The Nalkari, a tributary of the Damodar river that flows through the eastern states of Jharkhand and West Bengal, may easily be mistaken for a nallah or waste water canal. Around 7 kilometre from Patratu in Jharkhand, the Nalkari carries huge quantities of oil and ash, discharged by the Patratu Thermal Power Station (PTPS).
The PTPS, established in the sixties in collaboration with Russia, has a total installed capacity of 840 megawatt (MW), spread over 10 units. While six of its units of 50-100MW each were supplied by Czech firm Skoda, the remaining 4 units of 110MW each were provided by the public sector company, BHEL. Patratu town, located 40 kilometre from state capital Ranchi, was developed to house employees of the power station.
However, of its 10 units, only one or two units are working today, generating merely 10-15 per cent of the plant’s total capacity. The remaining units are either closed or non-operational. Since the functional units are based on outdated technology, the power plant has failed to control pollution, whether in air, water or on land.
“The Patratu dam was built to store the fresh water of the Nalkari river, so that the PTPS can run. Nobody had ever thought that the same plant would kill the river one day. All the effluents and ash from the plant are being thrown in the river, which is not only poisoning the Nalkari but also, the Damodar river, which it meets downstream,” said Dinesh Rajgharia, a resident of Patratu.
On a visit to the site, this researcher found the plant discharging a huge quantity of waste oil and ash-laden effluent directly into the river. At some distance, ash water was also being discharged directly into the river stream. With ash and patches of oil everywhere, there was no fresh water to be seen.
Clean on paper?
PTPS, however, states no shortcomings in its current waste treatment methods to the Jharkhand State Pollution Control Board (JSPCB). It claims it follows all pollution control guidelines and practices, even complying with directions issued by the Board from time to time.
“The plant had one old ash pond to discharge its ash slurry. On community pressure, the ash pond was closed so, the plant was discharging ash and effluent in the Nalkari river. When it came to the notice of JSPCB regional office, Hazaribagh, it ordered the plant not to discharge ash in the river but dispose it of in another ash pond. Currently, no effluent is being discharged into the river,” said Ravindra Prasad, regional officer, JSPCB, Hazaribagh, based on the information provided by the plant managers.
But villagers like Aditya Narain of Balkudra village rue the loss of their source of water. “Pollution from the plant was never in control. Most of the units are not running. Once they run, thick smoke from the chimney is seen. All the polluted water and ash is being discharged into the Nalkari river flowing behind PTPS. The river which once met our agricultural and domestic requirements has turned into a nallah,” he said.
No land, no power
This plant is also at the centre of a dispute between the plant managers and the local community. Landowners from more than 23 villages had given their land when the plant was set up. Apart from PTPS, land in Patratu had already been acquired by Bihar Alloy Steel (BASAL), National Cooperative Development Corporation (NCDC), Damodar Valley Cooperation (DVC), Railway and Central Coalfields Limited (CCL). The small portion of land left to sustain people’s livelihoods, was again taken by the plant in 1990 for construction of the new ash pond.
“People had dreamt that the plant would help in the development of the area and change the future of our children but that did not happen. Over 2,600 ha of land had been acquired by the plant. In 1973, a notification was issued to acquire the land for making the new ash pond No.1, but the process of acquisition was delayed till 1991. The compensation was based on rate of 1970 which was too low. So, the villagers did not accept it. We demanded current rate of land, jobs for the evictees and house-against-lost house. Even after five decades, we have not received compensation and rehabilitation,” said Dinesh Munda and Rajaram Prasad, farmers and members of Visthapit Sangharsh Samiti, Patratu, which is fighting for compensation.
Is this power plant needed at all?
The plant is spread over 2,499 ha and employs as many as 1,400 people. For the electricity it has been generating for many years, it needs only 60-70 ha and 80-120 employees, as in the case of other typical coal-based thermal power plants. However, the plant would require as much a little over 30 ha land per MW capacity, if the actual operating capacity of 80 MW is taken into consideration. Similarly, the plant’s manpower requirement is 17.5 persons per MW. But new plants in India need only 0.56 ha land and 1 person per MW capacity.
The plant is unlikely to earn enough to even cover the cost of operation and employees’ salaries. Its failure to control pollution is also evident. No retrofit technology can restore the plant to its original condition, as it is past its shelf life.
JSEB has repeatedly reported that plant is aged and unable to perform. The Jharkhand government, therefore, cannot claim ignorance about the present state of affairs. The small quantity of power generated in the plant does not benefit either the state or the local people. Neither do the local residents have any developmental support from the plant.
The ideal option for the JSEB would be to scrap this plant and construct one based on new technology, which would serve power, generate profit and protect the environment. This model is applicable to most state-run plants in the country. However, the poor track record of state-run power plants is not hidden. The government’s regulations are either impractical or incomplete without strict monitoring and control. It will have to make tough decisions from time to time to achieve sustainable industrialisation.
Closing the plant does not end the problem. Jharkhand must also apply remedial measures to deal with the existing pollution in the Nalkari river. Ultimately, water is linked to our survival on this planet. The country needs power but, not at the cost of its water resources.
River pollution by thermal plants (Question raised in Lok Sabha and answered on 03/12/12
Thermal power plants on the anvil - Implications and need for rationalisation