Kakarapalli: Another Blot on India’s Democratic Systems
By: E A S Sarma
Vol XLVI No.11 March 12, 2011
Kakarapalli is a small village in Santhabommali mandal of Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh. Kakarapalli swamp is a part of the larger and well-known famous Naupada swamp, a unique wetland system, known for its rich biodiversity that supports thousands of livelihoods. While Naupada has been known for ages as the salt capital of the east coast, the swamp is a source of livelihood for traditional fishing communities who have exercised fishing rights therein for generations.
The salt satyagraha launched by Mahatma Gandhi in Dandi on the west coast in March 1930 had its reverberations on the east coast as well. One of the important locations where the satyagraha started on the east coast was Kakarapalli swamp, opposite a salt factory where East Coast Energy Pvt Ltd (ECEPL) is now setting up a highly polluting coal-based power project.
In April 1930, the sub-collector, a young Indian Civil Service officer, wrote to the then chief secretary of Madras Province thus:
Some Satyagrahis collected a small quantity of salt earth from Kakarapalli Swamp near Naupada. The Inspector in consultation with the Deputy Superintendent of Police who was on the spot did not interfere though this was an offence against salt law (cited in Naidu 1986).Seven decades later, on 28 February 2011, Kakarapalli and the neighbouring villages woke up to witness the State’s brutality against its citizens who opposed the power plant and appealed to the authorities to save their wetland. Two innocent persons lost their lives in the police firing that ensued. One person has been permanently paralysed by a bullet wound inflicted on his spine (Eenadu, Visakhapatnam edition, 9 March 2011) when he was running away from the police. About a hundred houses got burnt by the “smoke bombs” shot at the villages by the police. Hundreds of villagers, including an 80-year-old frail looking woman, were incarcerated for “attempting to murder”. Those who were really attempting to murder the democratic traditions of our society have got away!
What a contrast with the attitude of the sub-collector and the deputy superintendent of police on a similar day on a similar occasion at that very same spot, when India was still one and a half decades away from attaining independence! Has democracy turned the country upside down?
In Andhra Pradesh, once a project developer chooses a site, the State asks no questions about the desirability of an industry being set up there. The land is handed over to the promoters at a dirt cheap price. The developer’s interests often relegate the human aspect to the background. When ECEPL wanted Kakarapalli swamp for locating its 2,640 MW capacity plant, in post-haste the government asked the Andhra Pradesh Industrial Infrastructure Corporation (APIIC) on 15 Septemeber 2008 to transfer to the company, 3,333 acres of wetland in five villages, Kakarapalli, Akasalakkasvaram, Kotapadu, Pothinaidupeta and Vadditandra.
Four streams, the Garibula Gedda, Bheemapuram Gedda, Enugula Gedda, Sandemma Gedda and surplus water from Vamsadhara Left Canal bring water into the wetland system, which, in turn, drains it into Bay of Bengal near Naupada. The water inflows and outflows are delicately balanced.
At least a thousand fishing families eked out their livelihoods from the wetland. Another 4,000 families harvested salt from it. If the level of the land were to be raised even by a few feet, the water from the wetland would submerge 20,000 to 30,000 acres of adjacent agricultural lands. The records of the local officials of the revenue, forest, fisheries and salt departments would have shown the facts, had the district collector asked for the same.
The swamp itself is a nesting and feeding ground for more than 120 exotic species of migratory birds, locally called devatha pakshulu. Among them are the spot billed pelican, the adjutant pelican and the painted stork. The famous Telineelapuram bird sanctuary is located a few kilometres away from the site. A power plant at the site would not only affect thousands of livelihoods but would also spell doom for the sanctuary.
In 2003, as a part of the Neeru Meeru (water conservation) scheme, the state government asked the district collectors (Memo No 24140/Assn I(1)/2003-3 dated 22-8-2003) to identify all waterbodies including wetlands, place them on the village Prohibitory Order Book (POB) and preclude them from diversion for any construction activity.
