. ``This time there was a dramatic change and all the politicians were on one side with the company officials and the Collector. Our objections were not recorded and neither were our concerns addressed,'' he added.

    According to government records submitted to the court, Ratnagiri has 61,000 hectares under mango, 4,930 under coconut and 83,262 of cashew. Over 4.5 lakh people are employed in this sector in the district. The farmers export to countries that have stringent norms and have obtained certification after sustained efforts.

    Digambar Kamlakar Kane, a mango exporter from Reel near the proposed plant, points out that the company acquired land in 1993 for a steel plant.

    In Kunbiwadi in Nandivde, which is about 200 metres from the proposed coal-stocking yard, there is much anger. A half finished white cement fence marks the boundary.

    Last December, Madhukar Damle went on a hunger strike to oppose the plant. ``The situation is suicidal and the common farmer will be affected,'' he said. His brother Vasant Damle, who sold the land to the company, has demanded that it be returned since the company was not setting up the plant they acquired it for. Land was acquired in the name of Jindal Iron and Steel, says the 70--year-old Damle who managed to get hold of the original agreement of sale. ``We have been deceived by the company,'' he says. Also, at that time, the company registered an agreement with the villagers saying that in case a steel factory did not come up in five years, the people had the option of buying back their land at Rs. 17,000 per acre. ``I want my land back now," says Damle, a former schoolteacher and journalist.

    Raaj Kumar, joint managing director and CEO, JSW Energy Limited said land was partly acquired for an integrated steel plant in 1993 but there were objections then and the industry was shifted to Karnataka. The plant and port is expected to cost around Rs. 4,800 crores. He said the company was prepared to adhere to all pollution control norms and even help in local development.

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