Seven years after the 2004 tsunami,with the coastal communities in Tamil Nadu yet to reconcile with its after-effects, another disaster is gradually unfolding. A massive relief and rehabilitation campaign, largely driven by private aid with the state playing a mere regulatory role, has opened up the coast for investment, making it a most attractive zone for a new kind of disaster capitalism with ultra mega industrial projects of ports,thermal power plants and petrochemical industries. An investment-led growth regime is descending on the 1,076 kilometrelong coastline spread over 13 districts of the state.
In the district of Cuddalore alone, along the 30 kilometre-long coast from Cuddalore Old Town to Parangipettai, roughly about 8,000 acres of land have been acquired since 2006 for an oil refinery, three thermal power plants, one shipbuilding yard, a textile processing unit with a common effluent treatment facility,and three captive ports.The combined investment in these projects will be about Rs 50,000 crore. South of Cuddalore, in the Sirkali,Tarangambadi and Kizhaiyur talukas of Nagapattinam district, which incidentally saw the most intense post-tsunami rehabilitation efforts, three captive ports and 12 thermal power plants together producing 14,700 MW of power are planned in the next three to five years. Further down, the Tuticorin coastline is to be lined with 16 power plants with a capacity of more than 20,000 MW. Between just these three districts Tamil Nadu would have about 50,000 MW of power-generating capacity by 2017.
Land acquisition along the coast started in 2006 and continued through the subsequent years even as the coastal zone policy agenda shifted from regulation to management. With the state focusing entirely on exercising its power of eminent domain,a brokerage class of political patrons,organised along the lines of local lineage and caste kinship, has emerged to substitute for the state and mediate for capital.This brokerage class also anticipates acquiring contracts for supply of labour, transport, construction materials, etc. This class works in combination with the state machinery to ease the work of the state and capital. For example, it identifies parcels of land for the investor, goes from door to door promising people jobs, and often encourages revenue officials to open land registration offices at midnight to ensure instant transactions with farmers who have just provided their “consent”.
New Politics, Old Tensions
Unlike before, when the political parties competed with each other to take up people’s issues, there is a new scenario today where people have to form their own collectives and run from pillar to post,pleading and petitioning the politicalparties to take up their cause. Farmers who lost land formed such “grievance collectives” which spanned class divides – in the village of Panchankuppam in Cuddalore district, the erstwhile mirasidar owning more than 10 acres of land as well as a widowed old woman with her 27 cents were part of the same collective. Some got relief from the judiciary while the leaders of other groups cut private deals with industry and left the landowners in the lurch.
One of the reasons for the formation of such collectives has been the need for im¬mediate organising to defend village com¬mons from the new enclosures. For in¬stance, the fisherfolk of Velingarayanpettai village in Chidambaram taluk, Cuddalore district, were shocked when they were told that 159 acres of their common beach land had been leased out by the Tamil Nadu Maritime Board to the Good Earth Shipyard. In the neighbouring villages of Panchankuppam and Karikuppam, the IL&FS Tamil Nadu Power Company, pur¬portedly a public sector-sponsored special purpose vehicle, has covered the irriga¬tion channels, the Buckingham Canal and even a school playground, laying roads on them for their heavy trucks. When their brave efforts to protest through peti¬tioning, dharnas, picketing and hunger fasts are blissfully ignored by the authori¬ties or countered by false cases being foisted on them, they have worked out innova¬tive and yet age-old ways to block the en¬croachment of their commons. Often sub¬scriptions are raised to hire the excavator JCBs to dig up roads and fields to stop the trucks and cranes of the contractors from entering their village.
Amidst all these struggles, further con¬tradictions emerge. Dalit marginal farmers in the village of Kaarappidagai and the adjacent Stalin Nagar in Kilaiyur taluk of Nagapattinam district question the credi¬bility of the caste Hindu aquaculture farmers in leading the local movement against the proposed Tridem Port and Power Company. They say it is aquaculture which destroyed their irrigation system in the tail end of the deltaic zone. Now since power plants threaten aquaculture, these aquacultur¬ists have become leaders to oppose the company. The dalit farmers say that when they had protested against aquaculture, they were harassed and beaten up by the same people who now want them to join the struggle against the power plant.
Tool for Appropriation
All the acquisitions of land have been based on the formality of the public hear¬ings, which themselves are based on the “Executive Summary” of the environ¬mental impact assessment (EIA) reports, prepared by contractual expertise. Not a single EIA report has mentioned the neces¬sity of a cumulative impact assessment study on the entire Cuddalore coast, which will have to carry three ports (six break¬waters), four thermal power plants with their respective desalination plants, a tex¬tile processing unit, a shipbuilding yard, along with an already existing industrial cluster, the SIPCOT chemical complex. The latter has been ranked 16th among the most critically polluted areas in the country in a study conducted by none other than the Central Pollution Control Board.
