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Wasteland is best-land

Aug 31, 2011

India is ignorant to the true value of its 'wastelands', says veteran environmentalist Sunita Narain. She argues that absence of a suitable assessment framework, vested interests and short-sighted policies are destroying highly productive land in the name of progress.

We were standing at the edge of what looked like a swamp — there were grasses, pools and streams. On one side there was land heavily barricaded with high walls, barbed wires and armed security. A board read: East Coast Energy, Kakarapalli. A bloody battle had taken place in this village in Andhra Pradesh a few months ago. People protesting against the takeover of their wetland were shot at and three of them lost their lives. Now the site of the 2,640 Mw thermal power plant is under siege — locked and in court.

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Looking at the faces around me – a group of some 50 journalists from leading newspapers from across the country – it was clear that none of us could understand this battle. Why were those people fighting for this piece of wetland, which was neither private land nor rich agricultural land? The people, mostly fisher folk, were obviously poor. Then why were they on a hunger strike, which had now crossed a year? Why were they so belligerent that they were willing to lay down their lives?

We then met a group of farmers from a neighbouring village. In Sompeta a proposed 2,640 Mw coal power plant – this one by Nagarjuna Construction Company – had been similarly fought off. Here, too, a bloody battle had taken place in which people lost their lives. The matter has been suspended; the environmental clearance has been cancelled. But the company wants the site. The people say they will fight to the death.

These are today's battles. I could see that though all of us were moved, we were unable to comprehend what was going on.

On our drive to the village through Srikakulam district, we were shown sites proposed for a nuclear plant, a pharma and chemical city and numerous thermal power projects. It was a massive takeover and understandably so. This is coastal India, where the land meets the sea. This land frontier is ideal for new growth projects. There is ample water for nuclear plant's huge cooling needs; there is easy access to imported coal for thermal power projects and chemical plants can dump their toxic waste into the sea without having to invest in expensive treatment systems.

There is another advantage. The government holds large parts of land, which means companies do not have to go through the messy land acquisition process. Moreover, they can obtain property at throwaway prices. This land is variously classified in government records — from tampara (swamp) to poramboke (wasteland) to bela (wetland). Whatever the classification, it underscores that the land has no real economic value and can, therefore, be easily given away at cheap rates.

This is where policy gets practice fundamentally and fatally wrong. This is not useless wasteland, as the revenue office described it while giving it to the thermal power company for a pittance. This is highly productive land, both in terms of its ecological functions and economic uses. But we cannot, or won’t, see this because it is not in our interest.

Consider this. This dead swamp is a living sponge, which soaks water, reducing the intensity of floods; the delicately maintained freshwater balance reduces the advance of salinity, which can infiltrate groundwater and ruin drinking water sources. This is a living ecosystem. It plays critical life functions.

These “wastelands” are fertile because they provide livelihood benefits. In Sompeta the bela provides water for irrigation and drinking. In both villages fish catch is an important economic opportunity. It is another matter that the fisher folk in our eyes look poor and desperate for a makeover. But this is their life and the water body is their common asset, which provides them jobs and gives them money to put food on the table. These benefits cannot be discounted.

The problem is lack of policy to protect the interests of water. The environmental impact assessment has limited brief for water issues, or so it would seem. In Kakarapalli and Sompeta the appraisal reports termed the land barren and non-fertile wasteland. The data were collected during summer when water was at its lowest level.

No legal protection exists for water bodies. The Forest Conservation Act provides protection for forests and, incidentally, protects the land where streams and rivers are born. Today, the water structure is invariable common property, which can be taken apart. Its land use can be changed in revenue or municipal records at the stroke of a pen. It can be mutilated and dismembered.

The people of Kakarapalli and Sompeta are teaching us a lesson for future survival. Listen to them before it is too late. There should be no choice here — water and the life it gives are more important than any industry.

Sunita Narain is the Director General of Centre for Science and Environment and editor of Down To Earth

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