Sonbhadra’s tryst with fake news gets more attention than its reality

  • Sonbhadra district in Uttar Pradesh, which recently came to limelight for fake reports of high reserves of gold, is part of the region known as the energy capital of India with several thermal power plants and mines.
  • However, the region that was first identified as a critically polluted area around 30 years ago is still reeling under high levels of air and water pollution.
  • Now, an expert panel of the environment minister has recommended environment clearance to a 1,600-megawatt project in the region even as experts and activists continue to demand a cumulative study to ascertain the capacity of the area and stringent measures to control the pollution.

Uttar Pradesh’s Sonbhadra region has recently been at the centre of attention for fake reports of massive gold reserves found in the region. It’s about time the district did get some attention though – Sonbhadra, an important energy hub in India, is among the most critically polluted areas and also among the backward regions of the country.

While the government admits that the “whole country is benefiting from this region, which was once full of forests and hills,” these benefits are not translating into an improvement in the quality of life for the citizens who actually live there.

Now, even as 30 years have passed since the area was identified as a critically polluted area and it continues to be so, an expert panel of the environment ministry has recommended environment clearance to a 1,600-megawatt thermal power plant in the area.

Sonbhadra, which is the second-largest district of Uttar Pradesh, is the only district in India that borders four states – Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh Jharkhand and Bihar. It is an industrial zone with minerals like bauxite, limestone, coal, gold etc. 

According to the official data, Sonbhadra region has three cement factories, one of the biggest aluminium plants, a chemical factory and an energy hub of India (coal-based thermal power plants and hydropower), which generates 11,000 megawatts (MW) with plans to reach 20,000 MW. Of the present 11,000 MW, the Vindhyachal Thermal Power Station accounts for 4,760 MW, which is the largest capacity in India.

Sonbhadra (in Uttar Pradesh) and the adjoining district, Singrauli (in Madhya Pradesh), with their massive presence of power plants and coal mines in the area are together considered as the “energy capital of India”. Surguja region of Chhattisgarh, another area that has coal mines, is adjoining Sonbhadra as well.

Sonbhadra district in Uttar Pradesh. Map from Wikimedia Commons.
Sonbhadra district in Uttar Pradesh. Map from Wikimedia Commons.

But this massive presence of power plants and coal mines concentrated in the region also results in a huge amount of air and water pollution. 

According to the Comprehensive Environment Pollution Index of the Central Pollution Control Board, which is India’s top pollution watchdog, the region is counted as among the most critically polluted areas in the country. 

“Singrauli area consists of the area pertaining to Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The part of district Sonbhadra in Uttar Pradesh is covered under the Singrauli area. Singrauli area is a major power hub in the country. The availability of rich natural resources and raw material caters to the need of the thermal power plants, aluminium industry, chemical industry, mining industries, cement plants and stone crushers established in Sonbhadra district in Singrauli area. At present approximately 12,000 MW per day power is being generated by the thermal power plants in the Singrauli area. Due to the industrialisation of the area environmental problems have been reported since the last two decades,” noted the CPCB in the pollution index report. 

The CPCB after the detailed environmental status study had identified the area a critically polluted area in 1991 and subsequently, the Singrauli action plan was formulated in 1996. Though the implementation of the action plan has been revised at regular intervals it has not made much of a difference to the lives of the people on the ground. 

“When we talk about the Sonbhadra area of Uttar Pradesh it can’t be looked alone. It has to take into account the pollution load in the adjacent district of Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh as well. Both the areas are among the most polluted ones that we have,” Ravi Shekhar, who is a Campaigner with The Climate Agenda, told Mongabay-India. 

“We need to look at what happened here over the last 20-30 years. All promises made about not transporting coal through road or stopping pollution from old projects remain unfulfilled. For example, the Anpara project’s ash pond is full and they are looking at dumping the ash in an area adjacent to the rehabilitation colony they had developed for people displaced due to their project 30 years ago. It is a very sad situation,” said Shekhar.

No end to Sonbhadra’s misery

While Sonbhadra’s people work to power other people’s lives, their own misery remains in darkness. Last month, the district gained a lot of attention with reports claiming gold reserves to the tune of 3,350 tonnes. The fame didn’t last long as, within a few days, the Geological Survey of India announced that the gold reserves in the area were only 0.16 tonne. Sonbhadra fell off everyone’s radar as quickly as it had gained attention for the false news.

