- Earlier this month a breach in the fly ash dyke of a Reliance Power-owned thermal power plant in Madhya Pradesh’s Singrauli region led to fly ash slurry entering nearby agricultural fields and villages, resulting in the death of six people.
- Though the authorities have initiated action against the plant, experts and the local administration note that it was a disaster waiting to happen due to continued violations by the Sasan project. It is the third incident of ash dyke breach in Singrauli in the past one year.
- Environmentalists point out that the latest ash breach in Singrauli has contaminated the region’s biggest water reservoir and could lead to further catastrophe.
- Madhya Pradesh is among the top five in India in terms of fly ash generation and in bottom five in terms of fly ash utilisation.
On April 10, when 26-year-old Ramajor was working in his fields, less than 100 metres from village Siddhi Khurd in Madhya Pradesh’s Singrauli area, he received a call on his mobile phone. “’Run Ramajor… the fly ash dam is going to cave in. We all are going to die,” shouted his uncle on the other end.
Ramajor ran towards the village and on his way, he saw some children playing in the Gohavaya river that runs alongside Siddhi Khurd village. “I shouted and asked them (children) to immediately vacate the river and kept running towards the village. In the village too, I shouted to inform the villagers that a fly ash slurry flood is soon set to enter our village … I was asking people to vacate their houses and run away to safer places,” said Ramajor Shah while narrating his ordeal to Mongabay-India.
Within minutes though, the fly ash slurry flood entered homes in the village, which shares its boundary with Reliance’s Sasan Power Limited’s power plant, and swept away women, children and elderly people.
Upon noticing someone floating in the fly ash slurry flood, Ramajor said that he ran after the body, and found the person stuck near a bridge. He somehow found a rope and managed to save Nanda, sister of Bhaiyaram, another resident of the Siddhi Khurd village. Bhaiyaram’s mother, who came in the grip of the fly ash slurry too, survived, but other members of his family did not. His wife, two children and son-in-law were unable to beat the current of the fly ash slurry flood, that happened due to a breach in the fly ash pond of Reliance Power-owned 3,960-megawatt thermal power plant, the Sasan Ultra Mega Power Project (UMPP).
So far, six people have been confirmed dead. The body of Bhaiyaram’s wife was traced on April 13 the bodies of his two children were recovered on April 14.
Siddhi Khurd is home to over 3,000 people who are mostly engaged in growing paddy or vegetables while some are involved in cattle rearing as well as work the nearby factories of Reliance, Essar, Hindalco, NTPC and Coal India. It bore the major brunt of the fly ash slurry flood that devastated the livelihoods of the families who work both in the farms Most of the villagers who ran out of their houses and survived are now living in shelters but have nowhere to go and are making frantic calls to officials seeking relief.
“Efforts are underway to trace the remaining persons who had gone missing in the slurry floods. The magisterial enquiry will be completed within 45 days,” said Singrauli’s District Magistrate K.V.S. Chaudhary. “Rs 10 lakh (Rs. 1 million) each was paid to the next of kin of the dead, apart from compensation for the houses damaged. The company has also offered jobs to the next of kin of the deceased. A survey of agricultural land damaged due to fly ash has also been done. The money will be deposited in the bank accounts of the farmers,” Chaudhary added.
This is the third such incident in less than 12 months in Singrauli. In August 2019, the ash dyke breach of Essar Energy-owned 1200-MW Mahan power plant took place followed by the ash dyke breach in the NTPC’s Vindhyachal Super Thermal Power Plant (4760 MW) in October 2019.
The ash dyke breach was waiting to happen
The Sasan Ultra Mega Power Project in Singrauli is considered to be one of the largest integrated power projects in the world. Singrauli itself wears the tag of India’s energy capital where giants of India’s energy industry like Reliance, Essar, Hindalco, NTPC, Coal India etc. are operating. The area, which is about 780 kilometres away from Madhya Pradesh’s capital Bhopal, has nine coal-based power plants and two captive power plants with a total capacity of 23,000 megawatts and is also home to a significant number of coal mines owned by both government and private industries.
