India’s Minamata

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-profit Centre for Science and Environment decided to investigate and found that mercury, a deadly toxin in coal, is slowly entering people’s homes, food, water And even blood. Sugandh Juneja reports on the lab findings and how mercury affects people and environment

By Sugandh Juneja
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

IndiaÔÇÖs Minamata

Saraju Nisha, 60, has developed white patches on skin. She lives in Chilika Daad village of SonbhadraSaraju 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.

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :
Related Stories

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.

  • Kudos to Sugandh for the

    Kudos to Sugandh for the expose. People are dead against nuclear energy in India, while they remain blissfully ignorant about the perils of thermal power. If we have to develop we need power. It is easier said than done to install solar and wind power as both of them need acres and acres of land to generate power-from where do we get land from! The future technology may be able to reduce the size of the solar panels considerably to make them much less land invasive. But till then what do we do?
    The protagonists of Ganga are shouting hoarse to stop building dams across Ganga in Uttarakhand, about the nuclear energy protests the lesser said the better. But if you take a world statistics you find that minimum number of humans have suffered from radiation accidents from nuclear plants-but since we are scared of their use, we generate a hype about it.
    People may not agree with me but I still feel and reiterate that for the present a nuclear option is the best option to supplement our power generation and in future as soon as solar panel designs are improved we should change over to solar power.
    As far accidents are concerned then we should be more scared of the domestic gas and the match box in our pockets!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Really alarming,stunned to

    Really alarming,stunned to note that mercury levels in Fish of Rihand reservoir is high. But more samples from different places should have been taken to ascertain it. u.P Government is going to establish a mega-fish cage culture project there-In context to your survey report concerned stakeholders must think twice to begin this mega fishery project over there.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Ah! This is horrifying to

    Ah! This is horrifying to know. How can the government be quite about all of this. Mercury poisoning is one of the world calamities that can occur in an area. The government must be ashamed!


    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Solar needs acres and acres

    Solar needs acres and acres of land? Quite the opposite. We can at least begin with rooftops, as have so many other parts of the world. Even micro-solar now costs about Rs 150,000 per kW. Enough examples abound in India as well.

    Gas too is a much cheaper option than nuclear.

    We can discuss 'statistics' only if the data is given out; as of now nuclear power installations are a state secret.

    Instead of just accepting what politicians and lobbyists want us think, let's not overlook the fact that North America and Europe have put up a stop to nuclear, while it's mostly the third world gullibles like India that are rushing in.

    Industrial holocausts, when they happen, have horrific scopes and consequences: Chernobyl was no domestic gas cylinder explosion or firecracker; neither was Bhopal, for that matter.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Well, I am not against Solar

    Well, I am not against Solar power or in favour of nuclear Power. My contention is that any source of energy is full of risks. Secondly the cost of generating solar power and its maintenance cost as of now are not favourable for large scale production. Our Nuclear Plants are not a state secret, but yes entry is regulated to keep a check on the visits of unscruplous elements and also for the reasons of human safety. This I am telling you after a recent rip to one of the power stations, where a detailed study was made of the precautions against hazards etc. Still I am not praising all that, because a hazard is something that can not be predicted, only precautions can be taken. My main argument is what do we do? Nuclear is hated by us for reasons best known to us, Thermal power problem has already been enumerated in the article. The lobbyists against dams are saying no no to hydropower-then what is the alternative?
    Power generation is in the hands of the Government and we can only cry hoarse here, but we cant veto a particular mode of power generation. Mind you Sir, in the government every one is not dishonest and also before launching sensitive projects lots and lots fo studies are done. But I agree that failures and accidents do happen even then.
    But what is the solution?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • With forest clearance given

    With forest clearance given for Mahaan coal block, situation will worsen once pristine forest gives way to a coal mine. Singrauli district which till about 50 years ago was a land having some of the most dense forests in India is now has been reduced to dusty coal patch and its famed greenery is now fragmented and on its way to total destruction.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Good cover story, best of

    Good cover story, best of luck

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Mr Joshi Thank you for

    Dear Mr Joshi

    Thank you for posting. For me it was very important to bring forth the point that thermal power plants do have issues on a number of accounts but as far as mercury goes we do have control technologies available. The sad part is no one in India is using these as no one is bothered. For companies to take mercury seriously, there need to be government mandated standards for mercury. Only then can we expect the companies to work towards reducing this toxin.

