Singrauli, the powerhouse of India with massive coal reserves and many thermal power plants, should have been prosperous. But it is poor and polluted. People complain of unexplained ailments. Non-…
Saraju Nisha sits at the door of her house, about 500 metres from a mountain of coal mine waste in Chilika Daad village in Uttar Pradesh’s Sonbhadra district. The 60-year-old former miner is in deep pain. For the past five years, she has been suffering from stomachache, joint pain, numbness and excessive salivation. What’s troubling her more is her skin which has discoloured. “All this is due to the overburden mountain created by the Khadia coal mine of Northern Coalfields Limited (NCL),” she says.
The company’s waste, or overburden, is at an altitude higher than the village. In August last year, rains brought all the waste down to the village. “At 2 am, we found ourselves waist deep in water. Our houses were destroyed and cattle died,” says Saraju. This is an annual phenomenon, says Manonit, another resident. Health problems like those of Saraju are common in the district. Cases of stillbirths, menstrual irregularities, sterility, hyper-pigmentation, anaemia and high blood pressure are high in the region, say people. “We have been complaining to the district magistrate and the police since 2008 but no action has been taken,” he says.
Chilika Daad is a colony of people displaced twice because of developmental activities in the Singrauli region, comprising Singrauli district in Madhya Pradesh and Sonbhadra district in Uttar Pradesh. The region has huge coal reserves and many thermal plants. When a dam was constructed on the Rihand, a tributary of the Sone, in the 1950s, residents were resettled from Renukut to Shaktinagar village. They were resettled to Chilika Daad when NTPC Limited started building its Shaktinagar plant in 1975. They could be displaced the third time as NCL plans to expand its Khadia mine. “When we approach NCL with our problem, it shrugs off responsibility by saying the colony belongs to NTPC. Officials at NTPC blame NCL, saying it is theirs,” says Manonit. Chilika Daad residents know the coal mines and the thermal plant are the reasons behind their ailments. What they do not know is exactly how it affects them.
Mercury is one of the natural, and perhaps the most harmful, components of coal. During combustion at temperature above 1,100°C, it vapourises. Given the large quantity of coal burned in thermal plants, considerable amount of mercury is released into the atmosphere. Some of it cools down and condenses while passing through the plant’s boiler and air pollution control system and enters the environment through soil and water. It also enters the environment through run-off from coal mines. In humans, mercury can cause several chronic diseases and death.
How much mercury does coal contain? The answer varies from region to region. The Central Pollution Control Board analysed 11 coal samples from Singrauli and found mercury concentration in coal ranging between 0.09 parts per million (ppm) and 0.487 ppm. In 2011, Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) had found 0.15 ppm mercury in coal at Anpara village in Sonbhadra. It is estimated that a 1,000 MW thermal power plant is emitting at least 500 kg of mercury every year in Singrauli.
In 2011, people approached CSE to study the pollution and health problems in Sonbhadra. The non-profit collected samples of water, soil, cereals and fish from the district, and blood, hair and nails of people living there. Results showed that high levels of mercury have made way into the environment.
In 1998, Indian Institute of Toxicology Research (IITR), Lucknow, conducted an environmental epidemiological study in the Singrauli region. During the study, over 1,200 people were examined and it was found the mean mercury level in their blood was significantly high. Sixty-six per cent of the people examined had more than 5 ppb mercury in their blood. Mean mercury in hair was also significantly high. The study also tested vegetables, drinking water and fish in the area.
Non-compliance is the norm in Sonbhadra. Companies operating in the district are notorious for flouting rules. Most thermal power plants, for instance, simply dump their waste in fly ash ponds or as huge mounds. As per government regulations, all the fly ash produced in thermal plants should be utilised, whether in brick kilns or in cement manufacturing units.
NTPC Shaktinagar dumps its fly ash in an open area. Cattle easily find way to this area, drink it and develop diseases later. In summers, fly ash reaches Gobind Ballabh Pant Sagar (GBPS) reservoir along with the wind. Thermal power plants in Anpara discharge fly ash slurry into the reservoir. The coal mines of NTPC Shaktinagar and its surrounding areas discharge their fly ash slurry into Baliya drain, which then meets the reservoir.
Thermal plants do not meet stack emission norms either and cause air pollution. Stone crushing units in the area also cause heavy air pollution. “In summers, it is difficult to see beyond 10 feet,” says Jagat Vishkarma of Sonbhadra-based non-profit Banwasi Sewa Ashram. The air is thick with coal dust and fly ash near the coal storage of NTPC-owned power plant in Garbandha village. Small wonder, cases of respiratory diseases in the region are high. In the past two years, five persons in the village have died of acute asthma, say residents. “We gave our land at throwaway prices because NTPC promised us employment. We never got any work. The company has polluted the environment. We do not have fresh air or clean water,” says Ram Prasad Baiswar of Garbandha.
