India’s Sri Lanka power project runs into Tamil storm

May 10th, 2008 - 12:02 pm ICT by admin  

By M.R. Narayan Swamy`
New Delhi, May 10 (IANS) An Indian project that seeks to provide electricity to Sri Lanka’s war-hit east has run into rough weather amid allegations that it will displace Tamils who have lived in the area for generations. Indian arguments that the coal-based plant is meant to benefit locals in Trincomalee are having no effect on rights activists and the thousands who fled the region after fighting between the Tamil Tigers and the military.

India’s National Thermal Power Corp (NTPC), the sixth largest thermal power generator in the world, will build a 500-MW thermal plant in Sampur, a large and populous fishing village overlooking Trincomalee port.

“The project will pave the way for affordable electricity to the people of the region and take India-Sri Lanka ties to a new level,” NTPC Chairman and Managing Director Ram Sharan Sharma told IANS.

Involving a $500-million investment, a joint venture company of the NTPC and the Ceylon Electricity Board will implement the project spread over 500 acres of land. A jetty is also to come up in Sampur.

It will be one of the largest infrastructure investments in Sri Lanka.

But these statistics have no relevance for those who lived in Sampur until last year when the military seized it from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) after heavy fighting that left at least 350 civilians dead and hundreds injured and depopulated the area.

The authorities have declared Sampur a High Security Zone, making it out of bounds for civilians, most of whom now live in refugee camps in the neighbouring district of Batticaloa.

“We are desperate to get back to Sampur, to our homes, but it seems this will remain a dream,” a Tamil inmate of a refugee camp who did not want to be identified by name told IANS over telephone from Batticaloa.

A Tamil rights activist, who too did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals, was blunt in saying the Indian decision to pick Sampur for the power project had added to the people’s misery.

“I have interacted with Indian diplomats (in Colombo) and am certain they are very sensitive to the human rights and humanitarian issues. But if India is involved in this, it will be a grave disappointment, even a terrible scandal,” the activist argued, speaking on the telephone.

The issue has united almost all sections of Tamils - those who back the LTTE and those who don’t.

“The NTPC project will affect a large number of people,” said K. Thurairetnasingham, a Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP from Trincomalee, speaking from Sri Lanka. The TNA is allied to the LTTE.

“We have conveyed our feelings to Indian diplomats. Our people cannot accept this,” he added. “This is where our forefathers lived. It is the only land in a largely dry area with water resources suitable for cultivation.

“We are not saying we don’t want the project. But why build it in an area that will force Tamils to give up for ever their ancestral land?”

Added a Tamil political leader in Colombo who opposes the LTTE: “This is a good way to ease Tamils out of Trincomalee; it is a process that has gone on for decades so that Trincomalee will become fully Sinhalese one day.”

In a bid to keep away Tamils from Sampur, activists say that the displaced residents are under pressure to resettle in two places, including at Raalkuli, near the river Mahaveli that overflows during monsoon.

“The government is sending village headmen to get the signatures of the displaced, suggesting that if they don’t take this, they will get nothing. This is blackmail.”

An NTPC official said the project was to originally come up at Nilaveli, also in Trincomalee. But that area was dropped after the locals protested.

“The new site (Sampur) was chosen in consultation with Sri Lankan authorities. If people are going to object to every area, where can the project come up? People should realise that this project will provide them jobs,” the official said.

Another NTPC official, however, said he was not aware of objections to the Sampur site.

A Tamil source said India originally wanted the project at Nilaveli. But it went with Sri Lanka and chose Sampur after Colombo reportedly threatened to hand the project over to China.

Argued a Tamil rights activist: “Already people can see that their homes in Sampur are being bulldozed. This would not happen if the affected people were Sinhalese.”

Said another activist in Colombo: “India is getting involved in a highly controversial project. The rights of the people are not being respected.”

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