"Our fields are barren. People are falling sick"

Dhanbad, Bokaro, Singrauli ... the coal mines are mining miseries for people living close to them

Mithilesh DharMithilesh Dhar   30 Oct 2019 11:47 AM GMT

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Our fields are barren. People are falling sick

"My son is only three-years-old. He is suffering from asthma. Doctors say that many children living here suffer from such disease. We close our doors as soon as the sun sets. We don't hang our clothes outside for drying," said Heera Lal, 35, who lives in Chilkatad village in Sonbhadra district of Uttar Pradesh.

This village is situated just a few kms away from the coal mines of Northern Coalfields Limited. People in this village have been suffering from the ill-effects of coal mining for many generations. There are 10 thermal power plants operating in Sonbhadra-Singrauli (Madhya Pradesh) belt that are coal-fired. Together, they generate 21,000 megawatt of electricity and are the main supplier of electricity in many parts of the country. Coal mines produce fly ash -- ash produced in small dark flecks by the burning of powdered coal -- in large quantity which is making people living in this belt sick.

Ironically, the southern region of Sonbhadra is known as the energy capital of the country. There are 269 villages in the Singrauli-Sonbhadra belt which are spread across an area of 150 square kilometers. Around 13 villages are very close to the coal mining sites.

Jagat Narain Vishvakarma has to walk using a crutch

"We drink contaminated water"

Jagat Narain Vishvakarma, who lives in Kushmaha village in Sonbhadra district, said: "My bones are becoming weak. I walk using a crutch. The doctor told me that I have a high amount of fluoride in my body because of which I am suffering from fluorosis. There are many people like me here, who are aging prematurely."

He added, "We get our drinking water from the Rihand dam. I have read in a report that there is a presence of fly ash in it, which is life-threatening, but the coal companies are not taking the matter seriously."

On October 6, 2019, the dyke (boundary wall of a water body) of a fly ash pond at a power plant of the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) in Singrauli district breached, causing spillage in several acres of land.

After the dyke collapsed, fly ash from the power plant spilled into the nearby Rihand dam, which is the largest dam in India by volume.

Report of Center for Science and Environment on Sonbhadra

As per the report of the International Journal of Advance Engineering and Research Development published in 2018, a total of 169.25 million ton fly ash was produced in the country between 2016 and 2017. Of this, only 107.10 million ton was utilized and around 63 million ton (37%) fly ash was left unattended, which got dissolved in air and water.

As per the government order, all power plants must achieve 100% utilization of fly ash.

Ashwani Kumar Dubey, a Supreme court lawyer, said: "These power plants are not bothered about people. In 2015, the government had set new standards for pollutants emanating from power plants. They were supposed to be implemented by 2017. Now this deadline has been extended until 2022.

Syed Ghori, the project manager of the Khadia project (a coal mine area) said: "The coal block of National Coalfield is an open one. It is obvious that the ash will fly out. Yes, the ash that gets produced is in large quantity, but we make sure that it remains inside the boundary walls. We source it only after we sprinkle water on it."

When Gaon Connection reporter asked Syed about the trucks that dispose of fly ash on the roads, he said: "We are also working on that. We are going to put sprinklers on roads to prevent ash from leaking out. We have tied up with NTPC. Soon, we would be taking many effective steps."

Coal produces fly ash in large quantity which is making people living in this belt sick.

The leaves are covered with soot

As per the report of the All India Institute of Ayurveda published in 2018, high levels of toxic mercury were found in the nails and hair of people living in these polluted areas. It also revealed that plants in the vicinity of 300 kms had a high level of mercury in them.

When Gaon COnnection visited that region, there was smog all around. We couldn't spot a single green leaf. They all were covered with black soot and ash. Locals said that it has affected their crop production.

Shree Singaji Thermal Power plant, a coal-fired power plant, is located in Khandwa district in Madhya Pradesh. This power plant is owned by Madhya Pradesh Power Generating Company Limited (MPPGCL). This project was set up near the Narmada river.

Vivek Mishra, who lives in Khandwa village, is a farmer who practices paddy and soybean farming in his 10-acre farm. He said, "Ash that flows out of power plants merges with dew-drops and gets deposited on our crops. Most of my fields are barren now. Officers from the Krishi Vigyan Kendra told me that farming is no longer profitable because whatever we produce would be toxic."

All the four units of Khandwa power plant generate 1,100 MW electricity a day. Around 27,000-ton coal is fired in generating one unit of electricity. It gives out 5,000-6,000-ton of ash, which is increasing the levels of pollutants in the air.