A 2002 estimate by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) states that 17 per cent of the country’s thermal plant mercury emissions are from the Singrauli region. In 1998, Banwasi Sewa Ashram measured mercury in Singrauli’s air. Stack samples of Anpara thermal power plant, Hindalco Industries, Singrauli power plant, Hi Tech Carbon and Obra power plant reported mercury release. Obra thermal plant’s stack showed high mercury emission of 0.64 mg/Newton metre cube (Nm3), followed by Anpara power plant which showed 0.16 mg/Nm3 mercury emissions. The total mercury concentration in the air in the region was between 0.03 mg/Nm3 and 0.05 mg/Nm3. The study found 4.54 ppb of mercury in Dongiya drain, which flows into the Gobind Ballabh Pant Sagar reservoir. A pungent smell hangs around the drain carrying reddish brown effluent. People have no option but to use this water for washing clothes, cattle and at times even for taking bath. The CSE study also indicates high levels of mercury in Dongiya drain and attributes this to the contamination caused by Aditya Birla Chemicals Limited’s plant.
In 2009, CPCB and the environment ministry, in collaboration with Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi, released a comprehensive environment pollution index for 88 industrial clusters in the country. They calculated the pollution index for air, water and land. After the results, the environment ministry declared Singrauli the ninth most critically polluted area in the country. It imposed a moratorium on any new project or expansion of present projects. It told the states that the moratorium would be lifted only after submission of action plans that would aim to reduce pollution levels in the region.
The action plans submitted by the pollution control boards of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh were weak. There was no push to reduce pollution levels in the region. The plans gave directions like 100 per cent utilisation of fly ash, meeting stack emissions norms and ensuring monitoring for air pollution. These, however, are government regulations that companies must adhere to. Also, despite Singrauli being a contiguous area falling in two states, the environment ministry did not ask the two state pollution control boards to prepare a combined action plan.
Following pressure from the state government and the industry, the environment ministry lifted the moratorium in July 2011.
With no holds barred, companies are now aggressively planning projects to set up power plants and mine coal.
Resource-rich Singrauli is witnessing industrialisation at break-neck speed. With a massive 1,062 million tonnes of coal reserves, the region had remained unexploited till 1962, when the Gobind Ballabh Pant Sagar (GBPS) reservoir was built on the Rihand river. The reservoir proved to be the second biggest attraction for industries.
Companies, mostly thermal power plants, are in a rush to acquire land there by hook or by crook. Mahan Coalfields Limited, a joint venture of Essar and Hindalco, wanted 1,000 ha forestland that fell under the environment ministry’s no-go zone. It applied for diversion. A group of ministers recently cleared the land for mining.
With 10 thermal power plants, Singrauli’s coal-based thermal power capacity stands at about 13,200 MW. And with 14 coal mines, it has a coal mining capacity of 83 million tonnes per annum (MTPA). Most of the coal mines are owned by Northern Coalfields Limited. Besides, the area has aluminium smelting plants, chemical industries, cement industries and other industrial and commercial operations. Singrauli is set to get another 50 MTPA of coal mining capacity and another 9,600 MW of thermal power capacity.
This proposed industrialisation would need 7,600 hectares (ha) and 120 million tonnes of coal. The region would generate more than 50 million tonnes of fly ash, close to half a million tonnes of suspended particulate matter (SPM) annually and more than a million tonnes each of oxides of sulphur and oxides of nitrogen.
Already branded the country’s energy capital, Singrauli’s existing and planned power plants will together need 880 million cubic metre of water per year, enough to meet the domestic water requirement of more than 80 million people. GBPS is a potential water source for all thermal power plants in the area. Sonbhadra is, therefore, water stressed. District magistrate Suhas L Y says government had planned to provide hand pumps across the district, but it was not implemented. “Now, we have set aside Rs 3.5 crore for the purpose. Had the GBPS reservoir not been polluted, there would have been no water shortage,” he says. Even the action plan that the Uttar Pradesh government submitted to the Union environment ministry states that water will not be provided for stone crushing operations.
Development skips people
As per the 2011 census, Sonbhadra has a population of 1,862,612 and a population density of 270 (number of people per square km). More than 85 per cent of Singrauli’s thermal plants and coal mines are in Sonbhadra. Despite this, the state of basic amenities in the district are dismal. Only 29 per cent of the total 327,000 households have electricity. The district has 18 per cent urban and 82 per cent rural population. While a substantial 83 per cent of the urban households have electricity, only 17 per cent of the rural households have light.
It took a quarter of a century from the time Japan’s chemical firm Chisso Corporation started dumping methyl mercury into the Minamata Bay in 1932 to identify Minamata, a neurological disease caused by mercury poisoning. Methyl mercury accumulated in the fish of Minamata Bay, which people used to eat. Thousands suffered from the disease and died. Animals, too, were not spared. The disease was also named the dancing cat fever because of the strange behaviour in cats who were seen to have convulsions, go mad and die.
It took another half a century for the victims to be compensated. The compensation claim against Chisso Corporation continues. It was only in 2004 that the company was ordered to clean up its contamination.
What happened in Minamata has an important lesson for Singrauli.
