The Hanakone turn

At a time when the debate over climate change and the fight to preserve environment have acquired global attention and urgency, what happened in a small village in coastal Karnataka last Sunday merits attention: After almost two years of bitter battle over the setting up of a 450 MW thermal plant at Hanakone, near Karwar, the representatives of the company which planned the unit and the local protest group signed an ‘agreement’ against the thermal project, made a public announcement through a press conference and submitted a copy of the agreement to the deputy commissioner.

Executive director of Ind Bharat Thermal Power Company Limited, (IBTPCL) A N Vasu Rao and the legal advisor of the Horata Samithi, K R Desai who brought about a ‘happy ending’ to the confrontation over the project, also announced withdrawal of cases filed against each other. The company, which has already acquired about 160 acres of land in and around Hanakone has promised to take up ‘eco-friendly’ projects like a medical college, a high-tech hospital and a health resort.

The ecologically sensitive coastal region of Karnataka has borne the brunt of ‘development’ over the last three to four decades. It is already home to a nuclear power plant, a large naval base and a number of hydro-electric projects, which have come up much against the wishes of the local population. Each one of them faced angry opposition from the people, but the might of the state and the money power finally prevailed.

Even as there is greater recognition now of the need to preserve the unique biodiversity of the Western Ghats and the much-abused Kali river, the investors continue to eye the region because of its natural, cost-effective resources. But, with growing environmental awareness, the situation on the ground is changing: An ambitious 4,000 MW thermal power plant at Tadadi has been shelved after strong public protest, while the agreement to forgo the IBPTCL project is the latest victory for the people.

It is interesting to recount how the companies adopt clandestine methods when they take up unpopular projects. It seems this Hyderabad-based company, which has links with the son of a late chief minister, initially made the local population believe that it was acquiring land for a ‘medicinal factory’ which would offer hundreds of jobs. It also acquired some government and forest land with the help of officials.
The company also quietly moved files in the Union Environment and Forests ministry and obtained a conditional clearance for the project. It approached the state pollution control board and the state government for other clearances. It was only in early 2008 when a public hearing was organised as per the provisions of Environment Protection Act that the people came to realise the real intent.

The police, as usual, sought to brutally suppress the public agitation and at one point, around 50 villagers including women, were arrested and sent to jail in Bellary, 400 km from their homes. The Horata Samithi, meanwhile, moved the environmental appellate authority in New Delhi and obtained a stay on the project.
The authority sent a three-member team to make a feasibility study and assess the situation. The committee found that the location was most unsuitable from the environment point of view: The project would cause pollution of air and water close to the Western Ghats, affecting its pristine flora and fauna; it would make irreparable damage to aquatic resources and livelihood of fisherfolk; being close to the Kali river, it would damage the river’s estuary; the location was less than 5 km from Khotigaon wildlife sanctuary and within 10 km of Anshi project tiger reserve, in clear contravention of the Wild Life Act.

Western Ghats task force member Ashisara — who has been in the forefront of many an agitation along with the Swamiji of Swarnavalli Mutt to save the region’s ecology — says that despite overwhelming evidence the company was not willing to give up the project and tried to use its clout in Delhi to get it moving.
The result was that the appellate authority set up a five-member committee in August last year to make a fresh survey and report back to it. By now, the public sentiment had completely turned against the project and when the committee visited Hanakone, over a 1,000 people gathered to say ‘no’ with one voice.

Horata Samithi adviser Desai says the Hyderabad-based company, having realised the futility of pursuing the project in the teeth of opposition, wisely decided to sue for peace so that  investment already made would not go waste. “Using the land in its possession, if the company plans to set up a high-tech hospital or a health resort, we will fully cooperate with it,” he said.

The coastal belt is already weighed down by Kadra and Kodasalli hydro-electric projects, the Kaiga nuclear plant, the Nagarjuna thermal power project, the Thannerbavi project and so on. According to a report of the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (Neeri), the region’s ‘carrying capacity’ has been exceeded and it cannot take any more load.

It is time the state government took a conscious decision to spare the coastal region from further ‘assault’ in the name of development and told the prospective investors to look elsewhere for locating their projects.

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