In Enron's wake

Published : Mar 02, 2002 00:00 IST

Under the banner of the Enron Virodhi Andolan, project-affected people demand that the land acquired from them for the Dabhol power plant, now closed, be returned.

ANUPAMA KATAKAM in Katalwadi, Anjanvel and Veldur

There is a saying that there is darkness under the diya. That is our fate here.

- Pandurang Bhuwad, farmer from Katalwadi village.

AS the night lights flicker on at the Dabhol Power Company's (DPC) plant, Katalwadi village plunges into darkness. It is perhaps ironic that Katalwadi, located just 2 km from the 2,144 MW power plant, will not have electricity for the rest of the evening and possibly the entire night. Yet, having no electricity is only a minuscule part of the problems faced by the residents of Katalwadi. Ever since the erstwhile U.S. energy behemoth Enron Corporation's offshoot laid claim to their land, the region's people, whose mainstay is agriculture, have been deprived of their livelihood and the ecology has been damaged permanently.

With Enron practically non-existent now and the DPC plant up for sale, residents of the project-affected villages of Katalwadi, Anjanvel, Ranvi and Veldur want the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) to return the 200 hectares that has been lying unused, out of the 610 ha that was acquired for the project. Besides, in 1997, former Chief Minister Manohar Joshi had assured them that their land would be returned.

Katalwadi's residents believe that the time is right to launch an aggressive protest. Local groups plan to stage a satyagraha in front of the power plant on February 28. "We wanted to storm the premises but memories of 1997 still haunt us. The tahsildar has also cautioned us against this sort of action. It is more important that we are heard now," says Yeshwant Bait, an activist with the Enron Virodhi Andolan. The Andolan will also make a presentation before the Kurdukar Commission, which is investigating the power purchase agreement signed between Enron and the Government of Maharashtra.

Katalwadi's struggle against Enron and the Maharashtra government is by now legendary. In April 1997, the village, which was at the forefront of the anti-Enron movement, was attacked and several villagers, including women, were assaulted and imprisoned on charges that included attempted murder.

Situated on the banks of the Vasisthi river in Guhagar taluk in western Maharashtra, the area surrounding the DPC encompasses several agricultural villages and two fishing villages and is home to more than 92,000 people, who are entirely dependent on the region's natural resources.

"The DPC plant has been built on the ancestral lands of 700 families," Bait said. Most families in the region have been hurt by the project in some way or the other. Some, who have lost all their land, have had to work as labourers on others' fields. Many have lost the most cultivable part of their property.

Nearly 65 per cent of those affected by the power project belong to Katalwadi. Not a single person from the 243 families of this village has accepted any compensation or rehabilitation offers made by the government and the DPC. "Even though our livelihoods have been snatched from us, we have held out as a unified community for eight years against the company," Bait said. "By not taking the compensation we can fight for our rights. Since the company is going to change hands, this is a good time to make our demands heard again," Bait added. "We are now prepared and experienced to take on anyone. We will not allow another company here without it meeting our demands," Bait emphasised.

However, in spite of the villagers' tenacity, during the past eight years substantial damage has been done to the region. Since 1994, when the construction of the power plant started, there has been consistent degradation of the environment. Not only have farmers lost their means of livelihood but the sea water has been polluted. The sad reality, says Bait, is that whether it is Enron or any other company bidding for the DPC, many of the problems will remain unresolved.

The MIDC Act stipulates that unless 60 per cent of the affected people agree, the government cannot go ahead with land acquisition. Also, the MIDC should acquire only barren land or land that cannot be cultivated. Both conditions have been violated in this region. For instance, according to Ganu Ragho Jangli, he spent all his savings on cultivating the 4.5 ha that he owned in Katalwadi. A few months before the MIDC took over his land, he had planted 300 mango saplings of the Alphonso variety and 300 cashew plants. "When we heard that all our land was marked for the project, we tried to fight. But the High Court dismissed our petition. In one day and one night they bulldozed all the saplings, to lay a pipeline," Jangli told Frontline. "We were asked to vacate our houses. They didn't even allow us to take our belongings. We had to move into the village. The next day, when we came back, our entire land was fenced in," he said. Jangli said he spent all his savings cultivating paddy, mango and cashew nut on the 4.5 ha of land. "I just sat near the fence and cried," said Jangli's wife Savitri. "For many days after that I would come to the same spot and just stare at my land. We did not know what to do," she recalled. Similarly, at least 110 people in the region have been left landless.

Yet Jangli was determined to fight. He did not accept the compensation package that included Rs.75,000 for a ha of paddy field, Rs.60,000 for the crop, and Rs.50,000 for a ha of uncultivable land. "We could have earned Rs.10,000 from a mango tree every season. We used to harvest 7,000 kg of rice annually. How can you compare the compensation to these earnings?" asked Jangli. "Before they ruined our lives, our house used to be full of grain," Jangli recalled. Jangli says he struggles to provide for his seven-member family now. He and his wife sell milk besides working as labourers on another farmer's field. Jangli's son runs a roadside stall selling sweets and peanuts. Jangli said he was determined not to accept any compensation, however difficult his situation might be. Jangli's case typifies the Maharashtra government's and Enron's high-handedness and callousness in acquiring land.

Katalwadi's women have been particularly active in the anti-Enron movement. Anandi Ramchandra Bhuwad of Katalwadi said she would fight on even if she had to starve. "We don't want money, we want our land," she said. Bhuwad proudly pointed out that at the height of the anti-Enron protests the women were very active. "We were beaten and thrown in jail," she said. "The next time they came, we women gheraoed them. After that they were too scared to enter our village. Let us see now which company will come."

