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A village stuck between coal mines and a mountain of mud

Chilkatad village in Singrauli district in Madhya Pradesh is at a crossroads. Because of the presence of coal mines, the pollution here has crossed all its limits. They don't get clean drinking water, the air is toxic, people are falling sick …

Mithilesh DubeyMithilesh Dubey   31 Oct 2019 5:52 AM GMT

A village stuck between coal mines and a mountain of mud

"We live in the most polluted place in the country. There is a threat to our lives. They are producing electricity here. There are coal mines all around. What are we getting in return?" asks Chitrangan Giri, 28.

Giri, who is pursuing engineering from Bhopal, hails from Chilkatad village, situated in Sonbhadra district in Uttar Pradesh, but it geographically falls in the Singrauli district in Madhya Pradesh. Around 18,000 people living in this village are forced to breathe toxic air and they drink contaminated water.

"If you want to get a first-hand experience of the level of pollution here, just step out for a while," said Giri. When I came back to my hotel after visiting the village, there was a black layer on my face, hands, feet and inside my nose and ears.

A study conducted in June 2018 by the All India Institute of Ayurveda (AIIA), in the 300-km area of Sonbhadra district has discovered alarming levels of mercury contamination in hair and nails of villagers as well as in soil and plants tested. The soil was found to be contaminated in all directions, where coal-fired power plants are operational and cadmium, lead, arsenic, and nickel were detected.

There are 269 villages in the Singrauli-Sonbhadra belt. People living in these villages, including Chilkatad, suffer from memory loss, insomnia, irritation, fatigue, and fluorosis.

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Flouting norms

In 1977, the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) set up a plant in Shaktinagar in Sonbhadra. The displaced people were provided with accommodation at Chilkatad village.

The village was clean and green back then, but things changed soon after the Northern Coalfields Limited (NCL) was given permission for a coal mine. Trees were chopped and the mine came up just 50 meters from the village.

As per the norms, there shouldn't be any residences in the 700-meter vicinity of any coal plant, but 500 residences came up in Chilkatad village, just 50 meters away from the block.

When coal-laden trucks pass through the truck hall road -- a corridor made for the passage of these coal-laden trucks -- it becomes dark as if the sun has set. Fly ash -- small dark flecks of ash -- flies in all direction.

The village was clean and green back then, but things changed soon after the Northern Coalfields Limited (NCL) was given permission for a coal mine.

A "mountain" adds to their woes

Adding to the woes of these villagers is the hundreds of feet tall mountain -- known as overburden in technical terms. When a pit is dug up to mine coal, the mud that's dugout is dumped at a place. This "mountain" collapsed in 2008 after heavy rains. The authorities soon swung into action and a survey was carried out. The district magistrate, in a report, informed the top brass at the NCL and NTPC that people living there were suffering from serious diseases because of the high level of pollution. He requested that the people should be rehabilitated elsewhere.

The NCL and NTPC had agreed to the proposal then, but the implementation is yet to happen.

Talking about the said proposal, Sayed Ghauri, the project manager at the NCL said: "The village was far from the block, but the villagers kept on encroaching upon the land as a result of which many are now living close to the block. We have done all that we could from our end. We even planted trees so that they don't suffer."

The area where the coal block is situated looked green from a distance. But when we went closer, we realized that most of the trees were Babul trees that had grown on their own.

Giri asked: "See for yourself. The authorities at the NCL had promised to plant trees worth Rs 2 crore. Where are they?"

This is what fly ash did to the feet of Gaon Connection reporter when he visited the area near coal-mines

"There was a plan to rehabilitate us"

Hira Lal, 35, who lives in the same village, said: "You can see for yourself the amount of coal that's present everywhere. People don't hang clothes outside for drying. My three-year-old son is suffering from asthma because of pollution. There was a plan to rehabilitate us in 2012, but now no one is bothered."

Ravindra Yadav, the gram pradhan (village head) of Chilkatad, said: "The matter is stuck between the two companies. The authorities at the NCL said since the NTPC provided them accommodation, we should talk to them. The authorities at the NTPC said people are suffering because of the NCL, so we should go to them with our problems."

The mines have managed to contaminate the groundwater as well. A water treatment plant came up a few years back, but it's non-functional now. Ironically, this village receives electricity only for a few hours.

"There is a railway line on one end and at the other is the overburden. We are stuck in between. Most of the drains here are choked. People don't have jobs. They are falling sick. We want to get out of this hell," said Yadav.

Sixty-year old Ramsubhag Shukla, who has been fighting for rehabilitation for a long time, said: "The NTPC accommodated us here in 1974-75. In 1981, the NCL coal mine came up. Things went down after that. I have protested many times. Many politicians come during elections, make fake promises and go away."

Gaon Connection tried contacting the top brass at the NTPC, but the PRO, Aadesh Pandey, said: "The NCL authorities had promised to rehabilitate people. Why they haven't done that is a question that should be posed to them."

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