Hunting Season

12 Apr., 2011.

Abhimanyu Bhotra s/o Kusumani Bhotra was picked up by plain clothes police from outside a temple in Kalyansinghpur, Rayagada Dist. at 5 pm yesterday and falsely charged with being a Maoist informer. Sources that tried to contact him say that he was being interrogated in Hindi- implying that the police force was from outside the area, and is most likely the CRPF. An FIR has been filed at the Kalyansinghpur police station.

Abhimanyu, age 35, is a schedule caste migrant labourer from Parsali village, Rayagada Dist.. Locals testify that he has no connections whatsoever to the cadre. He is the sole breadwinner in a family of seven- his parents, wife Sutali Bhotra, two sons, ages 14 and 5, and two daughters, ages 8 and 9 are dependent on his meagre, fluctuating income.

Abhimanyu’s arrest marks the renewal of an disturbingly familiar pattern. Combing operations have been stepped up over the last month in the districts bordering the Niyamgiri Hills- men have been threatened with being branded Maoists, adivasi women told to keep out of the forest, and Vedanta has allegedly sponsored an indoctrination feast for para-militaries.

All of this, just as the Odisha Govt. moves the Supreme Court to challenge the revoking of Vedanta’s mining license and suspension of its dangerously ambitious plans of expansion.  It is predicted the refinery below will need six times the bauxite that is partly sourced from illegal quarries at the moment, six times the water stolen from its already polluted sources and will generate exponential amounts of toxic red mud and fly ash.

The very fact that the Orissa Government has challenged the MoEF and asked the apex court to go back on its word to protect the mountain of law means that they will stop at nothing, and the fight for Niyamgiri is far from over. Who, then, can predict how many state-sponsored arrests and violations  are needed to sow enough fear and break a people best known for their spirited resistance?


The Coastal Corridors of Power

Maa ammammani police vaallu teeskelpoyaaru (the police took my grandmother away),” said Nagula Gita, my 8 year old guide, who took me through the charred remains of the houses on the edge of Vadditandra. She tries to sneak in a smile in every picture, and makes sure I photograph everything- the burnt cycle and textbooks in every courtyard, the broken hurricane lamps, saris with burnt borders, the unexploded gas cylinder in a neighbour’s house and burnt pictures of the all-seeing Lord Jagannath. This tale is part of a promise to her to tell you the story of what happened to all of her friends and family.

In the land of sustainable development, the people of the Santabommali mandal had been peacefully protesting against East Coast Energy’s (ECEPL) Bhavanapadu Thermal Power Plant for 195 days. It was only a week before the  plant machinery was due to be installed that the state government took notice of the villagers’ non-cooperation movement.

A police force of over 1000 men was mobilised across four different districts- Srikakulam, East and West Godavari and Visakhapatnam. Drawn from the ranks of the Armed Reserve, Special Task Force and Civil police, they were trained for 3 days in the Etcherla police grounds.

On the early morning of the 25th of February, this force was let loose on the hunger-strike camp in Vadditandra, and then on another protest tent in Hanumantunaidu Peta. Villagers who were caned and lathi-charged fought back with sticks and stones against the police, dressed in full riot gear. However, because the entire area was sanitised, and media cordoned off, most viewers at home missed the pre-emptive police strike and the violent provocation.

“They picked up my amma and thatha (grandfather) from the road to the factory, near the protest camp,” said Gayastri Dayanidhi, a boy of 5 who goes to the ZPH school in Dandagopalapuram. “Even if you went out on the road, teacher, they would arrest you.” His grandmother is visibly distraught as there’s no one to look after them, and there’s been no word of their family’s whereabouts in 7 days. Out of the 106 arrested that day, 36 were women.

Things took a darker turn on the 28th. That day, 2 villagers were killed in police firing, and houses in Vadditandra were burnt down, as security forces threw tear gas shells indiscriminately on thatch rooftops. It was in Vadditandra that the Chief Minister Kiran Kumar Reddy was shouted down in early February, and asked not to come back till he opposed the plant.

