On a balmy April afternoon, a breeze sweeps through the closely packed houses of the fishing village of Gangavaram along the Visakhapatnam coast in Andhra Pradesh. It carries fine particles of coal dust that it deposits in homes to form a fine layer on objects.
“See how the trees on that hillock are blackened with coal dust,” said Sreenivasulu, a local resident who works as autorickshaw driver.
“Gangavaram used to be very prosperous. Because of the port, many are struggling with various diseases. Coal dust from the port sweeps into our area and settles on every surface. Even if we put a lid on water utensils, the dust goes inside,” he said.
For the approximately 20,000 voters of Gangavaram, pollution is a major issue, as a result of which it is one of the core issues of Jana Sena chief and actor Pawan Kalyan’s election campaign. Kalyan is contesting from Gajuwaka, which is Andhra Pradesh’s largest assembly constituency in terms of electorate (over 3 lakh voters) and includes Gangavaram.
The Jana Sena chief has a solution for Gangavaram: he has promised to shift the approximately 6,000 homes to a pollution-free zone. Gangavaram has already moved once before. Nearly four decades ago, the village, mainly consisting of fisherfolk, was moved to its present location when the state-owned Visakhapatnam steel plant was built.
Not everyone is opposed to a move. Lakshmi, who was mopping the floor of her two-room house, showed the water that was black with dust.
“We are struggling because of the pollution. Coal dust is settling on the food we cook and the water we drink. Even if we wash clothes it is the same. It is very inconvenient. Hope they remove this village and shift it elsewhere,” she said.
Most of the cargo handled by the Gangavaram Port Limited (GPL) is coal. Data for 2018 showed that of the 22.49 mn tonnes of cargo that passed through the port, 16.21 mn tonnes was coal. Respiratory ailments and other health conditions caused by pollution have been topics of debate in the area since the port’s opening in 2009.
“The main problem is transport vehicles. Chunks of coal fall off trucks and get crushed under the tyres. These get carried by the wind,” said R Lakshmi Narayana, an environmental engineer with the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Board.
Narayana said the port uses a number of measures to curb air pollution. The port authorities also installed air quality monitors in the area to check the particulate levels in the air.
For the month of February this year, the port website said the average PM 10 level was 30 and the average PM 2.5 level was 24. However, Narayana said the figures noted during inspections was between 85-90 for PM 10.
The Gangavaram Port Limited (GPL) management said the pollution control board officials visited on March 31 and reported that PM10 levels at 3 places were 45, 59 and 31, which are much below the statutory norms (100 micro grams / cum).
Village seeks better medical facilities, jobs
Another issue in the village is the lack of medical facilities to deal with the pollution-related ailments.
“There is no hospital here. Whenever a politician comes, they set up a camp and take us to a hospital in a bus, if needed. The nearest hospital is in Gajuwaka,” said PV Tatapai, a 55-year-old fisherman.
Jobs, or the lack of them, also figure high in the demands of the local residents. They say that during the development of the port area a wall was built around it and cut off access to the beach.
“They did not allow us to go into the sea by building a wall. They stole our livelihood. They said they will give jobs but only those with influence got them,” said Dhanraj, a 35-year-old fisherman.
As part of the rehabilitation package, the fishermen were promised jobs and a jetty would be built at a cost of Rs 10 crore at Yarada beach, nearly 10 km away.
The proposal was met with resistance with the fishermen insisting that the jetty be built at Nallamarammapatalu, at the foot of the Yarada hill. They argued this would save them a journey around the hill to reach the beach. There is presently no jetty at both locations.
“The construction of jetty is part of R&R package and it is the responsibility of Govt. of Andhra Pradesh as per the Concession Agreement. GoAP has constructed Fish Landing Center (FLC) at Yarada beach and also laid road from Gangavaram village to FLC,” GPL said in a statement.
Authorities from the port say they provided 295 jobs to villagers, and 297 to those from Dibbapalem, another village affected by the project that is 3 km away. Those provided with jobs, villagers alleged, were hired on contract at a salary of around Rs 8,000 per month.
However, a recipient of a job alleged he had been receiving the same salary for the last 10 years. “My salary should have been Rs 30,000 by now with my experience. I am made to do menial jobs. There is no growth in my role,” the employee said, on condition of anonymity.
The GPL rejected the allegation saying all fishermen were hired on a permanent basis and they are appraised annually.
“The GPL has promised and provided 600 jobs. They are not on contract but on regular basis. Ever since they had joined the Port, GPL has been giving annual increments not less than 7 to 10% every year,” the GPL management said.
CPM State Secretariat member, C H Narsing Rao, blamed port authorities for turning a blind eye to the demands of the village fishermen. “The port wants to construct a jetty in Yarada, but it is not a convenient place. The villagers lost their livelihood, only 600 of them got jobs, how will the rest survive?” he said.
But he’s not convinced the Jana Sena chief’s solution is a viable one.
“Shifting the village will be a problem. It is not a simple thing,” Rao said.
TDP’s Palla Srinivas Rao, who is the MLA from the constituency, said even the state government could have moved the village.
“Pawan Kalyan said he will shift the village. There are almost 6,000 houses. If the government wishes to it can do it, but is it feasible is the question,” he said.
A Gangavaram resident said that a lot of residents had voted for the TDP in the last election.
“He (Srinivas Rao) promised to work for the fisherman, provide them jobs and assured the construction of jetty. A few fishermen got jobs but others did not get anything in the last five years. Ever since the port wall came up, many fishermen lost their livelihood,” said the resident, who did not wish to be named.
It might explain why some residents hope this election will change things.
“Most of them here feel Pawan Kalyan will win and will do something for our village. We are poor and suffering. If Ganga wishes we eat or else stay hungry,” said GH Guvaiya, a 53-year-old resident.