How has the river that flows through one of the most industrialised regions in India fared since it was first written about in 1993? Down to Earth revisits the coal dust and slurry-ridden Damodar …

-- Also read: Damodar - Ten years ago
Dhanbad town exists for one reason: coal. This much becomes quickly clear to me. A fine layer of coal dust covers everything in the hotel I have put up in, and the manager has assumed I have something to do with the coal business. Why else should I have come to Dhanbad? I tell him I am not interested in coal, but in the river Damodar. Damodar? But that's also full of coal. Touch. He smiles: so you will be going to the Telmucho bridge? I nod. He nods, too. It seems all pollution people, as he puts it, go there.

Telmucho bridge is an hour's ride from Dhanbad. A minute out of town and I am passing coalfields. Dhanbad is on the edge of the Jharia coalfields. It sprawls over 450 square kilometres (sq km) and is one of India's biggest coalfields. A few more minutes and I pass a bccl (Bharat Coking Coal Limited) housing colony. Its inhabitants have been asked to evacuate their houses because underground mine fires have come too close for comfort. Fertiliser and chemical plants. 1, 423 factories employing 204, 084 people in Jharkhand alone. And all over the valley, countless little workshops that sprout in the interstices of the mega-industrial sprawl.

This is not all. Via its dams and the one barrage at Durgapur, the Damodar Valley Corporation (dvc) sends Damodar water, and that of its tributaries, into an irrigation command area of 5.69 lakh hectares via 2495 km of canals. Then there are the towns and cities that depend on the river for its drinking water supply.

Dependency enough!

10 years ago, Down to Earth sought to understand exactly how the world through which the Damodar flowed was configuring the river. It found a river being slowly wrung out of its capacity to bear, and support, life-forms. The pollution was caused by mine overburden, fly ash, oil, toxic metals and coal dust. Faulty mining practices, outdated processing practices and lack of proper maintenance were compounded by corruption, inadequate pollution control and a state pollution control board that did nothing. The people living in the basin were slowly being poisoned because the Damodar and its tributaries were the only source of drinking water for most people living in the area.

My travel is a re-visit to a grim scenario. After what I see from the bridge, I know this: things cannot be worse than they were 10 years ago. Not possible.

A washery, or two
I meet B Prasad, project officer at the Jamadoba washery just outside Dhanbad. (There are 15 such washeries in the entire coal belt. They process 28.5 million tonnes of coal per annum. The Jamadoba washery is a small one. It processes 1.6 million tonnes of coal in a year.) "Indian coal is of drift origin," Prasad explains. "Through eons it has drifted into its present position from thousands of miles away. Along the way it has picked up a lot of dirt. This needs to be cleaned."

A washery does precisely that, to increase the calorific value of coal. First the coal is pulverized into a size suitable for washing. The cleaning is done with water. This water -- full of ash, stones, soil, fine coal particles and other small particles -- is released as slurry. It first goes into a tank called a thickener, which concentrates the slurry. From there it is released into sedimentation ponds (open spaces next to the washeries), where heavy coal particles and impurities are allowed to settle. The clearer water is pumped back, to be reused in the washery.

In theory, of course. At Jamadoba, and at other washeries I went to, it is patently obvious that recycling is a cursory activity. In fact, there is no way this can be implemented. I say this for 3 reasons. If it rains, the slurry is washed straight into the nearest stream and thence into the river. On the way it will of course go through any agricultural fields lying in between. Then there is the problem of space to store the dry slurry, or coal fines as it is called. At Jamadoba for instance, once the washing begins, the sedimentation ponds fill up rapidly because the dry slurry has not been removed. At most washeries, workers frenetically dig up the dry slurry, scurrying away with it and dumping it nearby. Third, proper recycling assumes monitoring: the effluent after settling is of good enough quality to be reused; and pumps are kept in order. But in many places the pumps don't work. The slurry is released directly into the river.

(Gurdeep Singh, head of the Centre of Mining Environment at the Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad, points out that often, the slurry is intentionally released. Some one inside the washery can be paid to turn a blind eye while the slurry is let into the fields. I confirmed this. Coal washeries are required by law to have sedimentation ponds, but there exist little manufacturing plants on land supposedly to be used for this purpose. Collecting coal fines in the dried slurry is very common; it is used by brickmakers and scrap-metal industries.)

