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May 06, 2014

India’s Idyllic Coastal Waters Threatened by Coal

The fight against big coal in India has gone bicoastal.

On the heels of the clash over Tata Mundra in the west, local fishing communities on the east coast are fighting back against a proposed 4,000-megawatt “Ultra Mega” coal-burning power plant near Cheyyur.

The Cheyyur project is slated to be built in Tamil Nadu on the very spot these local fishworkers have lived and fostered their livelihoods for decades.Their struggle and the increasing resistance to the proposed project has been highlighted in a recently released documentary from u-ra-mi-li that can be seen below.

From this unique perspective, the plight of the fishworkers has been contrasted against the background of their beautiful land.

The fishing communities, located between Chennai and Pondicherry, source most of their livelihoods from a combination of fishing and agriculture. Residents here rely heavily on the varied fish species in the area to supply fish for thousands of people in the cities of Cheyyur, Maduranthankam, Chengalpet, and Panaiyur.

The natural resources in the area -- including seagrass, mangroves, sand dunes, and estuaries -- provide an idyllic location for thousands of birds and millions of fish. The combination of these resources and the skills acquired over generations for fishing and farming have allowed the local people to thrive in this area for decades.

But the Indian government is seeking to disrupt their way of life with big coal.

The planned Cheyyur project, first proposed by a subsidy of the government-owned Power Finance Corporation -- Coastal Tamil Nadu Power -- would burn an estimated 45,000 tonnes of coal and generate 5,000 tonnes of toxic coal ash waste each day.

In addition to building the Cheyyur project, Coastal Tamil Nadu Power also plans to use over 1,000 acres to build a massive port to receive the coal, a 6.5 km conveyor belt, multiple pipelines, railroads, and an enormous coal ash pond. The port alone will introduce an estimated 310,000 tonnes of coal from around the world.

In an area heavily dependent on fishing and agriculture, the local people are justly worried.

“If this project materializes, it will affect the soil, environment, and agriculture,” one man said in the documentary. “The plants won’t grow buds. Flowering trees will not give proper fruit.”

“We don’t know how they will consume water,” another man added. “I worry that they will ruin our water resources and therefore our agriculture and our livelihood.”

The local people from the fishing villages were given no warning and no input as to whether the Cheyyur power plant will be built or not. In fact, the documentary reveals that the local people only heard of the project recently, nearly two years after the Ministry of Environment and Forests approved Coastal Tamil Nadu Power’s plan.

On top of that, it was not the government that notified the fishworkers but non-governmental organizations in the area who spread the word. When the government did eventually hold a public hearing about the coal project, they failed to advertise and ultimately prevented the few fishworkers who attended from voicing their concerns.

“There is no information at all,” one resident told the filmmakers. “No notice was given.”

“They just come, do what they have to do and go away,” another added. “They haven’t respected our village by letting us know about the construction.”

Though the government offered to pay the local residents a sum of money for their land, the people realize the natural resources they use every day are priceless.

“Whether [the money offered] is enough [...] doesn’t matter,” one local man exclaimed in the documentary. “There is no way we can leave this land and find another place. [...] No matter how much money you give us it will not be enough.”

“Electricity is extremely important for the growth of a country, of a state, and even for us,” one man commented. “But if it’s going to come at the cost of nature, then we will say no to it.”

Similarly to other coal projects in India -- like Tata Mundra -- the local people have begun to fight back. When a government-funded environmental impact assessment (EIA) was released in 2013 by the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC), it claimed that the area around Cheyyur consisted of flat, barren land and had no estuaries, surface or groundwater, little to no fishing, and no fish breeding grounds.

The local fishworkers quickly responded.  In conjunction with the Community Environmental Monitoring group (CEM) -- a local environmental organization from Chennai -- the fishworkers publicly disputed the report, calling out the “blatant lies” they say the EIA purported.

And while they may still have a long road ahead of them, ultimately the fishworkers and CEM hope to hold the EAC accountable for their false information and stop the development of the Cheyyur coal project. They’ve dedicated themselves to fight for their way of life, and want to provide a clean, viable future for the generations to come.

“We need this land to survive,” one man said.

-- Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club International Program

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