Sampur Thermal Power Plant: Cleansing for power
June 1st, 2008
Ethnic cleansing? No thanks, just cleansing for power
By Namini Wijedasa
Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) sources said last week that the proposed thermal power plant in Sampur will proceed on schedule despite strong rumblings over civilian displacement.
“A feasibility study being conducted by the National Thermal Power Corporation Ltd (NTPC) is due to be finished by December,” said a CEB official, speaking on condition of anonymity. The plant, which is estimated to cost US$500 million, is expected to be running by 2012.
The inhabitants of Sampur were forced to leave in 2006 after fierce battles between the military and army. They are now living in camps for the displaced. The government subsequently declared Sampur and surrounding areas as a High Security Zone (HSZ) and offered to relocate the displaced.
Sources in the East say most Sampur residents had fled the area in a panic, leaving behind documents including proof of ownership of lands. “The authorities are now pretending that these families had been planted there by the LTTE,” said one source, requesting anonymity. “Their houses have been flattened. But they had lived there for generations. The village is in Dutch records and Rajasinghe II, who built a replacement for Koneswaram Temple in Thampalakamam, assigned Sampur to perform certain services at the temple.”
Rajan Hoole from the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) pointed out that Sampur has developed ground water resources and had good agricultural land. “There is no really good reason to site the power station there,” said the official earlier quoted. “Nothing here has been discussed with the local people. No one is bothered about how it would affect the locality. The people were simply driven out by shelling and the government is not even bothered about how many it killed.”
“The people should be consulted and convinced that they would get a fair deal out of this,” Hoole maintained. “Everything about this is lies and dishonesty. On the one hand, the government maintains that no one would be displaced. Then it sends officials to meet the displaced in refugee camps and sign up for resettlement elsewhere purely on the basis of untested promises.”
It is learnt that persons displaced from Sampur have refused resettlement in the alternative sites offered to them. “This is because the alternatives offered are useless,” Hoole said. “One is Raalkuli, which goes under water when the Mahaweli overflows. The other place to the south doesn’t have water resources.”
Despite these concerns, it is evident that the government will proceed with the project-and that the Indian Government’s NTPC has settled on Sampur.
“The project is a joint venture between NTPC and Ceylon Electricity Board,” said Dinkar Asthana, Press and Information Counsellor at the Indian High Commission in Colombo. “Various locations regarding the choice of the project site have been under discussion. Our position has been that it should be decided on the basis of techno-economic feasibility. You may like to address all questions to the ministry of power and energy of Sri Lanka and the Ceylon Electricity Board.”
In 2007, Indian High Commission Spokesperson Nagma Mallick said: “It would be inaccurate to say a site in Sampur has been shown to NTPC or selected by NTPC in Sampur.” Amidst heavy protests from the LTTE and Tamil National Alliance over the selection of Sampur, another Indian source said at the time: “Of course, Sampur is out. It’s a controversial area that is not well located.”
CEB officials insisted that Sampur, which is in the southern part of the Trincomalee bay, was the most suitable site. “The government has a lot of other development plans for the upper bay, including tourist projects and a proposed expansion of the airport for civilian traffic,” said one official. “That is the main reason why focus was shifted from other sites to Sampur.”
“Large ships will have to bring imported coal to Sampur and the location is ideal because the sea is deep enough to let the vessels come quite near to the shore,” this official said, explaining why Sampur was deemed the most feasible spot. “In that sense, this site is far better than certain others we have been talking about from 1985.”
Asked about the displacement of civilians, this issue has to be resolved by the government. “In any case, a High Security Zone has been declared and nobody can live within the area, irrespective of the project,” he said.
Military Spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said that Sampur was a strategic location that had to be protected from the LTTE. “Even earlier, before we liberated Sampur, they had moved their heavy weapons, artillery and mortars into Sampur area,” he pointed out. “This is because from there they can engage any ship coming into and out of the Trincomalee harbour. They can disturb locations like Prima and engage almost all the jetties from Sampur with a heavy weapon.”
They can also operate their boats while suicide cadres can come into the harbour without being noticed. They did these things before and that’s why we took Sampur.” Asked why civilians cannot return to Sampur, he said: “If civilians go and live there, they will also slowly creep into the area. And they will stay like sleeping cadres with those families and start operating again.”
But detractors are furious. “In the first place, this project is environmentally contentious,” said one of the sources cited above. “Also, the land declared as a HSZ in Mutur East is about 20,000 acres, displacing about 16,000 people.”
“For a government which says it is devolving power to the East, there has been absolutely no consultation with the affected people,” Hoole criticised. “This is a disease, a form of communally based kleptomania for land that could be used by minorities. The government has taken enough land to build more than 50 coal power stations around Trincomalee. There is no real need to displace people in Sampur.”
“The people of Sampur have suffered enough under the LTTE which conscripted their children and had scores of them killed to prove its manly valour,” he stresesd. “Surely, these people deserve better from a government that claims to be theirs?”
Why India is involved
The Times of India said in an article titled ‘Electricity to power regional diplomacy’ on 10 May 2008 that starting off power projects is an important strategy of Indian diplomacy. “after connectivity, electricity is becoming a vital instrument in India’s foreign policy in the region.” writes journalist Indrani Bagchi.
She says this is part of an economic diplomacy project conceived by Jairam Ramesh, Pranab Mukherjee and Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon. “It involves helping neighbours like Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, (and who knows, Pakistan at a later stage) build power projects which will take care of local and Indian needs,” the journalist notes. She quotes senior government sources as saying that, “in many ways, it promises to shift the paradigm of regional diplomacy and regional development”.
In Sri Lanka, the government has just cleared two power plants in Sampur by NTPC, which will also provide power to a manufacturing Special Economic Zone by Mahindra & Mahindra.
“Meanwhile, India is already working on an undersea link with Sri Lanka that could help transmit power to Tamil Nadu,” Bagchi says. “At a cost of Rs 2,200 crore, the link will move from Anuradhapura to Talaimannar and then by submarine cable to Rameshwaram and onward to Madurai.” [lakbimanews.lk]
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