Proponents of the project refused to let those bringing up environmental and health concerns say their piece.
Kanamana (Ganjam district, Odisha): The much-awaited public hearing on August 16 to assess the environmental impact of the decision to set up of a captive thermal power plant and expand capacity by Saraf Agencies Pvt Ltd in Ganjam district, Odisha was mired in controversy. Many leaders including Gurudeb Behera from Badaputti, D. Kamraj from Lakhimpur and N. Dhanajay Reddy, the block chairman from Chhatrapur, were prevented from entering the venue of the hearing in Kanamana village and deposing before the panel that comprised additional district magistrate Bijay Kumar Das and state pollution control board officer, Mitrasen Majhi.
The ground in front of the gram panchayat office in Kanamana was full of women and men, young and old, who were seated under a shamiana. Despite the sweltering heat, there was a lot of enthusiasm among those waiting for the proceedings to begin. The large police presence perhaps also hinted at the possibility of a scuffle between the pro- and anti-project groups.
A one-sided public hearing
As soon as the proceedings began at 11 am, with panel members explaining the terms of references for the public hearing, young people in their late teens and early 20s captured the entire length of the daisle in the middle and the front rows near the dais, shouting and cheering enthusiastically, sometimes even threateningly so.
Depositions began soon after. A list of deponents seemed to be ready with the administration, and soon it became all too apparent even to us, who were there as observers, that only those who were to speak in favour of the project were being called on. Speaker after speaker spoke in favour of the project with much passion, using aggressive posturing that seemed to unnerve everyone present.
Then all of a sudden, something unexpected happened. When Digambar Pradhan from Kanamana village was called to the dias, he said, “It was only two years ago that all of us together had opposed the Ramakrishna Prasad Power Plant in Sriramchandrapur. What has changed in between that everyone is so happy with Saraf Agencies?” He even pointed out that those wanting to express their concern before the panel about the possible repercussions on the area’s environment and health hazards had been stopped at the gate and only people who were in favour of the company were being allowed in.
He had not yet finished speaking when the microphone was snatched from his hands and slogans such as ‘Jai titanium’ rippled through the crowd. Before the verbal abuses being hurled at him could escalate into physical violence, the police whisked him off and forcibly escorted him out of the premises. After that, it took a lot of persuasion from the police officer in-charge to calm the nerves of the agitated youth before the proceedings could be resumed.
Many young speakers expressed pride that the first titanium plant in the country would be set up in their Ganjam district. They went on to highlight the hope of employment prospects and listed the many different ways they thought the project would benefit them. One of the speakers even invoked the ‘Make in India’ dream of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ‘Make in Odisha’ dream of chief minister Naveen Patnaik. Another spoke of an imagined scenario where the people of the region did not have to migrate to far-off places like Surat, Mumbai or even Tamil Nadu and Kerala in search of livelihood opportunities. “We are very close to a bright future where we won’t have to anymore live with insecurity and in miserable conditions far from our homes,” he added.
Some villagers also expressed much appreciation for the company because it had continued to pay to its workers even when there was no work available due to an inordinate delay in the project. They said this was the only company in the region which had indeed, unlike others, provided local people with the jobs promised.
The sarpanch of the Kanamana panchayat, S. Chakrapani Reddy, said his view could be taken as the collective opinion of all the panchayats involved. “We all welcome the titanium plant in the region,” he said. In his capacity as the president of the Titanium Displaced Gramya Kalyan Samiti, he said that the company had done full justice to the displaced and was keeping its promise of providing employment as well. “Yet,” he said, “those who are in opposition to the plant are a handful of leaders, who have never been able to take responsibility of the people and their needs. They only rant about kidney ailments and environmental damage. It is actually such people who are bent upon kicking our rice pot.”
Trade union leader N. Duryodhan Reddy declared, “Only those who are opposed to humanity can oppose the plant. They are the real enemies of this land and its people.” Some went as far as to say that there would be bloodshed if the opposing parties thwarted the prospects of the plant.
Finally, the people who held contrarian views were given the chance to express their concerns. Ex MLA Ashok Chowdhury and Narayan Reddy cautioned the crowd about the implications of setting up a 15-megawatt thermal power plant, for which additional coal and water would be required. This would not only add to the air pollution, they said, but also cause water shortages when the agricultural sector was already under stress due to lack of irrigation facilities.
Narayan also spoke of the damage caused to people’s health and the environment already by Tata’s ferro-chrome plant and the public-sector company India Rare Earth Ltd. He drew attention to the possible leakage of monazite effluents into groundwater sources, causing health hazards.
Gurudeb Behera, a social activist, told The Wire, “At least 50 deaths due to kidney failure have taken place in the village of Badaputti over the last two years and another 200 cases of kidney ailments have been reported.”
Advocate S.K. Sahu said that the plant was welcome but it should not go the Tata way – acquiring fertile agricultural land and leaving it barren when there was already an agrarian crisis in the country; or keeping the youth of the villages waiting in perpetuity for jobs that never came.
However, these words of caution were drowned in the cacophony of support for the company.
Curiously, the prospect of employment, which dominated the proceedings, was in contrast to the April 2016 report circulated by the company explicitly stating that only 179 jobs would be provided.
The impact of the project on the environment and ecology of this fertile coastal belt is also certainly a matter of concern, as the Saraf Titanium Park is setting up several industrial units to manufacture high titanium slag, titanium dioxide pigment, ferro titanium, scandium oxide, rare earths and rare metal products.
Brief history of the project
Located just off NH5 in the Chhatrapur block of Ganjam district of Odisha, the Saraf titanium plant, touted as the first of its kind in the country, began production earlier this year with the target of producing 36,000 tonnes of titanium slag and 20,000 tonnes of pig iron annually.
The project was first proposed in 2005. It, however, remained jinxed for many years. In 2007, the company signed an MoU with two Russian state-run companies and a private entity after the visit of the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. By 2008, a joint venture with four partners, Titanium Products Private Limited (TPPL), came into being.
In 2009, 230 acres of land, of which 199 acres belonged to some 300 villagers from five village panchayats in the district, was acquired.
But soon afterwards, fissures began developing among its joint venture partners, primarily over the ‘controversial manner’ in which acquired land was transferred to Saraf Agencies alone by the Odisha Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation. The Russian partners vehemently objected to this and eventually backed out of the project, as they wanted the land to be in the name of the TPPL.
Saraf Agencies then entered into a fresh MoU with the state government in 2010 and began construction work, which went on for the next few years with a brief disruption of work during the devastating cyclone Phailin that hit the Odisha coast in 2013. The project got its environmental clearances in March 2016 and began production in early 2017.
In the public hearing that the administration carried out as a ritual obligation, many voices were clamped down, making the democratic process of a public hearing a sham.
Rajender Singh Negi is a freelance journalist, editor and translator based in New Delhi and Ranjana Padhi is a writer and editor based in Bhubaneswar.