Deja vu

Deja vu Residents of Yellur, Padubidri, Nandikur, Padebettu, Tenka, Phalimar and Hejmadi villages in Karnataka's Udupi district are on the warpath against the Nagarjuna Power Corporation Limited (npcl). The Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh-based company has plans to construct a 1,015-megawatt (mw) coal-based thermal power plant (tpp) in Yellur; villagers fear that this would impair Udupi's ecology and destroy their livelihoods. T hey also apprehend that another company, the Bangalore-based Jindal Thermal Power Corporation (jtpc), has plans for a 500 mw tpp in Udupi.

" These companies have not sought permission from the local panchayats. This is a violation of section 28 of the Panchayati Raj Act which requires companies to take sanction of a village panchayat before setting up an industrial unit in the area under its jurisdiction,' charges Yeshwar Shetty, president, Yellur panchayat. T Sham Bhatt, Udupi's district magistrate, dismisses such claims: "Yes, the npcl has to obtain the local panchayat's permission before beginning construction. But the government can clear a project without a panchayat's permission. Also, the panchayat is not the final arbiter. The npcl can approach the Bangalore High Court if the local body refuses it permission to begin construction.'

Despite past failures Udupi and neighbouring Dakshin Kannada districts have a history of aborted tpp projects. In 1987, a Karnataka Power Corporation project was found unfeasible; in 1992, the National Thermal Power Corporation (ntpc) had to jettison construction work on two 210 mw plants in Udupi after the Union government's cabinet committee on economic affairs refused sanction; and in 1999, the us- based multinational Cogentrix Inc had to abort its 1996 project for a 1,000 mw tpp in Udupi after it was dogged by litigation and strong local protests.

The Karnataka government is undeterred by these failures. Its Bangalore-based undertaking, the Karnataka Industrial Development Board (kiadb) has acquired 263 hectares (ha) in Yellur and handed it over to npcl to begin work on the tpp. The state government has a reason for supporting the tpp: it estimates that Karnataka's power shortfall would amount to 3,450 mw by 2006-2007 and reckons that tpps in Udupi could bail it out of the problem. The district is close to Mangalore port and so is advantageously placed to receive the coal that npcl would import from Australia, South Africa and Indonesia for the Yellur project.

Such coal has an ash content of only 16 per cent, assert npcl officials. This will make the Yellur plant environmentally safe, they claim. npcl's project director, K S Balachandra maintains that the company has taken "all steps to make this plant one of the safest in the country'. "The plant will not use local river water. A seven-kilometre pipeline will bring Arabian Sea water to the plant; another pipeline will discharge the plant's hot water into the sea,' he assures. "We will comply with the state government's emission norms. A flue-gas desulphurisation unit will ensure that the plant's sulphur oxide emission conforms to the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (kspcb) norms,' he adds. Other npcl officials too claim that the company will follow precautions. Says Sudarshan Prasad I, senior engineer npcl, Padubidri, "About 40 ha been acquired in Santhuru village, near Yellur, for constructing a lined pond where the plant's flyash would be deposited'. He notes that 50 families need to be rehabilitated to make way for the pond and they have agreed to co-operate with the npcl. " The company has already paid kiadb, Rs 3.5 crore towards compensation for the affected families, of which Rs 2.25 crore has already been disbursed,' claims Prasad.

A sham
"No company claims that it pollutes. When petrochemical units were set up in Dakshin Kannada, the people there were given numerous assurances that the Arabian Sea waters there would not be polluted. But those promises were not kept. Consequently, fish catch has declined and the area's fisherfolk have to lug their boats all the way to Udupi to fish,' says Pramod Madhwaraj, president of Dakshina Kannada Mogaveera Mahajana Sangha, the apex body of the fisher community in Udupi and Dakshin Kannada. "We would oppose all tpps in Udupi,' he asserts. In a similar vein, Pradeep Shetty, president of another non-governmental organisation, Janjagrithi Samiti, Nandikur (jjsn) declares, "We will never support a coal-fired plant'.

S
hetty's organisation has recently come out with a report, A paradise under threat. This document concludes that tpp s could imperil livelihoods of a million agriculturists in Udupi and adjoining Dakshin Kannada district. "The plants could also jeopardise the livelihoods of around 2,000 fisherfolk families,' the report states. Environmental engineer, Sagar Dhara, who in 1990, conducted an environmental impact assessment (eia) for the ntpc project adds, "Pollutants from a tpp could seep easily into Udupi's porous soil. These might then enter the aquifer, which supplies drinking and irrigation water to people here. Moreover, Udupi's soil is already acidic. The pollutants can destroy it for good '.

These contentions are substantiated by a 1996 National Environment Engineering Research Institute (neeri) report on the likely impacts of the Cogentrix project . Prepared under instructions of the Supreme Court, the report states, "The threat to groundwater contamination in Nandikur is very high due to existing soil conditions'.

Vested interests?
"Only a few vested interests are opposed to the project,' charges Prasad. "The Union ministry of environment and forests (moef), the government of Karnataka and the kspcb have given us the go-ahead,' he says. Balakrishna Shetty of jjsn, lashes out in response: "The clearances are a sham. We do not even know who conducted the project's eia. Public hearings are mandatory for all eias. But they have not been held for the Yellur project.'

Dubious clearances
The moef gave the go-ahead to npcl way back on March 20, 1997. However, the ministry's clearance letter talks of a coal-based tpp at Padubidri, while the npcl project is located in Yellur, a completely different panchayat. The letter further states that, "The sweet water requirements [of the plant]... should be drawn from the dam across Mulki river'. The ministry's permission is quite a volte-face from its 1996 refusal to let Cogentrix use Mulki river water. The moef's stance appears even more ludicrous because npcl has no plans to use Mulki river water. The company officials belabour that their plant will only use desalinated seawater. So, did the moef clear the project without going though npcl's detailed plan? Was there any such plan at all?

kspcb's clearance letter dated March 19, 1996 is also riddled with contradictions. For instance, it says "To safeguard agricultural land, a maximum of 70 ha, which is not good agricultural land, may be acquired in non-disputed area for the plant. Yellur area should not be used'. But the npcl plant is indeed coming up at Yellur, and the company's officials claim it's with the agency's permission.

Fraudulent land deals
Local people allege that land has been "acquired' for the project through a dubious clause of the Karnataka Industrial Areas Development Act, 1966. This clause states, "The state government may by notification, declare any area in the state, an industrial area'. Laments Balakrishna Shetty, "The state government can declare any land as an industrial estate by a gazette notification. We do not even know when our fate gets sealed'. The villagers also allege that the kiadb intends to sell of land, acquired for the aborted Cogentrix project to jtpc. Media reports support these allegations. Many Udupi newspapers vouch that on April 6, 2005, kiadb's deputy commissioner wrote to jtpc directing it to deposit Rs 36.37 crore for a 402 ha contiguous stretch in Nandikur, Nadsulu, Phalimar and Hejmadi villages.

The villagers are in no mood to take all this lying down. "Phalimar, Yellur and Padubidri panchayats have passed resolutions opposing tpps in their respective areas. We won't vacate our land. Let's see how they set up the plants,' challenges Yeshwar Shetty. Meanwhile, the jjsn has begun work with a group of scientists to get Udupi and Dakshina Kannada classified as ecologically sensitive zones

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