But the quest for black gold, coal power, in Sonbhadra still continues. The expert appraisal committee of the thermal power projects of the central government’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), in its meeting on February 21, 2020, recommended environment clearance for NTPC’s 2×800 MW (Stage-III), Singrauli Super Thermal Power Project in Village Shaktinagar, Sonbhadra.

The project was earlier considered by the EAC in September 2019 but a decision on it was deferred for want of information like carrying capacity of the area, pollution load and green belt, etc. that the expert panel had sought.

A coal mine in Singrauli. Together, the Sonbhadra and Singrauli districts are known as the energy capital of India. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay.
A coal mine in Singrauli. Together, the Sonbhadra and Singrauli districts are known as the energy capital of India. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay.

The information, which was provided to EAC on February 12, 2020, said that the “analysis results of samples from Baliya Nala (upstream and downstream), NTPC, Singrauli indicates that the all the analysed values were in the conformity with the effluent standards notified under Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 for discharge of effluents into inland surface water except BOD.” 

“Ballia Nallah drains off the northern part of Bina (extension) and southern part of Dudhichua coal mines. Further, Senduri and Hadwaria nallah, draining Khadia are also tributaries of Ballia nallah. As the Nallah carries the effluents from various coal mining areas and human settlements, the BOD & COD values are higher. The heavy metal concentration such as iron, zinc, copper, lead, and chromium are well within the permissible limits. However, the concentrations of cadmium, arsenic, and nickel in the groundwater samples of the study area were found to be below detectable levels,” noted the minutes of the EAC’s meeting.

The biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) and chemical oxygen demand (COD) are parameters to ascertain the quality of water.

The minutes also noted that several protected species like the vulnerable species mugger crocodile, python, a threatened species, shikra, jackals, nilgai, black-naped Indian hare, langur, squirrels, wild boars, common mongoose, and 51 bird species are found in the area. The panel was informed that a “wildlife conservation plan has been prepared and submitted for vetting by chief wildlife warden in the state (Uttar Pradesh) wildlife department” and will be implemented after approval of the project. 

As far as pollution load of the area is concerned, the panel noted that the CEPI action plan for Singrauli Power Plant has been prepared and to ensure stringent levels of particulate matter emissions and dry ash collection, the necessary contract has been awarded to BHEL.“Online emission data has been connected to the CPCB and Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board. Two continuous air quality monitoring stations have been established and data linked to the CPCB and the UPPCB. Hazardous waste is sent to authorised recyclers as per the requirement,” the panel was told.

Read more: Singrauli, India’s energy hub, fails to power the lives of its people

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Panel clears project with stringent standards

Aarti Khosla, who is the director of Climate Trends, said that the twin districts of Sonbhadra (UP) and Singrauli (MP) are among the most polluted in India. 

“When the critical environment pollution index was developed, these two areas came up as among the most polluted areas. In the last 30 years, nothing changed and the areas have gone from bad to worse in terms of air and water pollution. In the budget this time, the finance minister talked of shutting old and polluting power plants. Should a study of the pollution load of the power plants in the region not be used to take a fact-based view?” Khosla questioned.

“With the kind of health impacts the communities are facing, including fluorosis, bone deformity, respiratory illness, the quality of life is so bad that most people in Singrauli don’t live beyond 55 years or so. We should decide at what cost we are getting electricity from these power plants,” Khosla told Mongabay-India.

The expert panel, while discussing the project, emphasised that environment ministry has drawn a mechanism to deal with a project requiring the grant of environmental clearance such as imposing stricter pollution control measures, increasing greenbelt from 33 to 40 percent, zero liquid discharge, increasing corporate environmental responsibility cost to two percent (of the project), etc. 

The expert panel also noted that the existing units (Stage-I: 5×200 MW) shall be shut down after the commencement of operations of the proposed project (2×800 MW). 

The EAC held that zero effluent discharge shall be implemented. “The pollution control measures to be implemented to meet new emission norms … There shall not be any relaxation of emission norms in the future considering the project location in Singrauli Critically Polluted area. The air quality of surrounding villages in the study area where the baseline was collected shall be carried out at least once a month in addition to the continuous monitoring at project location,” said the EAC.

However, Shekhar said that “a cumulative impact assessment must be done in the Singrauli region before thinking of any new project in this critically polluted area.”

Banner Image: Sonbhadra plans to generate nearly 20,000 MW of power, mainly from thermal power plants. Photo by Binudubey/Wikimedia Commons.

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