The EIAs also blatantly lie. The EIA report of the Good Earth Shipbuilding yard claims that the fishermen of Velingarayan¬pettai panchayat fish only 10 kilometres beyond the project zone and hence there will be a zero impact on them due to the shipyard. But this in a village dominated by artisanal fishermen without a single trawler. It does not care to mention the al¬ready present crises in the region’s fisheries, with serious depletion of resources amidst overcapacity and rising conflicts within the community, a common scenario in the post-tsunami fisheries in this part of the coast. In the Perumalpettai fishing hamlet near Tarangambadi (Tranquebar), the fisher¬folk have been at the receiving end of a naphtha-based private power plant which uses sea water as coolant and discharges hot water back into the sea and thus has destroyed the marine life resources along this part of the coast, which has tradition¬ally supported about 4,000 fishing families. When fisherfolk from this area try and base themselves in the nearby Nagoor port, they are being chased away and there have been frequent clashes among members of the fishing community them¬selves over fishing territory. This stretch, if the proposed projects are implemented, will soon have three power plants with a total capacity of 3,680 MW, each with their own desalination plants and a cap¬tive port under consideration, spread over 2,800 acres of land.
Legal violations are common too. The fisherfolk of Velingarayanpettai village decided to boycott the public hearing held for the Good Earth Shipyard since they were not even informed about the hearing and no impact assessment report in Tamil was circulated. The company paid Rs 500 per head to attend the public hearing. However, the gathering became a stage to mobilise public opinion against the credi¬bility of not just the EIA report but also the very intentions of the government. The people came to know at the hearing that the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly in its budget session of the previous year had sanctioned the construction of a super¬phosphate factory by the same company on the same premises as the proposed shipyard. This information was passed on by the local member of the legislative assembly who belonged to the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Everyone, in¬cluding the district collector who was pre¬siding over the public hearing, was shocked since the Tamil Nadu Maritime Board’s lease agreement for the 159 acres of common land to this firm and the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) clearance clearly stipulate that the agreement will be null and void if the land is used for any other purpose. To add to the illegality, it is the same department’s head who also moved the resolution in the state assem¬bly, allowing the superphosphate factory. The collector was forced to conclude the hearing by a public announcement that there was a unanimous opposition to the shipyard!
The Struggles Continue
Since the 2004 tsunami, this coast has wit¬nessed numerous popular struggles and campaigns. These struggles have been against aquaculture, against the displace¬ment of fishing communities beyond the 500-metre line immediately after the tsu¬nami by the then Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, against the M S Swaminathan authored Coastal Management Zone rec¬ommendations and the CRZ Notification of 2011. All these struggles were spear¬headed by the fishing community but it appears that the challenge before the entire coastal population requires a uni¬fied alliance of all communities – fisher families, marginal agriculturists and landless labour along with several other occupational communities.
Such unity within the village seems to fragment under pressure from the new economic regime. The landed peasant incessantly looks for and constitutes his own grievance collectives and sometimes manages to get some compensation for the land lost. The compensation ranges from a few ten thousand rupees per acre to, in rare cases, more than Rs 10 lakh per acre, depending on the needs of the project and the peasants’ negotiating skills. The landless and the fisherfolk are left with no choice but to realign them¬selves with these collectives led by the landed peasantry, even if with guarded scepticism. They stay at the margins, yet add to the numbers.
When these projects are justified in the name of “national development”, it is com¬mon to hear opinions like “we” need power or even that the alienation of the landless, the fisherfolk and the marginal agricul¬tural classes is a necessary evil for the na¬tion’s progress. This vicarious nationalism of such a “we”, which often tends to trans¬gress ideological boundaries fails to repre¬sent the alienated classes in any meaning¬ful democratic manner.
In a recent demonstration in front of the Cuddalore collectorate demanding an end to the appropriation of commons by private capital and for a cumulative EIA by the state through a credible, public institution of science, some of the tensions mentioned here were evident. One could almost touch and feel the cautious, guarded sensibility of the representatives of the affected villages. Some of them were holding a microphone for the first time in their lives and were totally uncertain whether to use a chaste, literary Tamil on a public platform or to vent their anger in their own spoken Tamil. Immediately after the event, after the col¬lector was petitioned, bills for the sound system and the tent were settled with frantic, desperate drives to collect Rs 4,000 from the assembled villagers. Then there were several groups in a huddle discuss¬ing the latest news about deals cut at the behest of “the minister” who already is the benami contractor for supplying con¬struction material to a power plant. As we were leaving Cuddalore, this minister’s kin had beaten two youngsters who blocked the trucks passing through their villages. One more trip to the police station, demands to file an FIR and back to the villages, mobilising money to hire a JCB the next day to dig out the road laid on the commons. The struggle continues.
(Senthil Babu (email@example.com) is a historian of science and an activist working with peoples’ movements in Tamil Nadu.)