As the sun is about to set, supporters of both TDP and YSRCP form a disciplined line on the Atchiyampeta main road leading towards the Vizag port. Donning caps and shawls of their respective parties, they rehearse the slogans, shortly before competing and attempting to overpower each other with their witty slogans as onlookers watch the spectacle.
Compared to YSCRP and Jana Sena, TDP has a lot more supporters in Visakhapatnam ward 29, which falls under Visakhapatnam South constituency. The cadres actively participate in the door-to-door campaign in the neighbourhood around Ambedkar Colony – a small Dalit settlement with nearly 500 families largely comprising Malas.
The colony with extremely narrow lanes and houses with less than 315 square feet space, faces the same problem that other localities like Lakshmipuram and Netaji Nagar, which are close to Vizag port area, do: Air pollution. The loading, unloading, and transportation of coal and other ores in the port area, which is less than 500 meters away, pollutes the entire vicinity posing serious health risks to the residents.
Air pollution bigger problem than toilets
The grating smell of coal, iron, and manganese ore permeates the entire locality. Though the residents who are part of the campaign walk briskly, others who are not from the area find it difficult to breathe, and complain about the choking emissions which have entered their nostrils in the colony.
While most of the residents of Ambedkar Colony lack toilets and are forced to defecate in the open, they unanimously prioritise air pollution as one of the crucial issues to be addressed by the politicians who are in the fray.
“Our prime demand is for the port authorities to stop these emissions that jeopardize our health,” says Y Devudu Babu president of Ambedkar Youth Association, which has been fighting for many years demanding the responsible authorities and the local representatives to cut down the pollution levels. “We want to choose a representative who promises us to put an end to this problem,” Devudu adds.
The long fight against VPT
Ambedkar Colony falls in the Old Town area, infamous for air pollution. Activists and resident welfare associations have been fighting since 1997 demanding the Visakhapatnam Port Trust (VPT) to cut down hazardous emissions. They have approached the High Court numerous times, alleging that the port is operating ‘illegally’ by emitting more than the permissible Respirable Suspended Particulate Matter (RSPM) and Total Suspended Particulate Matter (TSPM) causing lung disease and other ailments.
Establishing the fact that the port was indeed emitting hazardous dust, the District Tuberculosis Control Centre in 2009 said that there was a high increase of Tuberculosis in the One Town area also known as the Old Town area. When an activist, Chaitanya Sravanthi, approached the National Green Tribunal (NGT) for an injunction against the Port, the NGT examined the arguments of both the petitioner and the respondent – VPT.
The NGT in its judgement in 2016 had said, “Though various anthropogenic activities are responsible for increase in air pollution, the respondent, Port, being the main point source of dust emission while handling the coal cargo, shall bear major responsibility for increase in the air pollution, particularly in its vicinity and it shall continue to strive to give top most priority and utmost attention to this aspect in the interest of the environment, particularly in the interest of health of the people residing in the area.”
The Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board (APPCB) had also taken note of the rising pollution levels and ordered the Port authorities to implement immediate term measures (ITM), short term measures (STM), medium term measures (MTM) and long term measures (LTM). ITM included covering of coal stacks with tarpaulins, restriction of coal stacks not exceeding 6 meters, and that the port shall not store dusty cargo without Mechanical Dust Suppression System. STM included installing fog cannons, sprinklers by March 2016. MTM included construction of concrete wall of 7.5 meter height with a length of 1.7 km from Sea Horse junction to Convent Junction as a ‘Dust barrier’ by July 2016.
The wall to prevent dust
According to authorities, they have followed all the directions of the APCCB and cut down the emissions. Speaking to TNM, Ward Number 29 zone officer, Chitti Babu says, “All the protocols have been followed diligently and the emissions have been cut down to a great extent.”
However, for residents, the air pollution is a daily reality they have to deal with.
‘We have nowhere else to go’
Dalits in Ambedkar colony have been living in the area since as early as 1970. However, the land was registered only in 1983. Adequate clean drinking water and toilet for each household and other basic amenities are still a distant dream for them.
In the locality, majority of them drive autos and go to the port for daily wage work.
However, the residents say despite all the problems plaguing them, they cannot move out of the locality.
“This is a prime area, very close to Gajuwaka. Where else can we go? How can we afford the rent. Although small, this is our own house,” says Ranga Rao, a resident.
While Devudu Babu says that they would only vote for a representative who will fight against the VPT and reduce the emissions, several others shrug it off saying that they will never find such a representative.
“We have seen many leaders in the past who made numerous promises, were they able to put an end to it? This is just another election rhetoric and our life will continue as it is,” says Ranga Rao.
Contestants in the fray of Visakhapatnam South are sitting MLA from TDP Ganesh Vasupalli, D Srinivasa Rao from YSRCP, and Giridhar Gampala from the Jana Sena Party.
The MP candidates are M Bharat from the TDP, MVV Satyanarayana from YSRCP, VV Lakshminarayana from Jana Sena Party, and Daggubati Purandeshwari from the BJP.