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Power to destroy

February 15, 2008 Leave a comment

Shweta Desai in Indian Express

February 15, 2008

In Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra, nature has been kind: a virgin coastline, cushy climate and a lush land spouting the sweetest of mangoes. Till recently, farmers in the heartland of Alphonso mangoes had little to complain as the fruit was lapped up in loads by domestic and foreign consumers. Now, things have begun to sour. In a bid to combat the rising power shortage, the state is gearing to set up three thermal power plants in the district. The result? The air is thick with talk of the imminent pollution and its disastrous effect on mangoes.

“The pollination of mango takes place once a year. If sulphur and nitrogen compounds get saturated, the dew will turn acidic and affect the pollination,” says 49-year-old Anant Gopal Biwalkar, a mango cultivator from Nandivde in Ratnagiri, Konkan.

Simply put, the chemicals (suphur dioxide and fly ash) likely to be emitted from the coal-fired power plants could drastically cut down on the quality and quantity of mangoes. Little wonder then that Amar Desai is wracked by similar concerns—only bigger in magnitude. Says the mango exporter from Pawas who has sold the fruit to Germany and the Gulf and is ready to send it to Japan and USA this year: “This might be the last time I export the fruit. The buyers from Japan who visited a few weeks ago have warned that if the fruit has any trace of pollution, the consignment will be cancelled,” he says.

It’s a fear that has been stalking the mango belt even as the state—faced with 7,000 MW of power shortage in the coming summer—readies to set up the three power plants in a 110 km radius: the 1,200 MW JSW Energy Limited at Jaigarh (Nandivde), the 43 MW captive power project of Finolex Industries Limited at Pawas (Rantal) and the proposed 1,600 MW Dhopave Coastal Power Limited next to Dabhol’s Ratnagiri Gas and Power Private limited. Besides, the country’s first site for the 6,000 MW nuclear project is also being proposed at Jaitapur.

While the strident opposition from farmers has resulted in a stay on the construction of the Finolex plant, it hasn’t stopped the JSW project despite a case in the Bombay High Court, and the land acquisition at Dhopave is likely to begin soon.

“Ratnagiri has been declared a horticultural zone by the state, resulting in large-scale production of mango, cashew and coconut. Importantly, the state government is also promoting Konkan as the next tourist destination. Is it then right to have three thermal power projects in Ratnagiri alone?” asks Dr Vivek Bhide, president of the Ratnagiri Zilla Jagruk Manch, who filed the PIL in the high court stating that the Environmental Impact Assessment report submitted by the JSW Energy Ltd was faulty.

According to the Ratangiri district administration—the district was declared a horticulture zone in 1991 owing to the humid climate fit for fruit plantation—of the 2.75 lakh hectare land available for cultivation, over 63,000 hectares is under mango cultivation. Unfortunately, Guhaghar (4,954 ha), Ratnagiri (15,233 ha) and Rajapur (7,966 ha)—where the thermal power projects are planned—account for one-third of the total area under mangoes. The district did a business of an estimated Rs 2,200 crore through the trade of Alphonso mangoes.

“No one is opposing the power projects and denying the fact that state requires electricity to cover the deficit. But why plan all the projects in Ratnagiri?” asks Jayant Bhargav Biwalkar, whose 35 Alphonso plants are outside the compound wall of JSW project.

Rahul Asthana, Principal Secretary of the state Energy Department, says that the plants’ location was decided because it’s a coastal area which would make it easy to ferry coal. He added, “It’s not as if the state is not concerned about Alphonso mangoes and the trade prospects. We will follow all the procedures and clearances from the Ministry of Environment will be received. If the plants affect the fruit and cultivation, then perhaps the project will be stopped. Only after following due procedures and getting clearances from the Ministry of Environment will the project be given a go ahead.”

The farmers’ fears are justified, considering that the thermal power project at Dahanu destroyed the chikoo plantation. “The fly-ash—JSW plant will burn 4.1 million tonnes of coal each year—will result in acidic dew or settle on mango flowers, both of which will destroy the harvest,” says Nilesh Tirekar, who worked at a fly-ash company in Dahanu.

Importantly, it’s not just mangoes which will be affected. Given the location of power plants, the fishing community is also fearing the loss of business.

Says Madan Jadhav, chairman of Laxmisagar Sahakari Sanstha of Dhopave’s fishing community: “The pollution of the creek from the neighbouring RGPGL plant has reduced the size of the fish. Our business has suffered and now these projects we will wipe us out completely.”

According to local Congress activist Suamti Jadhav, people in five villages likely to be affected due to the Dhopave plant are divided over the issue. “The fishing community wants a job for each family member as well as compensation. If it’s not provided, the plant will not be allowed to be set up at Dhopave,” she said.

Given the stridency of protest, the state Government has appointed Dr Balasaheb Sawant Konkan Krishi Vidyapeeth to conduct a three-year study to assess the environmental impact of the power plant on mango and fishing. Dr Shekhar Kowale, handling the fishing survey, says it will take five years.

“The power projects will be set up by then and Alphonso cultivation will have stopped. We might then have to migrate or commit suicide like the farmers in Vidarbha,” says Anant Biwalkar.