Alphonso farmer Uday Jog’s produce is down 75 per cent this year after November showers and an unusually warm winter battered mango orchards along the Konkan coast, where orchards nestle between pristine beaches and rolling hills.
But that does not worry him.
Mango farms along the lush coast of India’s most industrialised state are on the thresh-hold of unprecedented opportunity, global and local, fuelled by deregulated markets in Japan and the US and by the agricultural boom powered by Indian retail companies like Reliance, Bharti and Pantaloons (Big Bazaar).
What does worry Jog is the effect a proposed 1,200 megawatt (MW) thermal power plant — burning 4.1 million tonnes of coal each year — just outside his village of Nandivde, 290 km south of Mumbai, will have on his 250 mango trees.
Jog’s fears came in a rush of thoughts. “Mango trees flowers just once a year, and the crop is very delicate,” he said. “The changes in temperature, the emission of fly-ash over a 20-km radius will make the dew acidic…will all this not damage my trees?”
The plan for the plant (by JSW Energy Ltd, formerly Jindal Thermal Power Company), spread over 1,025 acres, comes with an associated port to import the coal and is currently before a central committee seeking environmental clearance.
“The plant will be functional 27 months after work begins,” said Raaj Kumar, CEO JSW Energy Limited. In mango country along the Konkan coast, six planned coal-fired power plants (see graphic) could help end the growing state of darkness.
Maharashtra’s power shortfall is 5,500 MW and growing, even as the government makes frantic efforts to generate more energy to power everything from industries, malls, homes and booming small towns.
From this week, power cuts in Mumbai’s eastern suburbs and Navi Mumbai will increase by an hour or two from the daily four-and-half-hours. In other parts of the state, the power will now stay off for more than 15 hours.
But farmers like Jog produce 2 lakh metric tonnes of the lucrative mango each year and farmer groups said they would like a cumulative assessment of how these projects might impact the region’s environment, and agriculture.
Their fears come at a time when mango-growers are looking at an unprecedented opportunity for their fruit to travel the world. The US and Japan have lifted decades-old bans on the import of Indian mangoes. Until now, Konkan mangos were largely sold within the state and exported mostly to the Middle East.
Jog walked HT through his 6-acre farm and explained his new global life. The farm proudly displays a Euro certification that he secured last year. With it, Jog’s mangoes now meet more than 300 stringent production norms and can hit supermarkets shelves across Europe.
Agriculture experts said it’s too early to say if the new power plants could kill the Konkan mango farmer’s aspirations but opposition to the plants has already led the state government to decide not to locate a planned mega-power plant at Girye. It is now looking at alternative sites and the Central Electricity Auhtority has given it till the end of the month to find one. If it can’t, the state loses the plant.
The region’s largest agricultural university, the Konkan Krishi Vidyapeeth is currently finalising an agreement with JSEW to conduct a Rs 2.5-crore three-year study to assess the environmental impact of the power plant on mango crops
“We will be simulating atmospheric conditions of higher sulphur and nitrogen dioxide akin to what condition will be when the power plant is functional, and looking at its impact on mango plants of various ages,” Vice-Chancellor Vijay Mehata told HT. “The College of Fisheries will study the impact on fishing incomes. We should be able to have definite conclusions at the end of the three-year study.”
The locals are not satisfied, and protesting farmers have formed the Ratnagiri Zilla Jagruk Manch (Ratnagiri district awareness forum) and moved the Bombay High Court on what they say is a faulty Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report and public hearing process. The court will hear them on April 19.
“The local ecology is far more delicate and complex than depicted in the EIA report,” said Forum head and mango farmer Vivek Bhide of Malgund village. “We would like an independent panel of 5-6 experts to conduct the study and the government to fund it. What use is a three-year-study if plants have already been cleared?”
Locals point out that the Konkan is one of the state’s rare areas where agriculture still delivers prosperity to farmers. They refer to Vidarbha, the Punjab-sized northern region, where cotton farmers regularly commit suicide as the cotton economy collapses. “Farming gives us work 365 days a year,” said Jog. “Does the government want to send us the Vidarbha way?”