The Power Plant Everybody Needs, But Nobody Wants
Land confiscated in Sampur has been returned and locals have moved back in. But so has the Ceylon Electricity Board, which is building a potentially destructive power plant next door.
Even before local girl, Krishnapillai Madhuwandana, was born, her life was clouded by war. The six-year-old, whose father is missing and whose mother became an internally displaced person during the Sri Lankan civil war, never heard fairy stories. Instead her mother, Jeyashanthi, told her stories about her home in Sampur, a district on Sri Lankan’s north eastern coats: Acres of paddy fields, canals that never dry out and a huge ocean.
Happily, thanks to the end of the war and the repatriation of the displaced to their former homes, Krishnapillai was able to return to this “dream land” her mother had told her so much about. However, now there is a new cloud on the small family’s horizon – and it is a cloud made up of smoke coming out of a coal-fired power plant.
The coal-fired Sampur power plant, a joint project between India and Sri Lankan authorities, has been controversial here since contracts for its construction were first drawn up, back in 2006. After the end of the civil war in the region, a large parcel of land was allocated for the building of a power plant, a naval yard and an industrial park. The displaced people of the area were not considered and many felt that their land was effectively confiscated.
If not all of the approvals have been granted, then why has construction started on walls and fences and roads to the power plant?
However the Sir Lankan government led by Maithripala Sirisena decided to return much of this land – 1,052 acres – to the Tamil farmers who were claiming it – the process was to be completed by April 2015. However much to the disappointment of many of the displaced, the land for the power plant would not be returned. In fact, the power plant was to go ahead, despite much protest from locals and environmentalists.
People are disgusted by this move, says Kumaraswamy Nageswaran, a senior politician representing the Tamil National Alliance in eastern Sri Lanka, who has also acted as a representative for the displaced from Sampur.
“When Maithripala Sirisena came, some of the lands were returned,” Nageswaran says. “But those taken for the power plant were not. We have already been battered by war. We are only asking that we not be made destitute again.”
The displaced who lost their land are not the only one protesting the power plant’s presence. Sri Lankan environmentalists say that the decision to build was made without proper research into the environmental impact of the plant.
Local environmentalist Hemantha Withanage, who is also the founder of Sri Lanka’s Centre for Environmental Justice, has pointed out that for the plant to produce the 500MW of power as planned, it will burn a lot of coal and in turn produce a lot of ash and smoke. Hot water used in the plant would also be released into the surrounding sea.
Withanage has demanded that more feasibility and impact reports be produced.
He is not the only one whose arguments against the power plant are environmental. Fishing in the area is also going to be severely affected by the power plant, notes Ananda Peiris, the coordinator of the Trincomalee District Fisheries Solidarity movement; Trincomalee is the district in which the town of Sampur is located.
“The release of hot water from the power plant is going to destroy the special conditions that allow us to fish here all year round,” Peiris said. “This will be a deadly blow to the fishing industry here in Trincomalee.”
Farmers in the area also had grave concerns about the impact of the power plant on their livelihoods.
“This plant was not originally supposed to be built here,” said the chairman of the Muttur People’s Council, A.W. Mohammed Jihad – Muttur is another town in the Trincomalee district. “Right now dust from the cement factory and the flour factory is making people here ill. Why is the government trying to steal our right to life?”
Countering criticisms from all of these parties, the General Manager of the Ceylon Electricity Board, M.C. Wickremasekara, said that a feasibility report had actually been prepared. It had been available for public commentary and criticism for 45 days after which it was sent to Sri Lanka’s Central Environmental Authority for further approvals.
The Ceylon Electricity Board’s opinion is that it would be best to complete the building of the power plant without delay, so that Sri Lanka’s power problems can be addressed.
However the Environmental Impact Assessment report that was approved by the Central Environmental Authority has come under plenty of criticism too, with locals saying that the report was manipulated and gives misleading impressions about long-term damage to the eco-system and about the usage of the surrounding land; as one local pointed out, the report, which was compiled by an Indian company, suggest that the land around the power plant is vacant.
Additionally the Central Environmental Authority has also stated that the power plant should not be discharging hot water into the ocean and that it must find a different method of disposing of this by-product.
If not all of the approvals have been granted, then why has construction started on walls and fences and roads to the power plant? politician Nageswaran asks. Who has approved this?
Back on the beach, near the boundary that marks where the villagers’ land ends and the power plant begins, Krishnapillai Madhuwandana is playing in the sand, pretending to cook.
“Our lives were put on hold because of war,” her mother tells. “We look older than we are, the evidence of what we’ve been through. I just don’t want my daughter to suffer the same way I did.”