(Jaganmohan Reddy of the Congress, whose father and ex-Andhra CM sanctioned the project, also was told to go back. Unsurprisingly, the footage was looped endlessly on the rival TDP-owned channel, Studio N.)

The women of Vadditandra I meet are livid and broken and will not have any talk of development. They are from the Kandra caste of fisherfolk that practise exclusively inland fishing. The tampara or wetland is their everything. And yet its very existence had been tossed to the open sea of Jairam Ramesh’s expert committees. (Ref: Supreme Court’s judgment on village community lands.)

“Since the company started construction work, the water has been diverted by the canals, drying up our fields, then pumping out waste water, causing flooding and killing our fish. The grain has gone rotten, we can’t even sell it in the market for Rs. 200,” says P Masaina.

Mee company voddu, babu. If this is what they can do now, imagine what will happen to us once the plant starts functioning,” says Anantha Daalamma, shaking the ash off her pile of stainless steel utensils, all that remains of what was once her home.

Down the road, a man from the Kaapu farmer caste gathers what’s left of his paddy that is still hot from the blaze.  Would there be any compensation for a year’s supply of food, a year of hard labour?

Both the Kandra and Kaapu castes worship the pelicans and painted storks that arrive here in winter as harbingers of a bountiful catch and a good harvest. Where I once saw a tree with over a hunddifferent byte-hungry bunch that swoops down on the nearest white-shirted VIP cavalcade.  “Thalli, Jagannatha has forsaken us, now you people are our only hope,” says Ananta Yelama, hands folded amidst the rubble. I hide my eyes behind my camera, wishing I could use Google Translate to tell her about how her story would measure against the release of the iPad 2 on Google News Trends this month. I now know that it wasn’t even reported on local Congress party-owned channels: TV9 and ABN Andhra Jyothi.

On the 28th, eyewitnesses said that some policemen even climbed up on building rooftops, took aim and fired. While riot training specifically prescribes firing below the waist, so as to impede but not injure vital parts, the victims I met had all been shot from the waist above. Sitapani Raju, aged 25, received 3 bullet wounds in the abdomen, one on the hand, with one bullet grazing the side of his head. Bathini Baricoda, a basket-filter maker from Golavanipeta, received just one bullet mid-spine, and has lost the use of both his limbs. The reception of Seven Hills Hospital, Vizag, where they’ve both been admitted, now sees a stream of MLAs and MPs and their machine-gun toting bodyguards.

In Akasha Lakavaram, they show me all the tear gas canisters they’ve collected from their homes. “Maaku rakshula patu kaadu, rakshasulu paripalanistunnaru (they’re not here for our protection, but to reign over us like demons)”, said one woman. Another villager I spoke to told me that “policemen arrived at midnight on the 28th, took away three of us, and made us sign on a statement that said only rubber bullets were used, before letting us return home at 6 am.”

Jiru Nageswar Rao was a migrant agricultural labourer who went back to his home in Akasha Lakavaram, just so he could get his name on a ration card. He was shot dead on the road to the factory on the 28th.

Getting a voter ID here, though, is infinitely easier. Satellite vans are now parked in the main street of the village, to capture visiting dignitaries on a compensation spree. TDP President Chandrababu Naidu was here yesterday. Today’s VIP was Panchayat Raj Minister, Botcha Srinivasa Rao, booed in Vadditandra for promising better compensation packages, but not once suggesting the plant be shut down.  The women who’d gathered outside Nageswar Rao’s house have a firmer grip on media events. “The cameras only show those who make speeches and cut cheques to the families of the dead.”

Serrapu Yerriah, the other victim to a rubber bullet, was also a migrant labourer. He managed to send money to his younger brother, Mohan Rao, so that he could finish his bachelor’s degree in Science. Yerriah returned to his home in Seerapuvanipeta to take care of, Dhanalakshmi, who was sick. He was shot while he was on the way to procure medicines for her, as a total police blockade had been imposed on essential supplies, and the local medical representative was beaten up by the police. Dhanalakshmi had just been offered 10 lakh rupees to raise her daughters, Santoshi and Pavani. They silently hold up the picture of their father, while a relative translates their fears. “Eevida ee biddalu patkuni bathukaala aite okka cent bhoomi ledu, e aadharam kuda ledu, saar (If she has to survive with these two kids, she doesn’t have even one cent of land, just this house and no livelihood.)