    Renewable energy sources are a welcome change but even these need to be planned carefully. It should not be a situation like Sonbhadra where already some 13,000 MW of power capacity has been stalled and many more is planned. The poor planning essentially exhibits a lack of understanding of cumulative impact of such power capacity in one district on the environment and people.


    Posted by: Sugandh Juneja | 4 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Dr Arvind I appreciate

    Dear Dr Arvind

    I appreciate your comment. This is a preliminary study and I agree that more comprehensive sampling is needed to obtain very robust and accurate results. I do hope the UP government will take heed and carry out the extensive study soon especially with the mega fishery project planned.


    Posted by: Sugandh Juneja | 4 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Vaivhav It is indeed

    Dear Vaivhav

    It is indeed horrifying to know that the government has been silent about such a serious problem which can have devastating impact if left unchecked. The reason that the people have not yet raised voices I believe is because the effects of mercury exposure take a while to appear.
    Let us hope his study will stir a few governmental thought processes in the right direction.


    Posted by: Sugandh Juneja | 4 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Prashant I could not

    Dear Prashant

    I could not agree more with you. With Mahan now being opened for coal mining the other adjoining areas will also go one-by-one.
    I guess the government could not resist Essar and Hindalco. But the bigger question to ask is how much coal do we really need?
    Do we need so much that we give up such pristine forests? With Coal India Limited already sitting on 64 billion tonnes of coal
    reserves but producing only about 450 million tonnes, who is to be blamed? And why do we need more coal blocks being cleared in
    forest areas?

    Check this:


    Posted by: Sugandh Juneja | 4 years ago | Reply
  • Welcome Sugandh and once

    Welcome Sugandh and once again I congratulate you for the efforts you made in bringing the facts before the readers. Yes I know about the techniques, but alas, we hardly care for the safety of the populace. Wish your efforts bring results!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • It is the (DTE, 31st Oct.

    It is the (DTE, 31st Oct. 2012 on IndiaÔÇÖs Minamata) clear cut violation of balancing the availability and exploitation of natural resources. It is the model of Business to Business (B2B) with out bothering for the health & wealth of the People & Environment. This is one of the key reason for apposing the developmental works by the affected PAPs in general and particularly the mining of natural resources.

    The need of the hour is to shift towards Business to People (B2P) by balancing the quantity & mode of exploitation of natural resources with the health & wealth of the People & Environment.

    Technologies like: Geological, Geophysical including the GIS & GPS are well established and proven their utility at all the stages covering: mapping, planning, exploitation, monitoring, evaluation with matching scope for taking measures at the right time which expects to save time, energy and money. Finally, the whole process is in the hands of the people and can be planned effectively for keeping the balance between the exploitation of the natural resources and the health & wealth of the People & Environment. I have been associated in this process covering major part of our Country and now associated with the community for creating sustainable solutions.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Mercury is not the only

    Mercury is not the only pollutant from fossil fuel plants (FFPs). The main pollutant is CO2, for which there is no proven technology available as remedy. The effects of global warming are and will be more disastrous and long/centuries-lasting, as against the radiation hazards from nuclear power stations. The more harmful radioactive elements like Iodine have very short life, while those that last for thousands or billions of years give very minimal radiation in say the 100 years of human life span. The spread of these is also on very limited geographical scale as copmared to the global warming effects of FFPs. Also the pollutiion from the FFPs goes on for 24 hours, day in and day out, during normal working of the plants, no accident being necessary, while the radiation hazards from NPSs occurs almost only after an accident. Such accidents are rare and are getting rarer as the technology improves.
    Environmental activists like Down To Earth are harming the environment by opposing these plants.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply