A massive disaster in the making

A massive disaster in the making
Highlights

The canal is a lifeline for farmers and fishermen across 9 mandals, and is used to cultivate 40,000 acres of agriculture, 15,000 acres of aquaculture. 50,000 fishermen directly earn their livelihood from the water,\" says Trimurthulu, as he looks at the Gontheru canal in Andhra\'s West Godavari District.

The canal is a lifeline for farmers and fishermen across 9 mandals, and is used to cultivate 40,000 acres of agriculture, 15,000 acres of aquaculture. 50,000 fishermen directly earn their livelihood from the water," says Trimurthulu, as he looks at the Gontheru canal in Andhra's West Godavari District.

Trimurthulu was recently released after he spent 53 days in prison, leaving behind a newly-married wife, and his one-month-old son. "It provides drinking water to more than 2 lakh people in Bhimavaram and Narsapuram mandals. They want to deprive one lakh people of their livelihoods, and create a mere 1,350 jobs, and pollute our lands, environment and health. How is it fair?” he asks.

Trimurthulu, is a leader of the Anti-Food Park Struggle Committee, which has been opposing the Godavari Mega Aqua Food Park owned by the Ananda Group of Industries. The Food park is coming up in between the villages of Tundurru, K Bethapudi and Jonnalagaruvu, and has seen a fair amount of resistance from the locals over the past three years.

Along with Trimurthulu, Vasu, who is the convener of the committee, also spent 53 days in jail. “The state's own reports say that the Food Park needs 1.43 lakh litres of water per day. Where will the industry get so much of water from? They either have to use ground water, or the Gontheru canal. The same reports also say that the output per day is 1.05 lakh litres. Where will the industry release this highly poisonous water into? They have no other option, but Gontheru,” says Vasu.

A catchy slogan that Andhra Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu and the TDP coined in the run-up to the 2014 Assembly elections was ‘Babu vaste, jabu vastadi’, which translates to 'if Chandrababu comes, jobs will come'. However, in this bid to create jobs by ‘industrializing’ the state, locals say that he has been taking away farm lands and the common resources of the people in the name of ‘development’.

The movement, which started in three directly affected villages under the name Anti-Food Park Struggle Committee has since spread to 40 villages in the catchment area of Gontheru, under the name Gontheru Parirakshana (Conservation) Committee. The government on its part, has promised to construct a 27 km long pipeline from the industry to the sea, to discharge the waste and other poisonous chemicals.

“Why does the state want to construct a pipeline now, when it initially claimed that the Food Park was pollution free? It's because such a statement will neutralize and dilute the resistance from the rest of the villages. People have seen how dangerous these industries can be, when five workers were murdered by the same Ananda Group of Industries after they inhaled poisonous gas last month,” Trimurthulu, who is also a political activist with the CPI(M), adds.

Where did it all start? In 2013, the Ananda Group reportedly bought 30 acres of land on the pretext of cultivating fish tanks, from a landlord who lived in America. This forced small and marginal farmers in the area to sell their land, fearing loss in soil fertility and contamination of the water due to fish tanks. Within a few months, the company reportedly owned 63 acres. All this land, just 50 metres away from the drinking water ponds of Tundurru and Bethapudi and within 300 metres of the Jonnalagaruvu habitation. Locals also allege that the company used some dubious methods to convert the land from an agricultural land to industrial land.

The setting up of the Food Park is expected to cost Rs 122.5 crores with the Andhra government bearing Rs 50 crore, and the Ananda Group bearing the rest. Executive Engineer of the Pollution Control Board (PCB) S Venkateswarlu says, “The Food Park got the clearance from our side in May 2014. They have a good Effluent Treatment Plant with the required technology. Most of the wastage is biodegradable.” However, Vasu does not buy this. “How did five people die in a similar industry owned by the same group of people? The Mega Food Park is 10 times more dangerous.

This is a complete processing unit while the earlier industry just removed the heads of the sea products. Yes, prawns and shrimps are biodegradable. Are the 570 odd chemicals used in the process biodegradable too?” he asks. The locals say that no public hearing was ever held even the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report was not made accessible to them. Since then, 16 villages including Tundurru, Bethapudi and Jonnalagaruvu passed Gram Sabha resolutions against the construction of the Food Park. However, the state allegedly didn’t take any of them into confidence, and proceeded ahead with the construction which led to a massive movement.

The day was March 8, 2017, -- International Women’s Day, and local women, who had participated equally, if not more than their male counterparts, in the movement, decided to take the centre stage. Around 1,000 women led by All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) leaders D Kalyani and P Poorna came onto the streets and began protesting against the construction of the food park.

In retaliation, 1,800 policemen allegedly attacked the gathering and arrested 130 women. Local women say that many male police officers dragged and beat them up, since there weren't enough women officers to handle the crowd. After the women were arrested, as a mark of solidarity, their children came on to the streets and protested. 12-year-old Jyotsna, daughter of Mahalakshmi, who got arrested, was the first to come onto the streets and mobilize her friends and classmates. When this reporter asked her why she did so, she says, “We don’t need money or jobs or properties. We want good health and a clean environment.”

What is even more troubling, is that Section 144 was brought into effect on September 9, 2016 and is still being enforced today. Temporary police stations, in the name of pickets have come up in all these villages, and a minimum of 200-300 policemen patrol these villages, with 50 of them near the site of the industry. A total of 20 cases have been filed against over 300 villagers, with some of them on serious charges like 'attempt to murder policemen'. Activists say that the accused column in most of these FIR’s read ‘X + others’, which is a license for the policemen to arrest any person at any time.

On April 21, in a bid to accentuate the struggle against the proposed food park, 10 activists, including two women, started an indefinite hunger strike. In response, the police allegedly arrested five people and ransacked the stage set for the hunger strike. Despite this, the protest forced the Sub-Collector of Narsapuram to concede to their demands of releasing the arrested persons as well as permission for starting the indefinite hunger strike. However, despite getting permission, the policemen allegedly lifted all the hunger-strikers on the evening of April 22.

Even before the 'mega' food park arrives, locals say they are already witnessing the pollution of ground water and irrigation canals in the region, due to fish tanks and aqua industries. Koyya Keerthana from Jonnalagaruvu, a Dalit hamlet, says, “For almost a year, the drinking water that we get from panchayat taps has been green is colour. We buy drinking water from Tundurru by spending Rs 30 on a 5 litre tin.”

Drinking water is a problem in almost all the surrounding villages where aquaculture is deeply entrenched since the early 1990s. “We use to drink water from Yanamadurru canal and Gosthani river till 1980s. They used to irrigate thousands of acres and also provide a livelihood to fishermen. However, the factories and industries changed the canal into a drain on official records, which gives them legal permission to release their waste into it. Now, you can’t even stand close to them.

It reeks of a pungent smell,” says Sekhar from Serayapalem. “Delta Sugars, Paper mills and other such factories owned by politicians including Gokaraju Gangaraju, BJP MP from Narsapur, are responsible for the loss of livelihood across 58 fishermen villages and thousands of farmers,” says Govindaswamy from Tokatippa.

The people in the villages of the catchment area of the Yanamadurru canal and Gosthani river have complained that their vessels turned black and that lung-related ailment are now common. They say that the banks of these canals are filled with dead turtles and fishes. “We have already lost Yanamadurru and Gosthani to industrial pollution. We don’t want the same to happen to Gontheru,” says Vasu. (The News Minute)

By Rahul Maganti

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