The events over 3 days were executed under the cover of Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code where any magistrate or collector can issue an order to suspend all civil liberties if he/she anticipates danger to life, and breach of tranquillity.

Breach of tranquillity on whose part? To what ends and whose gain? These are questions we must ask ourselves before the soot is swept away under the carpet, tossed out with tomorrow’s headlines.

The Laws of Thermodynamics

“There are many ways to bring their grievances to the notice of the government. They are also free to file cases in courts if there is any threat to environment due to construction of thermal power plant. But no one has any right to break the law and order in the name of agitation.” Srikakulam District Superintendent.

“It is the only remaining remnant of the marsh area on the East Coast. The proposed
site is an ecological entity with incomparable value requiring compensation and protection.”– From the minutes of 36th Meeting of the Expert Appraisal Committee, MoEF, Dec 15th-16th 2008.

“We don’t want this plant, we don’t want your jobs and we don’t want your compensation,” was the cry from the villagers of Vadditandra, two days after homes were torched to ash by tear-gas bomb shells, as the state unfurled a red carpet for ECEPL plant machinery across the wetland flats of Srikakulam. The road for the 2640 MW thermal power plant had long since been paved, supervised by the wonderfully far-sighted chaps in the Ministry of Environment and Forests, who were kept notified of illegalities at every stage.

ECEPL’s own Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report acknowledges the bio-diversity value of the swamp, stating “the study area is an undisturbed ecosystem” and that “during field survey, maximum 315 plant species were recorded from the study area.”

Pity their survey was carried out for just three months in the dry season of 2007. They could have actually seen a few Olive Ridley turtles (Schedule I Endangered Species), and rather colourfully conspicuous, globally threatened painted storks, whose existences were omitted entirely from their report. But then again, what are a few more turtle eggs in the great development omelette? Also misrepresented was the protected status of the monitor lizard, which is actually a Schedule I endangered species.

The EIA was swallowed whole by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, which was notified about the illegal construction of the plant from as early as January 2008. Interestingly, the Ministry itself commissioned a study by Prof. Kameshwar Rao of Andhra University way back in 2004, titled “Eco-Restoration Of Bhavanpadu Mangroves of Srikakulam District of Andhra Pradesh.” It also sponsored another study by the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Nautral History in 2004  that  lists the Nowpada swamps under the major wetlands of India, high on its conservation priorities.

So how did the Ministry get swamped in the argument of wetland or waste land? They had one of the first reports outrightly condemning the project, dating back to 2008 co-written by my brother, Anand Chandrasekhar, formerly of the BNHS. They had two site Inspection Reports commissioned by two Expert Appraisal Committees (EAC), letters from the Department of Fisheries, maps from the Chief Conservator of Forests clearly indicating marshland and a report from the Standing Committee to the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL).

I spoke with Dr. Asha Rajvanshi from the Wildlife Institute of India, who co-authored the NBWL report, and was also on the EAC that ultimately gave the project clearance. “Did you read the report? Does it look like I minced any words?” she said, while also admitting that there is a certain balance she has to tread and that “one can only shift pressure.” While the report points out the idiocy inherent at so many levels in the EIA and strongly condems the construction of the plant, it concludes with a set of secondary recommendations that suggest the kind of compromise that could be reached, should the plant come up despite their cautioning.

“In all my years as a member of EACs, I’ve fought for conservation. I’m not the only one on that committee you know, there are those who take care of other things, like livelihoods.”

One member of that Expert Appraisal Committee who clearly took care of his own livelihood was A. Balraj, who was on the Board of Directors of ECEPL’s promoters, before the clearance was issued. Screenshots of a cached page here and here. This conflict of interest was brought to light by a blogger,

An impassioned final petition was made to the National Environment Appellate Authority (NEAA), usually the last word on all things environmental. But by then, things had gone too far. The NEAA gave clearance on the basis of a public hearing that few besides the factory’s own workers attended.

