Villagers die in protest over power plant in coastal Andhra
Company says it has complied with all regulations and has given money for the welfare of villagers
Kunal Majumder and Vijay Kumar
Another round of bullets. Another round of bodies. All for their land. It’s a sense of déjà vu for the people of Srikakulam in northeastern Andhra Pradesh. Just like July last, police opened fired at agitators who have been protesting the setting up of a thermal plant on their farmland.
That time, the police shot dead two men. This time they killed another two. Last year, Opposition politicians including Chandrababu Naidu and Chiranjeevi made their obligatory visit after the tragedy. This time they created uproar in the assembly. Last year, it was about the Nagarjuna Constructions Company (NCC), and this time it is about the East Coast Energy Pvt. Ltd.
Last time, the Central Green Tribunal cancelled the land allotment. This time the environment minister has threatened to halt the project.
On 28 February, police fired teargas shells setting fire to nearly a hundred huts of fisherfolk in the Vadditandra village of Srikakulam district inciting people's anger. The police provoked the villagers and then opened fire with live ammunition killing and injuring in the process, local activists claimed. The police claim they used rubber bullets. So how did 30-year-old C Erraiah and 36-year-old Giri Nageswar Rao die?
Some villagers even allege that police set fire to their own vehicles in order to justify their action and implicate villagers in burning of the vehicles. In July 2010, when a similar protest took place in Sompeta village of the same district, the same police allowed goons of the private company to beat up the unarmed villagers. When villagers retaliated with sticks and tree branches, the police open fired. TEHELKA was witness to the incident.
With both the Parliament and the state assembly in session, lawmakers have raised the issue. In New Delhi, environment minister Jairam Ramesh has promised to look into the matter. Reacting to the police crackdown the minister said the incident was tragic. If a public hearing has not been done properly then the clearance would be revoked, he added.
In Hyderabad, the Andhra Pradesh assembly was adjourned as the opposition demanded an immediate statement from State Home Minister P Sabita Indra Reddy on the incident.
As politicians in New Delhi and Hyderabad continue with their power game, it means little for the villagers of Srikakulam who have been constantly resisting big companies and paying the price with their lives.
On 1 March, they went into a bandh. The protest in question took place near Kakarapalli village of Srikakulam, where the East Coast Energy Pvt. Ltd is constructing a 2400 MW coal-based thermal power plant.
A day after two people died, the police forces were not completely withdrawn from the area as the situation was still tense.
“There are around 100-150 policemen at the site. Only rubber bullets were used to stop the protesters from nearing the police. The police started firing at the villagers only when the villagers hurled stones at them,” said VK Singh, Inspector-General of Police of eastern Andhra Pradesh. The fire department continued to douse the blaze that hit more than 50 huts by the teargas shells.
The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, meanwhile, has directed the company to suspend construction work. Human rights groups, opposition parties and people held rallies and protests across the state.
VS Krishna, General Secretary, Human Rights Forum, condemned the firing. “The police have no business to be there. The environment clearance given to the company is a sham. It has to be immediately revoked,” he said.
The company’s Managing Director Krishna V Tatineni said: “On the killings which happened in Kakarapalli, it’s a law and order issue and it’s a government action. As far as we are concerned, we are constructing the project in full compliance with the permissions and the clearances. We have been doing more than what a normal corporation is expected to do for the development of the locals and the communities surrounding the project area.”
He added, “The villagers are innocent. It’s the instigators who are coming up with these things. Gullible villagers are being manipulated. We have expressed deep anguish and sadness at what has happened and we are working with the district administration to restore normalcy as fast as possible.
“We have conveyed to the government that we would do whatever is required. We have already deposited Rs 3 crore with the District Collector to undertake welfare activity.”
It all started when people from villages around Nevulapada wetland started protesting against the East Coast Energy Pvt. Ltd acquiring the area, which is of high ecological importance. The activities of thousands of fishermen and farmers around the wetland were allegedly affected for almost six months because of the project. The villagers were selling household items to meet their daily needs, one villager said.
In reaction, the villagers started a non-cooperation movement against the project. They started blocking vehicles going to the thermal power plant site and went on a relay hunger strike. On 23 February, nearly 2,000 policemen arrived in the area and imposed Section 144 in the villages. The villagers were confined to their homes.
On 25 February, the villagers were dragged out of their homes at 5 a.m. and were arrested without warrant, say sources. The situation became tense after police fired rubber bullets on the villagers who tried to come out in protest against the arrests, they said, adding that police stopped their ration and did not allow them to hold the weekly market.
People and doctors who came to help the villagers from nearby towns were not allowed to meet them by the police, villagers say.
“We have been asked to adopt certain additional precautionary measures and guidelines which we accepted. We were asked to confine our project to 1,317 acres. We have accepted that and we are in conformity with the new stipulation,” said Tatineni.