An excavator dug up the earth in an open ground outside the town of Manuguru, around 300 kilometres north of Hyderabad. Trucks moved in and out, kicking up clouds of dust, as workers operated crushers and construction continued at full swing.

The Telangana government wants to build a 1,080 megawatts coal-fired thermal power project here. Activists have opposed the Bhadradri project on the grounds that it would cause social and environmental damage in the tribal-dominated, forested district of Khammam. Besides, they say, the proposed technology is not encouraged by the Ministry of Power for environmental and efficiency reasons.

The project is yet to get environmental clearance from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. Under India’s laws, construction of an industrial project cannot begin without environmental clearance.

Yet, the Telangana Power Generation Corporation has disregarded the laws and begun construction on the site, allege activists of the Human Rights Forum.

On December 15, based on the evidence submitted by the activists, the National Green Tribunal put a stay on further construction.

But, when this correspondent visited the site on December 24, excavators, trucks, crushers were still at work, despite the stay.

The chairman and managing director of the Telangana Power Generation Corporation, D Prabhakar Rao, claimed the construction was not directly related to the project. “Whatever is going on at the site is preparatory work like erection of boundary walls, which has been taken up to reduce the delay in the overall time,” he said. “We know that the work can’t be started without the Environmental Clearance. We will obtain it soon and start the work.”

But local residents and activists point out that the machines are at work deep inside the plot of land and not at its periphery. Once the boundary wall is complete, they say it would be impossible for anyone to keep track of the activities inside the project site.

When a government company violates the law

The continuing construction, the activists say, amounts not only to a violation of the National Green Tribunal’s orders, it breaks three laws: Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, and the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification, which is a sub-legislation of the Environmental Protection Act.

“The moot point here is the Telangana Power Generation Corporation is committing illegalities,” said VS Krishna, general secretary of the Human Rights Forum for Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. “Whoever is responsible should be made accountable for it.”

Under India’s laws, a state government body called the Pollution Control Board is responsible for enforcing environmental regulations. The Bhadradri project is being set up by the Telangana government, and the board appears to have relaxed its scrutiny.

“The environmental regulatory regime in Telangana state is in wilful slumber,” said Krishna. “By their inaction, the pollution control board and other officials are legitimising illegal activity. They too must be held criminally liable.”

When asked for a response to the allegations of inaction, the Pollution Control Board Member Secretary responded with: “Speak to the Telangana Power Generation Corporation.”

Why is Telangana in a hurry?

The government has justified the rush to build the project with the argument that the state badly needs the power. According to state government officials, Telangana incurs a steep financial burden because it buys power from other states. “The state has an acute shortage of power supply and the project is to meet the demand [for electricity],” said Rao.

“The present requirement in the State is around 7,300 megawatts whereas the capacity available is only 4,300 megawatts” wrote the government of Telangana in a letter to Ministry of Environment and Forests justifying the need for the Bhadradri Thermal Power Plant.

But activists question the choice of site for the project.

The land in the villages where the project is coming up is highly fertile, double-crop farmland. It is less than a kilometre from the Godavari river and just 10 kilometres from the Kinnerasani Wildlife Sanctuary. The forest department’s website boasts that the sanctuary is home to tigers, panthers, sambar deer, blackbucks and is also a breeding ground for marsh crocodiles.

As per the pre-feasibility report submitted by the Telangana Power Generation Corporation, ecologically sensitive areas like reserve forests of Cherla, Subbampet, Kondayyagudem, Kalavanagaram, Janapet near Gaddigudem village and Venkatraopeta fall within 15 kilometres of the project boundary.

There has been no study report yet on the ecological consequences of drawing water from the Godavari river.

The clearance process

In the project proposal it submitted to the Expert Appraisal Committee of the Ministry of Environment, the Telangana Power Generation Corporation set a deadline of two years for building the project. It obtained the terms of reference for the project, which is the first step in the process of getting an environmental clearance.

The next step would be to carry out an Environment Impact Assessment study, followed by a public hearing where local people would be given a chance to air their views on the project. Only after the completion of the hearing can the Ministry of Environment decide whether to give the project environment clearance.

In its submission to the National Green Tribunal, the Human Rights Forum pointed out that the project has skipped these steps, and, hence, the process of obtaining clearance should begin from scratch. “With the amount of illegal construction work which has begun already and the resulting changes that have happened to landscape and the prevailing environment, it is not possible to do the Environmental Impact Assessment study according to the Terms of Reference granted,” it said.

The Human Rights Forum is determined to approach the National Green Tribunal again.

Uncertainty for locals

Meanwhile, the local people in the area are anxious, with the project throwing their lives into uncertainty. Although three-quarters of the 1,100 acres of land proposed to be acquired for the project is owned by the government, local communities depend on it for farming and livestock rearing.

According to surveys done by the Human Rights Forum, the livelihood of nearly 1,200 families will be directly impacted by the project.

Only 800 families are officially entitled to the relief and rehabilitation package, which has been decided without local consultation. Nearly 150 families are yet to get the compensation, which includes assurance of a job to one of the family members.

A man in his fifties, who did not want to be named, said he had been given Rs 5 lakh for his two acres farm as part of the relief and rehabilitation plan.

“I was told that both my son and daughter will get jobs,” he said. “They are graduates. There is not much talk about jobs, but we are hopeful.”

As more than a dozen dumpers passed in front of his house in less than 10 minutes, he added, “All I have now is this small house. I will move out soon with my family as there is too much dust and it gets difficult to breathe.”