The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has started taking strict measures to address the problems arising from pollution in the Singrauli industrial region in central India, spread across Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.
The region is known for its coal reserves and is the energy capital of the country, generating about 10 per cent of India's coal-based power. But its people are extremely poor and suffer from severe pollution, including mercury poisoning.
Taking note of a report submitted by a high-power committee chaired by A B Akolkar, member secretary of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), that had identified several air and water pollution concerns of the region, the tribunal on Tuesday asked the Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh authorities to take immediate action and address issues of water pollution in the area.
Read more on severe pollution in Singrauli
The bench chaired by Justice Swatanter Kumar has specifically asked the state authorities to ensure good quality drinking water supply to local residents. As an immediate measure, the Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh governments have been asked to provide potable water to the residents through tankers.
'Install RO plants'
Based on “the polluter pays” principle, NGT has asked chief secretaries of the two states to ask big industries, particularly thermal power plants, to install and commission reverse osmosis (RO) units of capacity commensurate with the local demand for water purification and supply drinking water to residents. Its cost is to be borne by the industries. If the industries fail to comply with the order, the respective pollution control boards may give closure notices to them.
The order of the bench follows two separate petitions filed before the central bench of NGT by Singrauli residents Jagat Narayan Viswakarma and Ashwani Kumar Dubey, complaining against pollution in the Singrauli-Sonbhadra area. The thermal power plants in Singrauli together have an installed capacity of about 12,700 MW. The mines produce nearly 83 million tonnes of coal per annum (MTPA). The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has identified the region as a critically polluted area (CPA).
“The NGT order certainly raises hope that pollution problems in the region will now be addressed,” says Dubey, who is also an advocate in the matter.
Power hub's water woes
The complainants apprised NGT of pollution in the Gobind Vallabh Pant Sagar, also known as Rihand Reservoir, the main source of water in the region. The claims were supported by the submissions of the Akolkar committee that had pointed out that disposal of fly ash slurry in the reservoir was a serious problem. Big industries like National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) were found to dispose of fly ash slurry, generated from their super thermal power plant, into the reservoir. Essar Power Limited has also been noted for poor fly ash management. The reservoir was found to be further contaminated by effluent from coal mining projects in the area. Effluent from the Northern Coalfields Limited mining projects in Dudhichua was being discharged in the reservoir through Balia Nala.
Taking cognisance of the pollution problem from the discharge of fly ash and other effluent from the industries, the tribunal has now restrained all industries/units, state departments and private individuals from dumping any waste generated either from mining, industrial or even domestic activity in the catchment area of the water reservoirs, particularly the Rihand reservoir (Gobind Vallabh Pant Sagar) and the connected rivers.
Panel to assess pollution
Besides ordering immediate action to address water pollution in the area and recognising the overall pollution caused by thermal plants and 1,000 other industries in the region, NGT has agreed to form a committee to assess the gravity of the situation. Following the proposals of additional solicitor general (ASG) Rakesh Kumar Khanna, NGT will form a panel to survey the extent of the pollution, identify the contributors and stipulate the measures that need to be adopted. Khanna has proposed that he would consult all the concerned authorities, including the chief secretaries of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, and give suggestions to the committee(s) that will investigate the matter. NGT has granted one week to suggest committee members and the terms of reference under which the committee will carry out the survey.
Will new panel act on issues that remain unaddressed?
The new committee will be in addition to several other studies that have been conducted to investigate pollution in Singrauli. The Akolkar committee report had given recommendations on fly ash management through 100 per cent fly ash utilisation, transportation of coal through closed conveyor belts, prevention of discharge of fly ash slurry in Rihand reservoir or any other water courses, installation of effluent and emission monitoring by all industries that have been identified to cause pollution, and installation of continuous air quality monitoring stations by operating industries at their own cost by September.
However, several important matters barely found mention in the report. The Akolkar committee admitted that they could not be addressed due to time limitation. These include extent of ground water pollution, impact of pollution on public health and crops, toxic impact on the environment, particularly with reference to mercury pollution. Akolkar had emphasised that the need of further study on human health impacts caused by groundwater contamination, air pollution and mercury pollution is of utmost importance.
Responding to community concerns about public health impacts of industrial pollution, Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) had also carried out a specific study on pollution in Sonbhadra district and its public health impacts between May and August in 2012. The study found various levels of heavy metal pollution in the area, including fluoride, mercury and lead, which were found to be higher than the permissible limits. More than 84 per cent of the blood samples of local population were found to contain mercury above the safe level, averaging 34.30 parts per billion (ppb), far exceeding the 5.8 ppb safe standard set by the United States Environment Protection Agency.
Read about pollution's impact on people
Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of CSE emphasised that prompt action is the need of the hour. The recent NGT order remains a positive development in that regard. It now remains to be seen if the new committee’s investigation can ensure action addressing the pollution curse of Singrauli.
Order: Order of the National Green Tribunal regarding the pollution of Gobind Vallabh Pant Sagar (Rihand Reservoir) caused by industries, 13/05/2014
Order: Order of the National Green Tribunal regarding pollution caused by coal mining, thermal plants, cement plants, aluminium or explosive plants and stone crushers located in the bordering Districts of Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh and Sonbhadra, 24/04/2014
CSE Study: Mercury pollution in Sonbhadra district of Uttar Pradesh and its health impacts