Water sources in nearby areas of Bokaro have been contaminated. Pic- Nitish Priyadarshi

It's killing the rivers too

The Betwa river has been the lifeline of drought-prone Bundelkhand. The Parichha Thermal Power plant, which is 25 kms from Jhansi district, is located on the banks of the Betwa river. People living here claim that ash can be seen on roads for as far as 10 kms. So much ash gets accumulated on their terrace that people can easily ink their name on it.

Bhanu Sahay, the director of Bundelkhand Nirman Morcha, who has raised this issue in the Supreme court told Gaon Connection that two villages -- Richora and Pariccha – that are situated near the Betwa river and the power plant are in poor condition. "The fields here are barren. The power plant has been draining the ash directly into the river. It is making people sick."

He added: "This power plant only has one ash dam, which is full to the brim. The government had directed the power plant to utilise this ash, but they are not doing so. The Uttar Pradesh government has refused to give funds to set up a new ash dam. We should be questioning the officers that when the only ash dam is full, where are they dumping the ash coming out from power plants? It is obvious that they are draining it in the river."

Ramji, who lives in Pariccha village, told us that earlier he had many animals. Most of them have died. His fields are barren. "Earlier, I had cows, buffaloes, and goats. But all of them died one after the other. Later, I got to know that they had been drinking water from the Betwa river."

"Most of the people in our village have an eye infection. They are losing their eye-sight. Many people had to get their eyes operated upon. We don't even touch Betwa's water anymore," added Ramji.

Report of Centre for Science and Environment on Singrauli and Sonbhadra

According to the report of Pollution Control Board published in November 2018, the Total dissolved Solids (TDS) in water in the river was in the range of 700 to 900 points per liter while total hardness (TH) was above 150 mg per liter, which is very dangerous. Even the ministry has accepted that the river water is in poor condition and a sewage treatment plant should be set up immediately.

The Damodar river, which flows across West Bengal and Jharkhand is on the verge of extinction. Chemical effluents in large amounts from industrial areas such as Hazaribagh, Bokaro and Dhanbad districts of Jharkhand are being released in this river.

As per the data provided by the Jharkhand government, there are 10 coal-fired power plants along the banks of the Damodar river in the state. It consumes 65.7 lakh metric ton coal per year -- generating 8,768 megawatts of electricity.

Dr SK Ravi, who lives in Bokaro, has researched the increasing pollution in the river. He published a report in 2017. "The Damodar river is the lifeline of many other districts other than Bokaro. But the power plants located near it are polluting it," said Ravi.

Dr SK Ravi, who is also a dermatologist, said that the river's water is so polluted that it can't be used even for washing clothes, forget about taking bath in it. "One can suffer from various skin diseases if they use this water. The river water contains many harmful chemicals such as arsenic, fluoride, chromium, iron and cobalt. Arsenic could also cause cancer," added Dr Ravi.

In Hazaribagh, Bokaro, and Dhanbad of Jharkhand, there is a presence of hundreds of tons of coal. That water is released into the river. These coal washeries throw out around 30 lakh ton debris per year. As per the Jharkhand Pollution Control Board (JPCB), there are 94 industries, of which, most of them are power plants and coal washeries.

Pollution level of rivers in Jharkhand

In July 2019, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has given orders to shut industries and factories in most affected areas of Bokaro and Dhanbad.

Saryu Rai, the Food Supply Minister in Jharkhand, has been running the Damodar Bachao Andolan since 2004. He told Gaon Connection that there has been an improvement in the condition of the Damodar river. "The pollution level in the river has decreased. Around 95% of debris flowing from the power plants into the river has been cut down," he said.

"The government is working on utilisation of fly ash. Although there is a lot to do, yet there has been a significant decrease in the pollution level of the Damodar river. A few companies throw debris illegally into the river, we are making them understand," added Saryu.

Shrestha Banerji, who has been working with the Center of Science and Environment told Gaon Connection that small drains connected with the Damodar river are also getting polluted. The villagers use that water.

Dr Nitish Priyadarshi, who is an environmentalist and geologist at Ranchi University, said: "River Nalkari, which is heavily-polluted, is a tributary of Damodar River. There's a dam along this river, which releases toxic ash directly into the river. There's no solution to manage this fly ash. And nobody follows the order of the court or the NGT. The common man has to suffer because of these mine dust."

"People living in Hazaribagh are aging prematurely. They are falling sick," added Dr Nitish.

Read Also: Part 1 Toxic leak from NTPC's Singrauli coal plant contaminates water

Read Also: The dark secret of Jharkhand's shiny mineral mica


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