Article 48A of the Constitution and the National Environment Policy (NEP) of 2006, approved by the union cabinet, require the state to protect the wetlands. India is a party to the Ramsar International Convention on Wetlands Conservation. The statute and India’s commitments to the international community prohibited assignment of wetlands to industry.
The 28 February happenings in Kakarapalli, in many ways followed the tragedy at Sompeta (Sarma 2010), where there was a similar incident of state brutality on 14 July 2010.
In the decide-announce-defend policy of the state in the matter of land allotment in favour of chosen developers, the district collector is expected to suppress the facts and highlight the project benefits to pave the way for the project. In the instant case, the collector fulfilled these expectations. He suppressed many facts, including the number of livelihoods that were dependent on the swamp, the special rights of the fishermen, deemed inclusion of the land in POB and the fears and apprehensions of the local people. He described the wetland as a “waste” land, either out of sheer ignorance or to benefit the company deliberately.
ECEPL’s “paid” consultant prepared an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report more to the company’s liking than for any genuine public consultation process. A “public hearing” was held in a hurry, where all those who supported the project, including a legislator, sat on the dias and delivered long speeches eulogising the project and its promoters, while the voices of those that opposed it were deliberately put down.
Role of the State
The district collector was a silent witness to ECEPL levelling the site as a prelude to project construction, even though it went against the mandatory requirement that no such work should be undertaken without prior environment clearance. The work was not authorised by the state irrigation department. It contravened the state’s Water, Land and Trees Act, 2002.
Instead of focusing attention on genuine environmental concerns, the state argued the company’s case before the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF). Some of us had tried to apprise EAC of the facts about the project’s impact on the people and its effect on the ecology that surrounded them. A subgroup of the EAC visited the site and corroborated what we said. However, strangely, EAC chose to accept the version of the company. In its eagerness to secure EAC’s endorsement for the project, ECEPL offered to surrender 500 acres from the site on its southern side and retain only 1,960 acres. The EAC grabbed this offer to recommend the project for environmental clearance (EC). The MOEF was equally quick to issue the EC. This was despite the fact that an independent team of environmentalists headed by Asad R Rahmani, Director of Bombay Natural History Society submitted a report to the MOEF in September 2008 on the ecological importance of the land in question.
The EC had, inter alia, stipulated the following conditions.
Clause 3(v): Area drainage system will be prepared and implemented to ensure that the ecology of the area is not disturbed.While the EC was being issued, in the 500 acre piece of land surrendered to conserve the ecology, a benami company, Meghavaram Power Company, was quickly created, the state approached for setting up another 500 MW power project on that same plot of land and a public hearing got conducted, all within a few days. Apparently, it was a fraud committed by the company on MOEF. When we pointed this out to the MOEF, the latter rightly cancelled the new project. We felt that the EC for Kakarapalli also should have been reviewed on this ground alone.
Clause 3 (xxii): A green belt of adequate width and density shall be developed around the plant periphery covering 1/3 of the project area preferably with local species.
Some concerned citizens and the villagers filed cases against the EC before the apex court of the state and the National Environment Appellate Authority (NEAA). Around this time, the MOEF had on display at its website a draft of the Wetland Conservation Rules for public consultation. Some of us had relied on it to argue the case. Strangely, the MOEF removed the draft from public display and averred before the courts that such rules were not in force! One is not certain whether this was prompted by MOEF’s eagerness to remove the hurdles in the way of the project.
While our appeals were pending before NEAA, the standing committee of the National Wild Life Board (NWLB) deputed a two-member committee headed by Asad R Rahmani to visit Kakarapalli and report on the matter. In December 2009, the team found that the site was a part of an ecologically fragile wetland system. The standing committee of the NWLB, chaired by the union minister for environment and forests himself adopted the report fully.
The sole member of the NEAA himself visited Kakarapalli and arrived at the same conclusion. However, he gave undue weightage to the work already done at the site and delivered an order on 7 September (National Environment Appellate Authority order dated 7-9-10 in Appeals 16, 17 & 32 of 2009) upholding the EC as a fait accompli, but with the following conditions.