The greatest fillip to pollution is, of course, obsolescence. Prasad says Jamadoba, started in 1963, is being phased out. The washery gets no replacement parts for the washing machinery or the recyling units It is slowly falling apart. As the settling ponds and thickening tanks crumble, the untreated washery effluent is let out into the open. I go away from the Jamadoba washery with an interesting thought. Prashant Mishra head of the botany department of R V College, Dhanbad, stresses that pollution in the Damodar is generally different from anywhere else. "The problem is that of volume. Already there is so much dust and ash and soil in the river. And when new particles are added, they would sink, except for the fact that the river depth is quite low in this area. The fly ash from the power plants are the biggest problems."

Not possible
I revisited two places Down To Earth had been to 10 years ago -- the Sindri Fertiliser Plant and the ici explosives factory at Gomia. Then, both were arch-polluters. I found they no longer were.

The Sindri fertiliser plant has shut down. But the people who worked in the plant and lived in Sindri are completely adrift. On Jan 1, 2003 shopkeepers were asked to vacate the township. There wasn't any reason for them to be there. All water supply and electricity was cut off from this new year's day. The water in the area's cleaner, though.

At Gomia, the production is skeletal. Pollution leaving the factory is now basically sewage, and not poisonous acidic chemicals. Local people point out this has nothing to do with "any real action taken". The unit now merely assembles explosives used by the mining industry.

I meet a local doctor, U Sharma. He says people still get their drinking water from the river. Worried and embarrassed administrators extended its deadline to March 2000. At the same time, they sought ways to improve the programme. In 1991, gap-ii was initiated. Running concurrently with the earlier much-criticised programme, now called gap-i, gap-ii sought to correct earlier mistakes. It soon realised the central problem that had bedevilled, and bogged down, gap-i. The Ganga could not be cleaned up until all the tributaries in its vast basin were also cleaned up. River conservation had now to be imagined not in terms of one-off programmes (like gap-i in 1985, or dap in 1996); there had to be a big picture. That was the basis of the National River Conservation Plan (ncrp), launched in 1995. The next year, gap-ii was absorbed in it. And subsequently, by automatic default -- officially, the Damodar is nothing but a tributary of the Ganga -- dap.

At present, dap is part of the ncrp and so has a deadline of 2005 to meet its objective. The objective hasn't changed. The Damodar must still become clean enough to bathe in. The core focus hasn't changed: it still concentrates on sewage, to set up sewage treatment plants to intercept or divert urban and domestic sewage. As non-core activities, dap will concentrate on making more crematoria (so that dead bodies don't float in the river, polluting it); the river front will be developed, by making 60-m sustainable ghats; community latrines will be installed to reduce open defecation into the river; solid waste will be managed.

I put it you that this strategy to control pollution, imagined entirely along gap-ii lines, is totally inadequate for the Damodar. I have seen. I now know that the Damodar's central problem is pollution by effluents from coal mines and coal-based industries. It is completely bizarre, but dap as it now stands has no strategy to tackle industrial pollution.

Does it want to create such a strategy? The tussle between ncrd and the states seems to be more over money. River-cleaning works have not yet commenced, except for three schemes in a few towns. Only a very small fraction of the money has been sanctioned; 4.05 per cent in Jharkhand and 6.2 per cent in West Bengal.

DAP's not happening
Details of sanctioned schemes in Jharkhand (Rs lakh)
Town Name of the
Cost of the
Date of
progress till
progress till
Bokaro-Kargali LCS 9.8 04.10.00 4.2 90 per cent
(till 11/02)
Ramgarh LCS 16.1 05.03.01 Nil Nil
Sudamdih LCS 9.8 10.10.00 Nil Nil
Telmachu LCS 5.5 13.11.00 Nil Nil
Total   41.2   4.2  
Note: LCS: low cost sanitation works
(See Table: Sanctioned costs of towns under the Damodar Action Plan) Officially, while no money has been spent till September 2002 in West Bengal, only about Rs 4.2 lakhs have been spent on low cost sanitation in one town in Jharkhand. Obviously the progress of the schemes has not been much.

I have a document with me. It lists the present status of schemes under dap. 4 of the 12 towns originally included in dap figure in it. A column shows the costs the Cabinet Committee of Economic Affairs has approved for different schemes for these towns. The rows carry figures in lakhs of rupees (Total: Rs 773 lakh). Two columns down, there appear figures that the ncrd has approved. This column is considerably meagre (Rs 72.21 lakh). This discrepancy makes me fear that some people will get very rich without cleaning the Damodar in any way.