Pollutants have reduced a once fertile belt into an unproductive stretch of land. Snehal Vaidhya, former sarpanch of Anjanvel, owns a 0.8 ha plot with mango trees. For three consecutive years she has had a bad crop. Usually, the trees should flower by mid-February. But smoke from the power plant has affected the trees. She pointed to some branches - they were yet to show signs of budding, which possibly meant another crop failure. The leaves were spotted and looked almost burnt. Even the coconut and arecanut trees have been affected. The fruit was much smaller than what it used to be, she pointed out. Today, Vaidhya's family supports itself by selling milk from the four buffaloes and the two cows that it owns. Mango grove owners do not fall under any category for compensation. "A chain of people are affected if the crop fails," said Atmaram More, sarpanch of Anjanvel. Not only the farmer but the picker and the trader are also affected, explained a mango trader.

Vaidhya has to contend with another problem. The water on her land has turned a bright orange. Along the sides of a natural spring conduit on her property, the soil is clearly brighter in comparison to its natural brown-red colour. "In the beginning, before we realised that there was contamination, our throats used to hurt. When the water started looking like a soft drink, we complained to the government and the company," Vaidhya said. The company then provided four houses on that hill with water from a separate water pipe. Since the company shut down in November, clean water is not supplied. Both Katalwadi and Anjanvel villages survive on water from a gram panchayat programme. The water has a thin layer of oil too. According to More, a well near Vaidhya's land got completely polluted. "We pulled out 20 barrels of water smelling of diesel. We never had this before Enron," he said. This well is located close to another village well, which is the only other source of clean water. "What if the contamination reaches that point? We won't have any water," said More.

Whether the power plant is responsible for the ground water pollution in the area is arguable. A recent study showed that the DPC used highly sophisticated machines. Therefore, the study concluded that it was not possible for naphtha (which is the fuel that the plant used) to leak from these machines and contaminate ground water. "Besides," says Vaidhya, "if they weren't guilty why would they immediately provide clean water?"

The MIDC could perhaps be held responsible. An article in The Hindu Survey of the Environment 2001 said that effluents released by chemical industries in the area had led to water pollution. In 1978, the government declared this part of the Konkan coast a chemical industrial zone. In 1989, the villagers filed a case complaining about the seepage of pollutants into both sea water and ground water. It was then that the government took notice of the pollution. But it was not until 1994 that the High Court ordered an inquiry. Troubled by the findings, the court ordered the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) to monitor the pollution levels and enforce environmental laws. However, till date little has been done by the MPCB.

With regard to environmental groups charging Enron with violating environmental issues, in 1996, the High Court ordered a 'traces study', to be done at a cost of Rs.65 lakhs. According to Pradyumna Kaul, an activist with the Enron Virodhi Andolan, "that was hardly anything for them". The DPC sent an employee to collect water from the spring every day. But "six months after the plant shut, we are still getting contaminated water," said Vaidhya. Officials of the MPCB were unwilling to comment; they would only say that "Enron is a controversial issue". Earlier the MIDC came up with a similar response when approached for comments on land acquisition by the DPC.

The 3,000-strong fishing community of Anjanvel and Veldur villages was also affected. The construction of two jetties and a breakwater by the DPC shifted the flow of sea water. Moreover, both jetties were built at some of the best fishing points along that part of the coast - the Veldur jetty, which is at the confluence of the sea and a river, is a breeding ground for fish. In addition, the government has cordoned off the liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal jetty. Now, fishermen have to navigate a long distance to get to another fishing spot. What used to be a 10-minute ride now takes at least an hour, not to mention the extra expense on fuel. The area was well-known for large prawns, which fetched a good price in the domestic as well as export market. Mahadev Khardpekar, a fisherman, said: "Even if they allow us to fish there now, there is no point. All the high-value fish have gone." Khardpekar said he used to earn approximately Rs.1,500 a month. He says he is lucky if he makes Rs.700 now. Also, owing to the effluents released into the sea, several varieties of fish had vanished, he said. Moreover, marginal fishermen like him, said Khardpekar, used dinghies or single cylinder outboard engine boats. "We cannot afford bigger vehicles for deep-sea fishing. Fishing along the coast is our livelihood," he explained. Further, fishermen were given Rs.30,000 each as compensation only if they were registered with the Fisheries Department. Many small fishermen do not do that.

In 1999, a Human Rights Watch report warned the government of severe pollution in the seawater near the region. The report quoted from a study conducted by a local organisation that concluded that "once water is circulated through the plant, it is to be discharged back into the sea at a higher temperature - probably 5C higher. The water, which may also contain toxic effluents, can raise the ambient temperature, thereby causing pollution, which will kill both fish and prawns."

Not everyone in Guhagar taluk supported the anti-Enron movement. The fishermen, said Baba Balekar, sarpanch of Veldur, were among the first to sell out and work for the DPC. Since they had no source of income and few alternatives, they went in for work on the site, which offered better income for fewer hours of work, Balekar said. "But we learnt a lesson. Once the construction work was over, we were asked to leave," Khardpekar said. Since they were uneducated and technically unskilled, the company had no use for them. Now, relieved that the plant is shut, Khardpekar said that the quantity and quality of fish has been improving. "If a new company comes, all our problems will return," he pointed out. This time, he said, he would fight with the others to save their land.

Local people who worked with Enron as contractors and others and worked for the plant have realised that the company resorted to manipulative tactics. Currently, only 56 project-affected people remain permanent employees at the plant, and that too because of a court order. Until May 1, 2001, 3,500 people from the region worked as contract labour. Over the past six months, everyone was laid off in stages. "They divided us. They played one against the other," said Yeshwantw Bait. "Everyone has been hurt. This time when we make our demands we will be more united," he said. But since the damage done in the area was irreparable, it hardly matters whether it is Enron or another power company, Bait lamented.

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