with the first spell of monsoon in mid-June people in Bargarh, Nuapada, Kalahandi and Sambalpur districts in Orissa experienced something they had never seen before: a grayish layer on leaves, vehicles and elsewhere. "I was surprised to see the leaves of trees in my medicinal plant nursery covered with white and grey mud-like substances," said Biswanath Hota, a retired divisional forest officer, who believed it to be acid rain.
Hota quickly sent samples of leaves from his nursery in Bhawanipatna, Kalahadi, to his friend Durga Prasad Nayak, an environmental activist. Nayak took the samples to the Sambalpur University's Department of Environmental Sciences for testing evidence of acid rain. P C Mishra, a professor in the department, did not find any trace of acid rain in them, but he did not rule out the incidence of acid rain.
"What I got was a bunch of leaves that had been collected a few days ago and had changed hands many times. So it was difficult to do a proper scientific analysis," said Mishra. "This being a forested area with no industries, I am surprised that this kind of rain has occurred. One could also say it is fly ash, which has travelled hundreds of kilometres from industrial belts. It's worrying and needs a thorough scientific study."
Mishra warned that increased dust concentration can affect crop productivity. "In my study of the area around mcl coal operations, I found that coal dust had severely affected plant growth and productivity. Dust on the leaf surface retards plant productivity," he said.
Arttabandhu Mishra, a retired professor of the university, suspects the rain was caused by Orissa's thermal power belts of Angul-Talcher and Ib Valley. "Burning coal is the main cause of acid rain and Orissa's two big coal fields emit over 320 tonnes of sulphur dioxide, 919 tonnes of nitrogen oxide and 33,883 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Acid rain can travel up to 400 km, and surely the rain in the region was acid rain," he said.
Sitikanta Sahu, regional manager, Orissa Pollution Control Board, said, "We have asked our Rayagada regional officer to find samples of the first spells of rain for testing the Ph level. Acid rain is a concern but we cannot be sure that it was due to coal fields of Orissa. Industrial units in Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh could also have caused this."
Whatever the cause, farmers are worried about the impact of the unusual substance on crops. Land in western Orissa is already going barren. With a severely depleted forest belt around coal reserves and thermal power plants, the negative impacts of acid rain would be phenomenal, said Arttabandhu Mishra.
Nayak accused the government of failing to respond to weather signals. The Padampur-Nuapada region experienced smog for 25 days in February-March. "Everyone was scared and the media also raised the issue. However, the government and the pollution control board did nothing," said Nayak.
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