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Mumbai Power Fight

January 5th, 2010
08:28 PM ET
Activist Nergis Irani speaks with local Dahanu fisherwomen in the shadow of the power  plant.
Activist Nergis Irani speaks with local Dahanu fisherwomen in the shadow of the power plant.

CNN Dahanu, India
by Sara Sidner

Nergis Irani is like a pit bull; once she sinks her teeth into something she won't let go. That might explain why at 75 years old she won't back down from a fight that has spanned more than 20 years. The battle now pits the grandmother of three against one of India's most powerful corporations, Reliance Infrastructure, owned by one of the richest men in the world, Anil Ambani.

"He may be the richest in money but I am richest in integrity and commitment," Irani said with a steel gaze, "I don't see how we could lose."

Irani lives a three-hour drive away from the bright lights and big city of Mumbai in a lush beachside town called Dahanu. The town is known as the food bowl of the region sending its precious fruits and vegetables to feed Mumbai. But it also provides Mumbai's fast growing suburbs with something else. Dahanu is home to a coal-fired power plant that sits on its wetlands and pumps electricity into the city. That is where the fight begins.

Irani has fought to keep the power plant from expanding because she says its pollution is ruining the fragile ecology of her hometown and the region's "fresh food bowl."

"The destruction of our chikoo orchards, mango orchards, the coconuts. It is shocking how fast the change has taken place," she said.

In 1996 Irani through her organization won a battle in the Supreme Court when an order was entered designating the area "ecologically fragile."  The court order prohibited "construction of any kind within 500 meters of high tide," and no construction on the wetlands area as well as ordering the plant to convert from coal to cleaner natural gas.

The plant's owner since 2003, Reliance Infrastructure, did not respond to CNN's repeated requests for comment but in previous media reports has denied the plant damages the environment.  Even the 1996 Supreme Court order said, "we have no clear picture before us as to which of the industries are air polluting and are discharging effluent".

In a recent press release Reliance touted winning its fifth consecutive Environment Excellence award from the same non-profit group for the Dahanu plant. The release also said the plant has ample availability of required resources to add capacity and expand from 500 Megawatts to 1700 Megawatts.

Farmer Ajay Bafna, one of the largest farmland owners in Dahanu, is smoking mad over the possibility of tripling the plants capacity. He said he doesn't need a scientific study to prove what he and his family farm have experienced since the plant began operating.

"After the power plant came in, we are into major losses like there are lots of pests, there's lots of production downfall and we are into lots of debts,"  Bafna said.

He blames emissions from the plant, which he says he can feel in the form of warmer temperatures in Dahanu and see in the form of ash on his tree leaves some mornings. Something Reliance officials have denied in other media reports.

But Bafna says he knows what he says and production on his farm has gone down by two thirds not to mention his coconut and Chikoo trees are dying rapidly. The farmer said the short fall has landed his family in serious enough debt that some of the property his family has owned for 8 generations will likely have to be sold.

"If this goes on for next ten years you'll find in newspaper headlines one day that Ajay Bafna has hanged himself."

Some others who live off Dahanu's shores share that anger and fear.

"The big fish are no longer here. The waters seem warmer he continued.

Fisherman Deepak Keni said who has been fishing the waters for 11 years.

Fisherwoman Bharati Padghare reacted fiercely to the plant as she plopped dozens of tiny little fish over a bamboo poll to dry in the sun.

"If it expands any farther then we will take all of our fisher folks and the villagers and set the plant on fire. We won't even care if we lose our lives at least we will be happy that our children will live and eat peacefully We will never let it grow any farther," Padghare said.

No scientific study has proven the plant has caused any of the problems.

Ask anyone in the rural town if they want more power and they will all say yes. Padghare herself says more power is important to make life easier. But she also knows that the Dahanu thermal power plant does not provide power to Dahanu itself.

"Doesn't matter," says businessman Sanjiv Aggarwal who owns Raj Metal works in Dahanu.

"Already our state is starving of electricity. The more generation is there we will have less power cuts less problems, " he said.

Aggarwal says power in one of Dahanu based plants goes out for 6 hours per day and he looses thousands of dollars a month because of it. Business in Dahanu means jobs and he pointed out India needs more jobs for its people too.

The power plant he said "should not be opposed."

As India forges ahead trying to secure a place as a world power and meet the demands of a booming population hungry for a better life it wants to double its power capacity in less than a decade. How it does it is another matter.
Irani has a suggestion: "Go in for solar heating we've got all the sun in the world."

In her battle which is playing out between rural and urban environments across the developing world Irani argues the desire for more power by any means necessary is killing other important elements for a good life in countries such as her beloved India.

