Sunday, September 5, 2010

Activists Use Legal Weapons to Stop Thermal Power Plants

Activists Use Legal Weapons to Stop Thermal Power Plants
By Pankaj Sekhsaria

HYDERABAD, India, Aug 27, 2010 (IPS) - Green activists have various ways of pushing their causes, from enlisting movie stars to launching protests, but India’s campaigners have also been quietly using legal weapons to try to get the projects they oppose, such as thermal plants, stopped or reversed.

This trend bears watching in the light of two cases where decisions affecting such projects, many of which are on the drawing board in different parts of India, have been made in courtrooms.

In July, the death of two protesters led to the cancellation of the environmental clearance of a thermal power plant project in southern Andhra Pradesh state, a decision that green activists took as victory.

But just a day before the Jul. 14 violence at the Nagarjuna Construction Company Power Projects Ltd project site at Sompeta, the Andhra Pradesh High Court dismissed a petition to stop a similar power plant project in the same district – Srikakulam.

This project by East Coast Energy Pvt Ltd is at Bhavanapadu in the wetlands area of Naupada village.

Lawyer Ritwick Dutta, representing the Paryavaran Parirakshana Sangham and other appellants says that Naupada is recognised by the Bombay Natural History Society and BirdLife International as a key habitat of the endangered Spot-billed Pelican, which breeds only in peninsular India, Sri Lanka and Cambodia.

Dutta had argued the case against the 12,000-crore (2.5 billion U.S. dollar) Nagarjuna project before the quasi-judicial National Environment Appellate Authority (NEAA), which eventually cancelled the environmental clearance for the 2,640-megawatt plant.

In fact, the firing by police in Sompeta occurred at about the same time that the case was being argued before the appellate authority in New Delhi.

The results in the Nagarjuna and East Coast cases are different, but highlight how courtrooms are increasingly being asked to decide the fate of these projects – many already with environment clearances – in lawsuits by non-government groups protesting schemes that they say would displace communities and harm sensitive environments.

But Sanjay Upadhyay, a New Delhi-based Supreme Court lawyer, says that the trend of plaintiffs approaching the courts in environmental matters cannot be a long-term solution to deciding policy.

Instead, he says in an interview, internal mechanisms and administrative systems inside the government must be strengthened, so that conflicting issues are resolved before clearances are issued in the first place. "Internal arrangements are very weak and systems can’t be run by courtrooms", Upadhyay pointed out.

According to the 2009 report by the environmental group Kalpavriksh entitled ‘Calling the Bluff: Revealing the state of Monitoring and Compliance of Environmental Clearance Conditions’, the Ministry of Environment and Forests clears 80 to 100 projects every month with a range of environment and social conditions.

Thermal power accounts for more than 70 percent of India’s electricity supply. Its annual per capita electricity consumption has increased from 566.7 kilowatt-hours in 2002-03 to 704 kwh in 2007-08.

Among India’s southern states, Andhra Pradesh has the highest installed capacity in coal-based utilities, which generate nearly 6,700 mw.

State officials explain that thermal power plant projects represent a total investment of up to 85,000 crore rupees (18 billion dollars) in Srikakulam alone, aside from providing 10,000 mw of power altogether.

But former government bureaucrat E A S Sarma, now convenor of the Forum for a Better Visakha, argues that none of these projects should be allowed in the coastal areas of Andhra Pradesh.

"These are coming up under the policy of the state government to promote merchant power plants, where land is being given cheap to the developers at the cost of the coastal environment and livelihoods of the local people," he said.

A report by the environment ministry notes that the area where the Nagarjuna project was to proceed has significant biodiversity, including medicinal plants and at least 120 bird species. T Rama Rao, vice president of the Sompeta-based Paryavaran Parirakshan Sangham (Environment Protection Committee) that is leading the opposition to the project along with Teera Pranta Matsyaka Aikya Vedika (Coastal Fisherfolk Unity Platform), says nearly 250,000 people from 24 fishing and 40 farming villages would have been affected by it.

At least six thermal plants are planned in Andhra Pradesh. Some, like the 2,630-mw project at Bhavanapadu by East Coast Energy – the subject of the July decision upholding the environment clearance thus far – and the 2,640-mw plant of Alpha Infra Prop Pvt Ltd at Komarada in neighbouring Vizianagaram district already have environment clearances.

The fatal shooting of two protesters in July seems to have inspired other communities to stand up for themselves.

Sarma observed, "It is now clear to people that the government itself is violating the law. They have realised their strength and opposition to projects here has gained strength in the last few days."

"The larger issue is that we have created systems that are guzzlers of energy," he added. "We can’t hope to keep adding megawatts like we have been doing so far. The demand for electricity has been artificially created and we have to work on steps like reducing transmission losses, using more efficient end-use devices, and make our systems more efficient."

Meantime, Nagarjuna’s corporate communications head, P L Murari, said the company "would do anything to address the genuine concerns of the local people regarding setting up of the power plant."

But the NEAA’s order cancelling the Sompeta project clearly states: "The Ministry should undertake survey of all wetlands in Srikakulam district for their ecological sensitiveness as soon as possible and pending this, no project should be cleared in such locations." (END)

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