No filling and raising of land beyond 1,317 acres within wetlands of which 50 acres would be greenbelt.Evidently, the NEAA was told by ECEPL that it had only 1,800 acres in its possession but, in reality, it seemed to have more than 2,500 acres. The company, according to the villagers, constructed a bund, partly within the site and partly outside, without authorisation, to divert water from the site to the adjacent fields. By doing this, the ECEPL once again violated the State’s Water, Land and Trees Act, 2002 and took action that clearly exceeded the EC as well as NEAA’s order. In fact, this became a bone of contention between the villagers and ECEPL.
No activity in identified 483 acres of land which includes 8 acres of proposed pond near the temple.
As the foregoing facts reveal, ECEPL had repeatedly made a mockery of the law of the land, with implicit and explicit support from the state. At every stage, the state took the side of the company to the detriment of the people. At every stage, in the face of the authorities being unwilling to give out the correct information on the site, some of us had to invoke the provisions of Right to Information Act to extract information from them.
When the majority of the villagers in the surrounding 29 villages found that their agricultural lands were facing submergence as a result of the company’s activity at the site, they joined the fishing communities of the three villages, Vadditandra, Akasalakkavaram and Kothur to impose a non-violent blockade against the movement of the company’s vehicles from mid-2010 onwards. The families which would lose out on salt farming, also joined the agitators. They were all worried about the likely impact of pollution from the project on the water in the wetland, on its ecology and on the other water sources, including the groundwater aquifers and the sea. They realised that most of the 700 odd jobs that the project had offered would go to outsiders with better skills, whereas the local villagers, hardly trained for such jobs, would at best become sweepers and watchmen. Thousands of proud farmers and fishermen would lose their livelihoods and stand reduced to the status of daily wage workers.
The company was anxious to remove the blockade. It knew it had the State’s coercive power at their command. Thousands of policemen started moving into Kakarapalli area from the third week of February. Some of us who thought that such issues could be resolved through democratic and non-violent means appealed to the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh and the union environment minister to intervene immediately, start a dialogue with the people, investigate the company’s misdeeds and allay the fears of the villagers. Neither the State nor the Union relented. That was how the situation at Kakarapalli culminated in the bloodshed of 28 February.
What happened after this was easily predictable. Leaders of the political parties in opposition, who were to be rarely seen supporting the cause of the people at Kakarapalli prior to the incident, rushed to the spot to draw whatever political mileage they could. Even those who had patronised the company consistently shed crocodile tears for the people. The State continued to defend its brutal action and tried to misinform the people that Kakarapalli was not a wetland. When questions were raised in Parliament, the union minister of state for environment and forests condescended to announce suspension of work at the site and ordered a review of the case by the EAC. There is no guarantee if our rulers will ever introspect enough on what their officials did at Kakarapalli and try to understand the term “development” in a people-centric manner. One is not sure if they will realise that public consultation is the pillar of our Constitution and listening to the voice of dissent is a duty that our democracy casts upon them.
There are wider issues that arise from what has happened at Kakarapalli.
(i) Sectoral policies that ignore the need to minimise the resource intensity of the economy and the threat to the livelihoods cannot be sustained for long. There are many among the urban elite who consider the use of electricity to be a “fundamental right”, irrespective of the inefficiencies in the way it is generated and delivered and unmindful of the number of livelihoods that are lost down the line. The long run social marginal cost of a kilowatt-hour or a kilowatt, if computed on a realistic basis, would be much higher than what it is presently made out to be. If the electricity policy of the State were to be reviewed to minimise the dependence of the system on non-renewable energy resources such as coal, to maximise investments on efficiency improvements down the line of the electricity system and shift dependence to renewable energy sources, the need for additional megawatts may come down.
(ii) In his path-breaking book, Amory B Lovins (1977) aptly called the saved megawatt, a “negawatt”. We need to plan for these negawatts which are less expensive, more benign from the ecology point of view and more people friendly, before we think of new megawatts.