"We can do without television sets, we can do without cars, big houses, we can do without all this technical stuff," Irani said with an intense gaze, "but we can't do without food, or water and clean air. "


Filed under:  1
soundoff (17 Responses)
  1. Punit Yagnik

    Farmer suicides have around in India for a long time. The fact that it is getting more attention is because its getting more media coverage. A 1957 movie Mother India was on the same issue. Farmer suicides have had more to do with finances rather than globalisation. The side effects of globalisation (aka climate change, urbanisation, industrialisation) cannot be ignored. No suicide is justified but halting the pace of infrastructure is not the solution. Vandana Shiva's idea of natural agriculture is great, but India has more than billion mouths to feed and green revolution was a necessary evil. What we need is inclusive development another utopian idea but not completely impossible.

    January 5, 2010 at 9:05 pm | Reply
  2. Andrew Teo

    This whole thing about globalization is stupid. We have seen more negative impacts than positive. It creates energy-hungry industries and it caused labor and human rights violation. If people want to grow at a high rate and they want more electricity to power discos and factories, they should have the coal power plants in the middle of the city NOT in the rural areas because they are damaging the environment and destroying crops, livestock and fish which they badly need. I am glad there is a global economic crisis so that global demand decreases and unemployment rate increases. That way, people living in urban cities return to their rural homes to find out how how damage has been done due to the greed of business leaders and politicians. I truly admire what environmentalists like Nergis Irani are doing to speak up. Keep up the good work!

    January 6, 2010 at 2:50 am | Reply
  3. anubhav

    Mrs Irani is doing a good job, but India needs power too. creating too many impediments for the industrialists would not augur well for the power hungry India. there should be some way in between which needs to be explored.

    January 6, 2010 at 11:22 am | Reply
  4. latha rajamani

    The real culprit in case of farmers suicide is WTO powered by greedy first world countries forcing poor countries to sign baised free trade agreements so that they can dump their products into the poor countries as a consequence of which the local farmers dont get fair price for their products.This in turn leads to losses and consequently suicides. Vandana Shiva used to be a voracious opponent of WTO.

    January 6, 2010 at 11:38 am | Reply
  5. Anmol

    Anmol Dahanu
    I think the comment made by Mr Ajay is base less as the fruit which was plucked by him was rotten and chickoo fruit itself has a dusty deposit on it when it is on the tree the nature of the fruit is itself shown by the people dusting the fruits in gunny bags as shown in the interviev , yes Mrs Nargis Irani is a dedicated lady and does good for the environment ,even we the industrial people do not want the pollution but that does not mean that we should go to hell, he can speak whatever he wishes it is democracy but he has no point to curse any body who is making a living by running a industry employing tribal labour as it is only the one available and there are hundreds of small industries in this area who have provided employment to 50000 labour , I feel Mr Ajay has not gone through the pains of setting up the farm which he seems to just manage it and it seems he is just concerned about his world and does not realise he has a world outside which does not wish anybody hell

    January 6, 2010 at 12:30 pm | Reply
  6. Daphne Wysham

    A good story written about a valiant woman that leaves out one important culprit in this situation: The World Bank was the one that provided the finance for this power plant, in the name of "poverty allevation." They provided our public funds to essentially subsidize not only a polluting coal burner that is harming the surrounding landscape, but one that will result, ultimately, in more climate change. India will be devastated by runaway climate change. And they did it knowing full well that the greatest need for power by the poorest is in rural reas like Dahanu where renewable energy is actually more cost-effective. However, because they are essentially just another bank with far more power over governments in pushing a corporate agenda, they resisted all of the pleas of people like Nargis. They do this again and again, all over the world, against the advice of their own reports. They are truly unaccountable. I have been to Nargis' beautiful orchard. It is a travesty that our public funds are unwitting accomplices in this tragedy. For more information on this issue, see ips-dc.org/seen.

    January 7, 2010 at 3:51 am | Reply
  7. Percy Jamshedwala

    Well, all said and done the solution still remains a distant dream.

    Nobody is trying to project anybody in a negative way. The reasoning is that why are coal-based plants situated in such sensitive areas where there is a danger of the natural resources of the area being depleted. And all this when the aggrieved region is no beneficiary in this process.

    Also why isn’t somebody asking a question to the Company in question (REL) as to why in spite of the Hon. Supreme Court’s order (vide MoEF Notifications) does the Company keeps on asking for expansion from the current 500 MW to 1700 MW; why hasn’t the company shifted to Naturat Gas from Coal; why has the Company acquired much, much more land than actually required (if one compares the studies of such coal-based plants in UK, Russia & other countries) that too the wetlands which are precious, invaluable, natural resources for aquatic & other marine related economies.

    About the allegations and the relation between the Horticulturist and the Industrialists; one cannot ignore the fact that prior to the setting up of the present Coal-based Thermal Power Plant, there existed many small scale, ancillary industries which did co-exist (and presently still is) with the farm orchards since almost a century.

    So the questions that arise here are:
    1) Well, the Hon. Supreme Court had passed an order with suggestions to implement some of the recommendations of NEERI. WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE IMPLEMENTATION OF THE ORDER?
    2) The Notification already puts ban on expansion of the plant due to the sensitive nature of the area. Is the Company’s decision to push for expansion sensible?
    3) What about the “Polluters Pays” & the “Precautionary Principle” as set by the Hon. Court?
    4) Who is above: The Hon. Supreme Court or the Company / MoEF?

