Saturday, August 1, 2009

Farmers fight power giants over coal-fired plants

Posted by Grace Boyle

"Dream no small dreams, for they have not the power to move the heart of men"                                                                                                        Geothe

There is a fight going on in the coastal region of Raigad, in the state of Maharashtra. Only a half hour drive from Mumbai, Raigad's fertile lands, ragged mountains and crumbling fort couldn't be more different from the 24-hour burn of the maximum city. But there's a change being proposed - and opposed - to the land.

Two of India's energy giants - the Tata Power Company Ltd. and Maharashtra Energy Generation Ltd., a subsidiary of Reliance Power - have struck a deal with the Maharashtra State Government to acquire 8,500 acres of farmers' land in Raigad to build two coal-fired power plants. The land would be acquired with compensation, but without the farmers' consent. The proposed plants in this and a neighbouring region would generate a total of 10,000MW of power, with much of the coal for burning being imported from Indonesia.

According to Tata Power's Managing Director Prasad Menon, the site is ideal for a coal-burning power plant as it is located on the coast without being in an ecologically sensitive zone and offers a sufficiently deep draught for barges with heavy loads of coal to come in. According to the residents of Raigad, the site is not ideal for these plants as burning coal is an outdated and dirty method of producing power, with health implications for the community including respiratory problems and inhibition of children's neurodevelopment.

"We believe that the energy planned from these coal plants is dirty. It can come instead from clean alternatives like wind and solar energy, and by using energy more efficiently. We will not give up our land and our future to these mega power plants that will pollute our air, land, and water. We will not allow them to ruin our children's future by adding to the problem of climate change," said Dr Vishnu P. Mhatre of the Naugaon Sangharsh Samiti, one of the organisations fighting for clean energy.

It's important to note that these people, most of them villagers with only a basic level of education, are not technophobic, or anti development. As with most states in India, power demand outstrips supply in Maharashtra and is only set to increase with the growing population and booming economy. The need for an increase in energy production is something that cannot be denied, nor should it. 

"We do not oppose production of energy. But, we strongly demand that the Government of India change its energy pathway and move towards decentralised renewable energy, which will be used locally for agro-based industries and domestic needs," said Satish Londhe, a resident of Alibag, the capital of Raigad. 

The citizens are arguing that the land in Raigad is ideally located for wind power generation, and are setting up a 'Wind Monitoring Station' to record the area's wind potential through an anemometer and encourage the government to invest in renewable energy plants. 

Raigad's villagers have been fighting against the power giants' coal plans for more than four years, and yesterday nearly one thousand of them came together to form a giant human windmill on the proposed plant site (top left). In a touching display of solidarity, the image formed and dissipated in a moment as fragile as the defence of these villagers, and the path of their future. 

If you are the big tree, we are the small axe, coming to cut you down, goes the song. But we shall have to wait and see if this little axe is sharp enough. 

You can show your support for the farmers of Raigad by signing the petition demanding a renewable energy law for India here.

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