(iii) Some of these development projects violate the laws that protect the environment and the livelihoods of people. Each law has its own rationale. Should an activity that violates the law of the land and destroys the ecology be described as a “development” activity? The answer to this is clearly in the negative.
(iv) The Kakarapalli swamp is a community land that offers easy access to the people and serves a variety of local purposes. The Doctrine of Public Trust (M C Mehta vs Kamal Nath and others: 1997 Scc 388), established by the courts in India and elsewhere, stipulates that the State at best is only a trustee of the public lands on behalf of the people. It cannot alienate the ownership of such land to a private agency. As recently as on 28 January 2011, the Supreme Court issued a direction to all the states, in Civil Appeal 1132/2011 in SLP No 3109/2011, not to divert any public land, including government porampoke (waste) land, to industry and, if any such prohibited structure existed on public land, it should be removed forthwith. This prohibition applies directly to Kakarapalli project. Should the State ignore this judicial principle at the cost of the people?
(v) When a project is imposed on the people, through non-participative procedures, the people cannot be blamed for entertaining their own apprehensions abut its impact. The precautionary principle (APPCB vs Prof M V Naidu, AIR 1999 SC 812), well-established in law, places the burden of allaying such apprehensions on the government. The government cannot shift that burden to the people as has happened in the case of Kakarapalli.
(vi) In Amartya Sen’s words (1999), “development can be seen…..as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy”. These freedoms include the political and the civil rights, the liberty to participate in public discussion and scrutiny. Those freedoms would have been available to the local community had the State government, instead of imposing the project, invited them to come up with alternate proposals that they felt would develop the area. There cannot be a better recipe for development than allowing the democratic processes of public discussion and participation to determine the options. “Development” is what the local communities perceive it to be.
(vii) Should governments ignore the people’s apprehensions and wait to intervene till the situation comes to a head, as happened in Sompeta (last year and in Kakarapalli this year)?
There are many more Sompetas and Karapallis waiting to happen, not only in Andhra Pradesh but in the other states as well. One should live in hope that the views of the people at large will ultimately prevail over those that have no respect for democratic processes, the law of the land and the ecology in general.
Ch M Naidu (1986): Salt Satyagraha in the Coastal Andhra (New Delhi: Mittal Publications).
Lovins, Amory (1977): Soft Energy Paths: Toward a Surable Peace (Penguin Books).
Sarma, E A S (2010): “The Saga of Sompeta: Public Deception, Private Gains”, Economic & Political Weekly, 14 August, Vol XLV, No 33.
Sen, Amartya (1999): Development as Freedom (New York: Anchor Books, a division of Random House Inc).
Several violations found, says FBV
Even as several NGOs and activists expressed shock over police brutality, the management of East Coast Energy Pvt. Ltd, which is setting up a 2,640 MW super critical coal-fired power plant in Srikakulam district, described Monday's incident as most unfortunate.
In a related development, the State Human Rights Commission asked the DIG of Police, Visakhapatnam and SP of Srikakulam to submit a report by March 7 and withdraw the forces from the project affected areas. It also gave a directive to the authorities to register cases against police officers for resorting to coercive measures against protesters.
FBV convener and former IAS officer E.A.S. Sarma said that despite several letters written by him to all those who matter in the State Government on the peaceful struggle spearheaded by villagers from affected areas, the vested interests had tried to muzzle their voice and crush their agitation by lathicharges and firings.
He said the National Environment Appellate Authority had also found several violations in the sanction of the power plant in the area threatening water bodies and nesting grounds of migratory birds to Telineelapuram.
Mr. Sarma pointed out that the Supreme Court, in a landmark order sometime ago in civil appeal No. 1132/2011 in SLP No. 3109/2011, prohibited the diversion of “common lands” such as the wetlands of Kakarapalli for industry or any such purpose. The court directed that constructions, if any, in violation of this should be removed. The court directed all the States to comply with this order.
Apparently, the State Government failed to comply with this order. On the other hand, the State had gone one step further and fired upon the villagers, killing them and injuring several of them, he pointed out.
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