The knowledge about mercury pollution in Singrauli’s environment—land, water, soil, food commodities and even people—is not new. Way back in 1998, the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research (IITR), Lucknow, a constituent laboratory of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, undertook one of the biggest mercury contamination studies in Singrauli. The results were devastating. The study found high levels of mercury everywhere. It also found that people in Singrauli had diseases and showed symptoms that could be directly linked to mercury poisoning. But the study never made it to the news because it was never publicly released. IITR, a government institution, refuses to give the data even today because the study was sponsored by NTPC Limited, also a government-owned company that has many thermal power plants in Singrauli and plans many more.
Singrauli comes under the scrutiny of the country’s highest court as well. The Supreme Court has recognised and passed orders on mercury pollution in Singrauli. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), following the orders of the Supreme Court, monitored and found high levels of mercury in the air in Singrauli. It, however, did little. As late as December 2007, the Supreme Court asked CPCB to submit reports on mercury pollution. But the case has been put on the back burner.
In 2009, Singrauli was declared as the ninth most critically polluted area and a moratorium was imposed on projects.
However, the action plans submitted separately by the Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh pollution control boards do not even recognise that mercury contamination is a serious problem in Singrauli. They do not even recognise that more than 10,000 MW coal-based power plants and an additional tens of millions of tonnes of coal mining projects are in the pipeline. Based on the shoddy action plan, CPCB and the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) removed the moratorium.
Since then it is business as usual. There is no one to monitor implementation of even the shoddy action plans. There is a long queue of companies that plan to set up power plants and mine coal from this resource-rich but cursed area. Industries behave as if there is no tomorrow. People have no option but to suffer. In the electricity capital of India, they have no electricity, no clean drinking water and no employment. What they do have is pollution, disease and poverty.
Singrauli is a classic case of government apathy and industry’s callousness. It is also a classic case of the conspiracy of silence. The government and industry know that mercury is poisoning people and the environment of this area, but they do not want to talk about it.
When community representatives of Singrauli approached us to take up the issue, we frankly had little to add as far as facts about mercury pollution were concerned. The facts were established long back. Nevertheless, we decided to undertake the laboratory study. What we found has shocked us further. There is clear evidence of increasing contamination in Singrauli. Our study shows that contamination levels have increased significantly from what was found by IITR and other studies. Our worry is that if no action is taken now, the contamination will increase further. Let me explain.
At present, there are coal-based power plants of 13,200 MW capacity and 83 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) of coal mining capacity in the area. A study by CPCB on Singrauli coal indicates that mercury in the coal ranges from 0.09 to 0.487 ppm. CSE’s test on coal samples from Anpara power plant shows mercury content of 0.15 ppm. This means that anywhere from 15 tonnes to 50 tonnes of mercury is being released into the environment every year by the power plants. Add to this mercury emissions from the caustic soda plant of Aditya Birla group. We are not even considering mercury emitted from coal mines, which could be considerable.
Now, there is already 9,600 MW power plant and 50 MTPA coal mining in the pipeline. When they start operating, which they will, an additional 10-40 tonnes of mercury will be added to Singrauli’s environment every year. In the not so distant future, we could have 25-90 tonnes of mercury released into the environment of Singrauli every year.
We have a mercury time bomb ticking in Singrauli. If we allow this to happen, we will be repeating the mistakes of Minamata. The only difference is that Minamata had population in thousands and in Singrauli it is in millions. So, what can we do to defuse this time bomb?
The government must recognise and accept with all seriousness that it has to solve the mercury pollution problem. The conspiracy of denial and silence must end. Second, the moratorium must be reimposed on Singrauli to develop a future course of action. During this period, the government should commission a cumulative regional impact assessment and carrying capacity study to assess how many coal-based power plants, coal mining and other industries this area can sustain depending on the assimilative capacity of the environment. This assessment must give primacy to water and mercury pollution.
Third, mercury standards must be set for coal-based thermal plants, coal washeries and mining. All existing plants and upcoming plants must have state-of-the-art mercury control system. Old plants that do not meet standards should be shut down. The system for regular mercury monitoring and advisory must also be put in place. Apart from inhalation, a major source of mercury intake by people is through food, including fish and water. These must be regularly monitored and if mercury in them is found beyond the acceptable limit, people must be advised not to consume them. For this, a massive information campaign must be started. Our study has found that treated water supplied by the industry or government has less and in some cases no mercury. Treated water must be provided to all hamlets, villages and towns in Singrauli, and the polluting companies must pay for it.
The programme for decontamination of areas like reservoirs, ash pond of power plants and plants like the caustic soda plant of Aditya Birla group must be put into motion. In 1997, Japan’s ministry of environment published a document—Our intensive effort to overcome the tragic history of Minamata disease. It says: “From the incidence of Minamata disease, Japan has learned a very important lesson on how activities that place priority on economy but lack consideration for the environment can cause great damage to health and environment, and how it is difficult to recover from this damage later on… We sincerely hope that Japan’s experience can be utilised as a vital lesson by other countries so that consideration is paid to the importance of the environment and so that pollution will be prevented without ever undergoing that kind of tragic pollution-related damage.”
India needs to understand this before it is too late.
Chandra Bhushan is deputy director-general of Centre for Science and Environment
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