Suryanarayana Reddy and Rajamma are salt pan labourers in the village of Chinnaganjam; they have three buffaloes which supplement their meagre earnings of less than Rs.70 a day. The two occupations together have held the family together, albeit only around the poverty line. Now, even this limited livelihood is under threat, and Reddy's family, along with some 6000 other families living in 11 villages of the Chinnaganjam mandala of Prakasam district in Andhra Pradesh, may lose their livelihoods as salt-makers and milk-producers, if the Andhra Pradesh government and Snow White Salts, a salt-making company, have their way.

The bone of contention is a 565-acre stretch of fallow land, which is surrounded by the 11 above-mentioned villages, with a population of around 30,000. The people of these villages have been using this land as an aquifer for ground-water recharge and as a pasture for some 22,000 heads of their cattle. Ever since the land was leased out by the Andhra Pradesh government to the company for commercial salt manufacturing, the residents of these 11 villages have been agitating against the move, on the ground that a commercial salt factory on this land will deprive the villages of drinking water and all forms of livelihood, including salt-making, the thriving milk production in the area, and also agriculture.

Reddy, for instance, will lose his buffaloes right away if the factory comes up. He says, "We are poor people. We are able to maintain the buffaloes only because they graze on this land. If we have to buy fodder, the cost of milk will rise so much that no one will want to buy it. We will have no recourse except to sell the buffaloes."

Reddy's village will lose its only drinking water source instantly too. "There is a sweet-water pipeline from a well located on this land to our village, which is the village's only source of drinking water. If salt is manufactured on this land, the water will turn brackish and we will have no drinking water left", he adds.

The situation is similar in all the other villages surrounding the leased land. Says M Venkateshwaralu, a salt-maker from the village of Kukkalavaripalam who is active in the anti-Snow White struggle, "Everyone in these villages has some cattle, and no one can afford to buy fodder. Take my village. Some 2000 heads of cattle from my village alone will be deprived of grazing land if the factory comes up." According to Ventateshwaralu, the situation is the same in all the villages. "The entire milk-trade in the area is sustained by this land. Without it this trade will become unsustainable."

While the regional and state pollution boards gave decisions against the factory, which, they said, would damage the local eco-system, it was the Central Pollution Control Board, located at NEERI, Nagpur, which finally gave a decision in favour of Snow White.

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Since the aquifer for the area's drinking and irrigation water needs lies below this land, manufacturing salt will also contaminate the ground water. Says Swami Reddy, convenor of the local organisation Snow White Salts Vyathireka Porata Committee (SWSVPC), under which banner the local people are agitating, "The plan for the salt factory includes an eight-foot deep reservoir for sea water on about one-third of the land, while the rest of the land will be converted into salt pans. With such large-scale salt-making work going on on this land, the ground water in the entire region will be contaminated and the land rendered unfit for cultivation."

According to Swami, the factory will also impact the marginal salt-making community in the area. "Some 90 per cent of the people in these villages are in one way or another involved in salt-making activities, either as salt manufacturers, labourers, retailers and so on. Once Snow White starts manufacturing A-grade salt, it will absorb all the labourers, traders and even the customer base, forcing the 2000-or-so independent salt-makers in the area to close down." Swami himself is a salt-farmer and cattle-owner.

The struggle for this piece of land is an old one. When the lease was first granted in 1999 by the then Telugu Desam government, the entire Chinnaganjam mandala witnessed an intense agitation by local people, demanding cancellation of the lease. Two people were killed in police firing during one such agitation in 2000, after which work on the salt unit came to a stop. In 2003, the lease on the land was finally cancelled by the government. But Snow White Salts challenged this decision in court and approached the regional, state and national pollution control boards, and as a result of this, in May 2007 the court cleared the lease. This has caused the agitation to flare up again.

Funnily enough, while the regional and state pollution boards gave decisions against the factory, which, they said, would damage the local eco-system, it was the Central Pollution Control Board, located at NEERI, Nagpur, which finally gave a decision in favour of Snow White.

Commenting on this, Swami hints at foul play, "Anand P Reddy, proprietor of Snow White, is an NRI of good political connections. When he approached NEERI, the organisation demanded that Anand and the local people deposite Rs.1.1 lakhs each for carrying out the evaluation process. Since the people were unable to pay, Anand paid the entire amount. When the team from the Central Pollution Control Board visited the area, the vehicles and accommodation for the team were provided by Anand. We are also told he gave a large amount of money to the survey team members and stage-managed the show. Otherwise it is impossible that the team should fail to see the obvious."

The issue also has serious political connotations. In the wake of the agitation following the granting of the lease in 1999-2000 by a TDP government, the present chief minister Y S Rajasekhara Reddy had visited Chinnaganjam and promised to have the lease cancelled if the Congress came to power. Insead, the lease was restored - till 2019 at at that - at a time when the Congress is in power both in the state and at the Centre. This has caused disillusionment among the people.

Locals allege that powerful political interests are involved in the case. K Pitchy Reddy, a resident of Raju Bangarpala village and a prominent leader in the anti-Snow White agitation, says, "Some time ago the local MLA Daggubati Venkateshwara Rao (Congress) and his wife Purandareshwari Devi (who is the daughter of the late Chief Minister N T Rama Rao) had visited the region and met us. But they were not really responsive to the issues we raised. Later we found that they had been meeting people from Snow White too regularly. There is some nexus between the business and political interests."

The local Congress-dominated Chinnaganjam Mandala Parishad has passed a resolution against the proposed salt unit. Speaking to this correspondent, B V Ramanna Reddy, Mandala Parishad President said, "We agree that this unit will contaminate land and water in the region, and we have submitted a representation to this effect to the salt commissioner, collector and concerned ministers. But the Congress government is taking no action."

Meanwhile, agitation in the area is intensifying. The local Communist Party of India (CPI) has come to the support of the agitators. On 22 August last, an intense one-day agitation was staged during which state police blocked all land routes to Chinnaganjam. On 2 October some 1500 landless people from the 11 villages participated in a 22-km-long march from Chinnaganjam to Chirala, where they demonstrated before a statue of Mahatma Gandhi demanding that the land in question be distributed among them for cultivation, and the salt factory plan shelved. Later, on 7 October, a delegation of the citizens from the 11 villages also met the chief minister Y Rajasekhar Reddy, who assured them that the land will be distributed among the poor.

This last development has sent a wave of expectancy over the entire area, but local leaders are still keeping their fingers crossed. "We hope that this assurance turns out to be fruitful," says Swami, "But in case it doesn't, we are also prepared to fight this out till the end. The salt unit will be the end of all livelihood in these 11 villages and we will fight it with our lives if necessary."