“The Expert Appraisal Committee meets twice a month, and they have to deal with over 40 cases. These folks and the one guy who was heading the NEAA usually don’t have the time to read the assessment reports, so in most cases, they refer to the minutes of the public hearing,” said Anand, over our fourth long-distance phone call this week. “That is the only window communities’ have available to have their concerns heard.”

I spoke to Mrutyumjaya Rao, a local environmentalist, who wrote to the Wildlife Trust of India back in 2008 to highlight “the alarming condition of the Naupada swamps.” A member of the Indian Bird Conservation Network, Mr. Rao has been monitoring migratory bird populations since 1986, and has counted upto 123 species of birds that flock to the Nowpada swamps . He accompanied my brother and I on our last visit to the Tekkali Creek in 2009, before the clearance was given. “I can’t dare leave this place and go see my daughter abroad. This is a burning issue; I cannot leave this place and these birds.”

This time around, it sounds like he’s seen and heard enough. “Forget all the other arguments: this is a fragile wetland. The very fact that the NEAA had suggested that a Conservation Cell be set up and maintained by the BNHS at the cost of 50 lakhs a year implies that there is something to conserve, that this is an area of prime ecological importance.”

So who can we hold responsible for this mass amnesia?

“Right from the start, State officials withheld vital ecological information,” says VS Krishna, General Secretary of the AP Human Rights Forum, and my guide. “They even falsified the ecological significance of the land, concealed sensitive information, fabricated data and destroyed evidence.”

Through the project’s history, the District Collector and Revenue Officers deliberately ignored the marshland in their own backyard. The Andhra Pradesh Industrial Infrastructure Corporation (APIIC) dubbed this wetland a “waste land”. APIIC even graciously lent their name to a signboard, when the folks at East Coast began excavation before obtaining clearances.

The State Government that made every effort to protect corporate interest, despite lack of clearances and popular protest. The police, well, they say they were just following orders from the higher authorities. Authorities who clearly hadn’t learnt their lessons from the deaths in Sompeta last year for NCC’s thermal power plant. 

Then of course, the illustrious environment ministry that signs feel-good international wetland protection treaties and constitutes half a dozen expert committees whose expert advice it ignores, time and again when granting clearances.

And finally, media folks like myself, who rushed to the scene only when there was blood shed, ignoring prior resistance.  Different local channels picked at frames of loss according to where maximum political mileage could be gained for their stakeholders, bias split clearly across the screen. Kakarapalli may have escaped big media’s radar, but it is significant because it reveals the larger blueprint of the decimation of the East Coast, to favour oil, coal and political lobbies.

15 thermal plants are planned in Nellore alone, with a whopping total output of 28,000 MW output in just 21 sq. km in the district. Needless to say, the agency commissioned to draft EIAs for at least 6 major thermal plants in Nellore are the same bumbling bunch from BS Envi-Tech, who drafted the report for Kakarapalli.

80 more thermal plants are in the process of being set up as part of a Coastal Corridor project. Congress Minister from the Srikakulam district, Dharmana Prasad Rao, is widely perceived as being a facilitator for these plants. Things that this ex-Revenue Minister has been accused of by his own contemporaries cut quite a suit: building a road to mining areas with the funds allocated for National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, using his official influence to award the lease in Kannedharakonda mines to his son and selling land to corporates at bargain discount prices, for SEZs.

There is no finality to this murky story; no morals to this mess. Not in a country where wetlands are seen as waste lands, coasts as get-away ports, and silent approval can be both bought and delayed with enough money and muscle.  The only answer lies in the unwavering resistance of those who’ve already lost homes and children and harvests, whose communities, livelihoods and habitats continue to be sacrificed to our ossified systems of power at any cost.

In Kakarapalli, the terror unleashed has only ensured that its people will stand their ground. Tell your government and the company this- we want our land, our farms, our fish, and the right to earn our living the way we know best, and we will fight for it.”

shook the ash off her pile of stainless steel utensils, the only remains of what was once a home.