The traditional ritual of bhoomi puja or the worship of the land by a tribe of Andhra Pradesh. © Rahul Gupta
I received a mail addressed to all Greenpeace activists about a festival concerning the on-going peoples’ movement at Sompeta, Andhra Pradesh. Keen to learn something new, I decided to go to Sompeta. I reached a field by a state highway and saw several stalls and a stage too. I was a little sceptical at first thinking we were at just another village mela. Then I met my fellow activist from Greenpeace Hyderabad, Zahir and started figuring out what was going on.
The day started with the traditional ritual of bhoomi puja or the worship of the land by a certain tribe of Andhra Pradesh. Then there were traditional songs and lectures on what was going on. I couldn’t understand most of it as it was in Telugu but I learnt a lot through Zahir who acted as translator.
As the day progressed we made quite a number of friends. I met people who came from as far away as Orissa for the event. I was slowly beginning to realise the seriousness behind the entire festival. This was not another fun-filled weekend festival but one held with a view to bring into light the fight that the people of Sompeta have put up in order to protect not just their livelihoods and homes but also the environment. Their love for nature is staggering. At the end of the first day’s festivities, we left the grounds to sleep in an ashram deep within one of the ‘affected’ villages.
Next morning, when we walked back to the field, where the festival was being held, we saw messages painted on walls, lamp posts etc., reading ‘Go Back N.C.C’. No, this is not for the National Cadet Corps, but Nagarjuna Construction Company (NCC), the company which got the tender to build a power plant at Sompeta.
I met and interacted with many villagers and according to their reports the NCC purchased land from them through brokers who said that the land will be used for agriculture and pisciculture. As is the case in several places, this was just the NCC’s first tactic of winning the local peoples’ hearts. With free healthcare camps, donation of books etc. the company built up their image further.
The disputed fields where the three individuals died from the police firing as well. © Rahul Gupta
Later on, in order to assure the people that there would be very little effect on health from the thermal power plant, they brought in experts from the medical field who instead of concentrating on the actual health hazards, advocated in the company’s favour by talking about employment generation.
One of the biggest problems of thermal power is the residue left behind by burning coal which is dumped in pits called ash ponds. These ash ponds pollute the area’s soil and water. When asked, the company said that it would store the ash in undersea tanks. This is in sharp contrast to the fact that 250 acres of land in the proposed power plant plan was allotted for ash ponds. The company’s reply to the activists of the region was to not come for negotiations with a ‘negative attitude’.
At this stage the villagers and activists, of Sompeta who headed the movement, started a tactic to combat the company’s ambitions. The business class in any society is the most influential of all and they called for a meeting of all villagers. Around 70 people turned up for the meeting, most of them from the business community who were very interested to know what was going on and how it would affect business. The irony is that most of these people were initially all for the power plant as the company had shown them dreams of riches as soon as the plant is functional.
So, the activists hired a bus and took the people present at the meeting to Sinhadri near Vishakapatnam where a thermal power plant has already been built. The villagers were shocked to see how the people there fight for water which comes in tankers each day. The locals of the area themselves took the people of Sompeta around to show the condition in which they are living now. They showed them how over 300 homes, which did not sell their land to the company, lay vacant because of the pollution caused by the ash ponds. All this was recorded and shown to the people back home in Sompeta as well. The movement took a huge turn then and there.
The day the three died
On July 14 2010 the Nagarjuna Construction Company was supposed to perform the bhoomi puja in order to start the construction of the power plant. From July 12, armed policemen were paraded around the villages warning people to stay away from the area as Section 144 was implemented there. The police had blockaded every route to the area and were lathi charging protesters.
I met several of the people who were involved in this struggle and heard their interesting stories. They said that a huge part of the land that the company had purchased was marshes called ‘beelas’. The police could not manoeuvre here but the locals could. So, several villagers fought the police back from the marshes and entered the land through the beelas and disrupted the puja. They all had a do or die attitude for the movement. After all, fighting unarmed with close to 5,000 fully armed policemen is not an easy task.
After the heat of the moment died down and the company knew that it would have to retreat, all of a sudden, the police opened fire on the villagers. Two of the victims died on the spot while a third succumbed on the way to hospital. The names of the victims are Gunna Jaga Rao of Palasi Puram, Ganappa Krishna Murthy of Lakhavaram and Bandaram Krishnamurthy of Palasapuram. Even after the police killed three and injured several others, the fact that the villagers continue to protest is heart-rending.
The Hunger Strike
The villagers of Sompeta have been on a relay hunger strike ever since May 2009. The day we visited the protesters, was day 1,192 of their protest. Their peaceful demonstration started before the police opened fire. The High court has rejected the initial Environment Impact Assessment report that was done and has now ordered a fresh EIA probe. The villagers have not let the movement die down. They are still present there and the protest continues. Even after the murders of the July 14, no minister has even visited the stall where the hunger strike is taking place.
The land owned by the company is divided under- Jink Badra and Benkeley – 100 acres, Golagandi – 110 acres, Baruva – 200 acres, Kuttima – 110 acres. Apart from this, the company has purchased 972 acres from the government as well. They have now proposed to shift the plant to Nellore district.
The movement of Sompeta should be a lesson to us all. The ferocity with which the people of Sompeta have put up a non-violent protest for so long must act as a beacon to all of us who are out there to protect the environment and people’s rights.
The political scenario is such that the movement of Sompeta is hardly covered in the news. My friends, have no sympathy for them who languish. Have empathy instead. Switch to cleaner modes of energy like the people of Sompeta have. The solar energy business in the region has boomed. In fact, Dr Govind, an ardent lover of nature, runs a hospital in Sompeta which uses 5KV solar panels.
Zahir and I learnt a lot from the Mother Earth Festival. Given a chance, I would love to go back once again. Let’s not let the movement of Sompeta be restricted only to its surrounding areas. Let us make every proposed thermal power plant a story of Sompeta, a story of the peoples’ resistance. As an activist of the Sompeta movement says, “Moving towards the green currency is taking us away from the green planet.”
Rahul Gupta is a volunteer with Greenpeace
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