The worst is the last column: Remarks. "Not yet sanctioned by ncrd"; "Release of fund by kmda is awaited". "Not yet sanctioned by ncrd"; "Release of fund by kmda is awaited". It is pure repetition. This starkly suggests that the dap, as it stands now, can only be a fantasy of completion.

Lord of misrule
The Chandrapura power plant is dvc's largest plant. It practically looms over the river bank. So do drains 1-5, each releasing effluents into the few fields between plant and river. Nothing I have seen so far has prepared me for this sight. Drain no 1 has an oil trap, which is full and leaking oil back into the drain. None of the others have oil traps. All of them carry effluents -- black fly ash slurry -- with an oily sheen. The ash-pond of this plant is the biggest I have ever seen. Its the riverbed itself! I see a regular stream of trucks dumping their burden on the riverbed. Straightforwardly. How can the dvc do this?

Wrong question. dvc was set up in 1948 to control the flood-prone Damodar. It was set up by an act of Parliament; even today it has the constitutional right to oversee all development in the valley. Originally, its functions included erosion control, afforestation and power generation. Today power generation -- most lucrative -- occupies pride of place.

What about river pollution? In 1957, dvc had promulgated a regulation in 1957 to prevent pollution of water. But this was overtaken by the Central Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act 1974. Henceforth, dvc had only to worry after its reservoirs. Even as the entire stretch of the river came under the jurisdiction of the state pollution control boards of Bihar (now Jharkhand) and West Bengal, the dvc found itself freed of such onerous responsibilities as river pollution. As Anil Kumar and Sanjay Kumar (both of the Environment Faculty, at the dvc Training Institute) point out, the dvc has no ecologists, biologists or hydrologists in their environmental cell. Only engineers. " dvc, as far as environment is concerned, is formalities only. The pollution department is manned by engineers, the present head is an electrical engineer."

So the dvc can do what it does at Chandrapura, or even at the Tenughat reservoir. This reservoir has a canal that supplies water to the Bokaro steel plant (45 km away). But the dvc's own thermal power plant here dumps its effluents into the canal water! I D Mishra, a doctor at Tenughat village, has noticed high incidences of skin diseases among people. As a doctor, he questions dvc engineers' understanding.

So do I, now sitting opposite dvc's resident manager in Ranchi, Mohan Prasad. He categorically states that pollution is not an issue. dvc causes no pollution. Statement taken, I walk into the office of the Jharkhand State Pollution Control Board.

In this office I talk to S K Singh, senior environmental engineer. He knows the river well. Even though sewage is not a real problem, because of silt and sedimentation from mining, the river's carrying capacity is so reduced that even the small quantity of sewage discharged today is dangerous because it is not diluted. He is also dejected about the current state of affairs. "No one knows what belongs to who, Bihar or Jharkhand. And anyway, there is absolutely no enforcement." For Singh, "All the research is there. But who is going to do anything about it? For example, what about local contractors who want the discharge of the coal slurry?" When a new mine is dug, "Water is pumped to the surface, then leaks into another mine, where it causes instability and then has to be pumped out again. There is no integration." This is exactly what Naresh S Saxena, professor at the Centre of Mining Environment at the Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad, had told me. "There is going to be no change until there is integrated approach to mining and the mine environment. Right now, it's just, "get the coal out".

This is it. I have nothing more to record. I take with me many images of a river that I cannot call a river (a river is something that changes). I can only share with you what I have learnt: the Damodar is the perfect reflection of what it passes through. The Damodar is not a river. It is a mirror with a black sheen. The mirror shows -- it has shown for a decade now -- we cannot live the way we are living now.

With inputs from Avanti Roy and Sachi Chaturvedi

April 30, 2001
Status of progress of Damodar Action Plan (Rs lakh)
Heads Jharkhand West Bengal Total
Estimated cost 1,022.06 1,219.18 2,241.24
Number of schemes sanctioned 3 0 3
Cost of schemes sanctioned
31.57 0.00 31.57
Number of schemes completed 0 0 0
Funds released by GOI 199.43 10.74 210.17
Funds released (01-2002) 186.12 0.00 186.12
Expenditure incurred by state
0.00 0.00 0.00
Source: Anon 2001, Third Meeting of National River Conservation authority, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, p23, June 20

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