Protesters demand that the govt should leave the beela alone, and further distribute the land around it to the poor farmers.

The Sompeta agitation lives on How the police killing of 3 men fuelled a battle for the wetlandCultural troop performing on the occasion of the 7th Martyrs anniversary.
news Environment Saturday, July 15, 2017 - 14:31

Seven years ago, on July 14 2010, the police opened fire on unarmed villagers killing three men: Gonapa Krishnamurthy, Gunna Joga Rao and Bendhalam Krishnamurthy. The people from the villages of Baruva and Gollagandi, Sompeta Mandal, Srikakulam district, Andhra Pradesh, were protesting against the illegal construction of a proposed 2640 MW coal fired Power Plant by the Nagarjuna Construction Company (NCC) when the firing took place.

“We demanded that the GO 1107, which proposed the setting up of the Power Plant in the ‘beela’ (local name for a ‘wetland’) be scrapped since it will devastate the lives of thousands of farmers and fisher-folk, in two towns and over 30 villages, as well as destroy an area which has significant ecological value," said VS Krishna of the Human Rights Forum (HRF).

“It is preposterous on the part of revenue officials and project proponents to have described the area as ‘wasteland unsuitable for cultivation’,” he added.  

Martyrs memorial near the beela.

Anti-thermal movement stupa. Translation: "To protect our land, our beela and our water with the inspiration of our beloved Dr K. Balagopal garu. This stupa was constructed with the inspiration of our great movement which began with 7 people in October 2008 and later continued under the aegis of 23 farming villages and 24 fishing villages. This stupa is a reflection of the event when ordinary people rebelled and drove out the police, the NCC management and their hired hoodlums from starting illegal construction here on 14th July 2017. 3 people died and hundreds of people were injured on that day. These are the marks of the ordinary people's struggle of Sompeta, resisting the brutal massacre unleashed by the district revenue minister and some anti-democratic forces, which echoed at the national and international levels."

In a report prepared by Dr Asad Rahmani of the reputed Bombay Natural History Society and Dr Asha Rajvanshi of Wildlife Institute of India, the need to protect the wetlands of Srikakulam and the desirability of dropping NCC’s project forthwith was made out. The Standing Committee of National Board for Wildlife, at its 17th Meeting held on December 22, 2009, had unanimously adopted the report.

Another report that was released on Friiday by Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON), says that the 4000 acre combined Sompeta wetland, provides various ecosystem services. "During monsoon, the entire wetland complex gets inundated by flood waters, thereby helping to control the flood in the surrounding areas which are thickly populated. Numerous seasonal channels and streams feed ‘Peddha Beela’ during the rainy season. The other two ‘Chinna Beelas’ are fed by the water from the Peddha Beela, with a typical water regime which have wider implications in terms of the water table, water quality and sustenance of the biodiversity of the surrounding areas," the report notes.

It further recommends, "A bona fide legal status of protection can be achieved for Sompeta wetland by designating it as a ‘Community Reserve’ under the Wild Life (Protection) Act of India, 1972. Sompeta wetland, with its spectacular diversity of fauna and flora and its myriad roles while rendering key ecosystem functions and services to local communities, would be a fit case for designation as a Community Reserve. The physical and operational interventions due to the establishment of any industrial activity would alter the natural system drastically in the coming years. In the process several thousand bird and other species, known and unknown, are likely to disappear from the area, and several crucial ecosystem services will be seriously undermined affecting the environmental security."

Although GO 1107 has been cancelled by an interim order of the AP High Court in 2011, GO 329 passed in 2015, which allows NCC to setup only agro-based industries in the beela, seems to be a major concern, according to the Paryavarana Parirakshana Sangham (PPS).

A view of the beela. Lush coconut growth near the coast, part of Uddanam, can be seen on the horizon.

“We have two demands. One is the cancellation of GO 329. Two is to leave the beela alone and further distribute the land around it to the poor farmers,” said M Sarat Chandrudu, ex-sarpanch of Baruva and one of the key members of the PPS.

“Minister K Atchannaidu told us in 2015 that GO 329 was issued due to ‘technical’ problems, but nobody knows what the specifics of 329 are, or what these agro-based industries are. All this is very vague and we feel that this is part of the sinister ploy of the government to ensure that the beela and the lands surrounding it continue to stay in the hands of NCC,” he said.

“The politicians, be they in the government or the opposition, at the end of the day do whatever is in their self-interest. People should not be scared. They have to realise that nobody can save them but themselves. In that sense, the struggle continues," he added.

Reflecting on the occasion of the 7th anniversary of the martyrs of Sompeta struggle, Dr Y Krishnamurthy, affectionally called ‘Doctor garu’ by everyone, a key member of the PPS and a paediatrician in the town, said, “The sacrifice of our martyrs has emboldened us to fight until death for the rights and livelihoods of not just ourselves but our future generations. We carried on our relay hunger strike for 2,166 days despite tremendous adversities. This is the real power of the people. In this sense we were partially successful, but the struggle will continue until the government cancels GO 329 and takes steps to protect and improve the beela."

K Babu Rao, a retired senior scientist and well known environmental and climate change activist, questioned the logic of the government to set up industries in the beela.

“Srikakulam has the highest precipitation in the state, and the beelas, which provide livelihood to thousands of families, have never dried in their history. And when the whole world is worried about the exponential decline of wetlands why is our government hell bent on contributing to that trend? See, the intention to save environment is what matters ultimately. That is missing from the government," he remarked.

Regarding the redistribution of lands surrounding the beela which are still in the hands of NCC, noted rural activist PS Ajay Kumar, State Convenor of Swaraj Abhiyan and Rythu Swarajya Vedhika, quipped, “If the government can take land from the people for industries in the name of ‘public interest’ under the Land Acquisition Act, or the recent Land Pooling Act by the state government, then it can also take land from the industries and give it back to the poor people in the very name of ‘public interest’.”

The Sompeta struggle is mentioned as a classic example of people’s protest of the twenty first century. It has also been documented by Canadian documentary filmmaker Avi Lewis, in his award winning documentary ‘This Changes Everything’, based on Naomi Klein's seminal book by the same name.

“What is unique about the Sompeta struggle is that it managed to locate itself in the larger people’s movement for better livelihoods and sustainable existence. Some of the members of PPS have even reached out to other such struggles and shared their experiences of building a successful bottom-up movement,” said VS Krishna of the HRF.

Responding to the uniqueness of the Sompeta movement, B Delli Rao, another key member of the PPS, said, “I think there are two reasons for this. First, there is no hierarchy whatsoever in the organisation. Everyone including Doctor garu are only committed activists. Second, the visits arranged for the villagers to Paravada in Visakhapatnam, where the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) power plant is located, to witness first hand the destructive consequences congealed our fears and common interests in protecting our beela.”

“And, most importantly, how can we forget that meeting in August 2009, organised by the great Human Rights activist K Balagopal garu. That speech, I think, was the tipping point. We tried to imbibe whatever moral courage he oozed that day and we will continue to fight, come what may,” a confident Delli Rao said.