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Activist Nergis Irani Takes On Reliance in Dahanu

Activist Nergis Irani speaks with local Dahanu fisherwomen in the shadow of the power plant.

by Sara Sidner / CNN Dahanu, India

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.