    If indeed there’s electricity crisis, then why doesn’t the government allot lands for the erection of such plants in areas where they are actually needed? How does one justify the act of setting up of Polluting industries in one area and supply the same to other areas?

    How funny it seems; On one hand Industrialisation gets precedence against Agriculture/Horticulture and on the other hand the prices of the agricultural produce keeps on increasing due to shortage; forget the degrading quality of what we actually get to consume. Is this the balance of econmy?

    January 7, 2010 at 9:23 am | Reply
  8. Ronnie - Chennai

    Very simple question! Why have the pests increased, the water got warmer, te fish catch reduced, the fly-ash coating on the trees, the ambient air temperature gone up...only after this power plant was commissioned?? There is no other such source in the area to cause these detrimental effects. Why cant these polluting plants be set up on dry waster-land which is in abundance?
    Its only the creature comforts of the people working there which need to be looked after, but the fertile lands will not get polluted. Its greed of not only the owners of the plants but also of the colluding politicians who allow these plants to be set up

    January 7, 2010 at 9:44 am | Reply
  9. Maneck Bhujwala, Huntington Beach, California

    I applaud Ms. Irani on her persistence to save the environment. I hope the Supreme Court will follow up on its ruling against the power plant expansion and its use of coal.

    Wetlands are very important in the ecosystem. In New Orleans due to the destruction of the wetlands, The gulf waters pushed by Hurricane Katrina were able to overrun the city. The wetlands provide a natural resistance to the flow of storm induced water surges.

    January 8, 2010 at 8:39 am | Reply
  10. mary

    I admire the courage of this grandmother fighting for the welfare of her land and its farmers-it is sad that so much environment should be destroyed because some people only think of money which you cannot eat and do not care about people nor animals.

    January 8, 2010 at 2:42 pm | Reply
  11. Porus N Dadabhoy

    City of India on the banks of Ganges.pps

    India calls the Ganges Mother but it abuses its environment, see above attachment.

    January 8, 2010 at 3:45 pm | Reply
  12. M

    Dahanu Rocks Woohooooo!!

    January 10, 2010 at 4:06 am | Reply
  13. Aresh M.

    We all know the corruption growth all over. So it is very well understood to the nation and the world that these big industries have their smart ways to hide and destroy evidence of their fault. For e.g, as they mention no scientific evidence have proved that the power plant is destroying the trees or the environment. I would suggest those so called big people to simply live/stay near a normal smoke for a week and keep breathing that after a week if they still need scientific evidence to prove their health hazards then they are super naturals.

    January 12, 2010 at 6:10 am | Reply
  14. Deepak Tralshawala

    The tragedy of the 21st century is that in its race towards industrialisation India has spared little thought for the traditional farmer. Special Economic Zones – SEZs as they are popularly called – have effectively usurped prime agricultural land and pushed the farmer into debt and robbed him of his livelihood. Yeilds have dropped due to pollution, prime examples being the delicious Ratnagiri Alphonso mango and the chickoo of Dahanu. Pollution laws exist only on the statute book and India continues to stagger under the fumes from industrial plants. Not a single industrial company has been prosecuted for flouting the clean air norms. Fortunately, India has a sprinkling of Nergis Iranis, Medha Patkars and Arundhati Roys and the Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh who care for the environment.

    January 17, 2010 at 1:45 pm | Reply
  15. Nazneen

    Dahanu is a beautiful town which has been a base for my family for years. I never understood why the power plant had to be situated in a green belt area in the first place. It is polluting the lungs of Mumbai. I understand progress needs to be made and Mumbai is forever expanding but there must be other ways of providing electricity and in other areas which don't have such an important ecosystem.

    January 18, 2010 at 9:59 pm | Reply
  16. Street Fights

    You need to consider that the median house will be different in 21 years. It (probably) won’t be a 3

    bedroom house in Mt Roskill. It might not even be a single family house (although I’d expect it will be). If

    population increases that far you’d expect either:

    a) a commensurate increase in the number of dwellings (with people per dwelling staying the same); or

    b) a less than commensurate increase in dwellings, with increasing numbers of people per dwelling (this

    would potentially lead to higher household incomes, and more rapid median price growth).

    *********************************
    jacky

    February 24, 2010 at 11:13 am | Reply
  17. Ardeshir

    The Dahanu area was once lush and green, and where several Irani families settled and farmed. The first chikoo fruit orchards were planted there after this fruit was introduced to India from South America. Since the early 70s, this area has been developed industrially to the detriment of the farmers. A few small rivers that provide water now run red with affluents from industrial plants. Sure India needs power, but coal power is detrimental to the environment. In the long run it will destroy the plant life, the very lungs of the earth. Politicians care only for votes and votes are to be had if jobs are created. But it is a short-term view. The solution can be to set up more nuclear power plants, just as France has done. Coal-fired pants are not sustainable and add to global warming and pollution.

    March 27, 2010 at 9:17 am | Reply

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