Sompeta Agitation
While the hunger strike lasted for close to six years, the protest lasted for eight long years
Image for representation (CC by 2.0 Flickr/mckaysavage)

It was a hunger strike that trumped Gandhi's longest one by years - six years or 2,166 days of one person after another taking part in the relay, to protest for their motherland and their livelihoods.

Two cyclones - Phallin and Hudhud, did not deter these brave farmers, villagers and activists from giving up, and their efforts have finally paid off.

The Sompeta agitation over a controversial thermal power plant in Srikakulam in Andhra came to an end on Monday after the state government conceded to the protestors’ demands and assured only eco-friendly projects in the ‘Beela’ area.

State Labour Minister K.Atchannaidu offered lemon juice to the people who were in the relay hunger strike camp, ending the agitation formally, a report in The Hindu says.

While the hunger strike lasted for close to six years, the protest lasted for eight long years and even involved the indiscriminate killing of at least three people, when the police opened fire on a gathering of hundreds.

History

It all started in 2008, when The Nagarjuna Construction Company (NCC) was allotted land, for setting up a 2,640 megawatt coal-based power plant in Sompeta Mandal. East Coast Energy soon followed suit and began construction of a similar plant in Kakarapalli.

Before the locals knew it, there were three more being planned - two near the Andhra coast and one in Ranasthalam.

In total, the livelihood of 25,000 fishermen families in 24 villages along the coast, was being adversely affected. Many NGOs and environmentalists had opposed the move, but the real protest stemmed from the fishermen and the villagers.

By November 2008, East Coast Energy Ltd had already started construction on what it said was 'wasteland' but what others claimed were fertile wetlands. This was even before the company got environmental clearance, which came in 2009.

Sabyasachi Patra, a photographer who visited the place in November, wrote in a blog post:

These guys were filling mud in the place to change the very nature of that place. I saw lot of dumpers dumping mud and construction being done at a very fast pace. I was amazed, as I had been told that some activity is going on, but hadn't expected work to be going on at such a furious pace. Clearly, they wanted to change the nature of that place and then prove that a wetland never existed. Unfortunately in India, our wetlands are not documented. This makes it easy for people to reclaim the land by terming them wastelands.

(Two images that Sabyasachi Patra uploaded)

In October 2009, environmentalists, farmers and fishermen from the affected mandals came together to form the Paryavarana Parirakshana Sangham (PPS) and held a 'rasta roko' to protest against the plants. Ten days later, they made a strong plea to the district Collector on the issue.

On December 5, 2009, the PPS started an agitation with relay hunger strikes led by fishermen, to raise awareness about the issue. This was the same hunger strike that would go on for the next 2,166 days.

Speaking to The Hindu in February 2010, Prof. Kameswara Rao, a senior professor of Environmental Sciences in Andhra University pointed out:

There are certain guidelines for location of thermal projects. Invariably, industrialists prefer to locate them along the coast because of import of coal from countries like Indonesia. This is quality coal and the ash content ranges from 10 to 12 per cent as compared to indigenous coal’s 30 per cent. However guidelines prohibit location of plants near places of breeding, nesting and fish nurseries. The sea mouth where river water merges with it forms fish nurseries. This gets disturbed because of the location of a plant near it.

By this time, the unrest had turned into a rebellion with all the surrounding villages in the area coming together to protest the plants.

The power plants had obtained environmental clearance and had denied all the allegations that they were accused of.

The protests went on till a camp set up near the wetlands was allegedly attacked by the police on April 30, 2010.

The situation kept worsening till it reached a head on July 13th, 2010.

Sompeta firing

A report in Green left narrates:

In July that year, police conducted armed marches in the town and surrounding villages and warned people against accessing the wetlands. This was a week after then-federal minister for environment Jairam Ramesh visited the town and assured the people their concerns would be heard.

On July 13, when about 3000 police descended on the town, reports spread that the company was trying to build a wall in the wetlands. About 20,000 people marched to the site to prevent work. They were brutally attacked by the police and security guards hired by the company. Police opened fire on the protesters, killing two. Another person died later in hospital, and five others were seriously injured.

For the next few days, hundreds of armed policemen were deployed in about a dozen villages and orders banning assembly of five or more persons were imposed to quell fresh protests. A curfew­like situation prevailed as security personnel did not allow anyone to move out of their homes.

The issue has finally made national headlines.

The decline

Things soon started going downhill which had a cascading effect on the power plants. On the same day as the firing, the National Environment Appellate Authority (NEAA) cancelled the environmental clearance given to the company.

On July 30, 2010 a committee constituted by the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) subsequent to the Sompeta firing, noted the importance of this water body and filed a detailed report.

On June 23, 2011, the Hyderabad high court suspended the state government's order. The CAG's report on the issue that was placed in the state assembly in March 2012 also indicted the Andhra government for allotting the wetland to a developer.

In December 2013, more than three years after the Sompeta firing, the protest was still on. "We will fight till the government cancels permission to the plant. In the name of development, the government has been trying to impose its order on the people. We don't need any development that paralyses the lives of the people," PPS president Dr Y Krishna Murthy had said.

On August 29, as the protesters entered the 2094th day of their relay hunger strike, the Andhra Pradesh government decided to cancel the land allotment for the controversial thermal power plant and said that the company can use the same land for setting up agri-based industries instead.

More than a month later, the strike has formally ended.