Environmentalists allege that the operation of many of these power plants in Singrauli is damaging the environment, agriculture, property, and lives of humans and cattle. This breach too was just unsurprising. “On several occasions, we highlighted the issues related to this ash pond, to the district administration and in front of representatives of Reliance’s thermal power plant. But no one listened to us. And finally, the wall of the dam broke the boundaries and entered the village, devastated standing crops, agriculture land, small bridges and farm bunds,” said Roop Narayan Singh, sarpanch of village Siddhi Khurd.
Allegations of residents like Roop Narayan are substantiated by notices that the district administration sent to the Sasan plant. Four notices have been sent to Reliance last year – on October 4 and 22, November 30 and December 17 – claimed Sandeep Shah, who is the president of Visthapit Parivar Sangh, a group formed by the villagers displaced by the project, to raise their demands.
“If Reliance would have adhered to the notices, such a big tragedy wouldn’t have happened and no human life would have lost. Over 1,000 hectares of agricultural land and groundwater sources wouldn’t have suffered damage,” said Shah.
In October 2019, the villagers had even observed a 22-day agitation led by Visthapit Parivar Sangh to draw the attention of Reliance company and district administration and requested them to strengthen the walls of fly ash dyke areas. But the agitation was called off after a meeting with the representatives of the group, villagers, officials of the Singrauli district administration and representatives of Reliance.
“However, both the administration and the Reliance company ignored several of our demands to follow proper guidelines for the construction of dykes or dams that contain fly ash,” said Shah.
Following the incident, the Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board (MPPCB) on April 13 issued direction to the Sasan Power Limited stating that “… In the grab of reclaiming the low lying area with fly ash, industry has started using the area as an ash bund/dyke/pond for the disposal of fly ash slurry above ground level, which is strictly in contradiction of the permission and consent conditions granted by the Board….” The MPPCB has sought an interim relief of Rs. 10 crore (Rs. 100 million) within 15 days and directed the company to start restoration work.
But as of end April, villagers said nothing has happened so far. “Forget about the relief coming to us, the company and the district administration is yet to conduct a door-to-door survey of the village. No survey has been undertaken to estimate the damage done to standing crops and agriculture land caused by the fly ash slurry flood,” alleged Roop Narayan Singh, sarpanch of village Siddhi Khurd.
Former Leader of Opposition of Madhya Pradesh Assembly Ajay Singh alleged that ash dyke breach from Sasan Ultra Mega Power Project took place because the company refused to follow proper guidelines for the construction of dykes or dams that contain fly ash. He demanded registration of criminal cases against the company for the gross negligence.
“The ash dyke breach happened because Reliance refused to construct a dam to contain fly ash as per the guidelines. As a result, human lives have been lost and agricultural fields got damaged. Infact, the ash dyke breach helped the company to save Rs. 100 crores (Rs. 1 billion) that would have been used to transport fly ash to the dumping ground,” alleged Ajay Singh.
In its April 13 letter, the MP Pollution Control Board also observed that due to indiscriminate and uncontrolled discharge of the ash slurry against the conditions of the permission of the low lying area filling and against the conditions of consent, the breakage of illegally constructed bund wall took place resulting in an overflow of fly ash slurry which has caused damage to the environment, agriculture, property and lives of humans and cattle.
The flood led to ash making its way into the agricultural land, residential areas and river stream that flows into the Rihand reservoir, the region’s biggest water source, point out experts who have been monitoring the region using satellite data. They fear this will lead to the contamination of the reservoir, further putting the lives of those dependent on it, in danger.
Sunil Dahiya, an analyst with the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), an independent research organisation working on clean air and clean energy, emphasised that it is clear that numerous warnings were ignored.
“It’s clear that there have been continuous warnings by MPPCB regarding non-compliance of directions and permissions to Sasan but those warnings have been repeatedly ignored resulting in massive breach on April 10 2020, leading to health hazard to public through contamination of nearby agricultural and residential land, river and Rihand reservoir as visible from the satellite images,” Dahiya told Mongabay-Indi.
Residents of Singrauli and Madhya Pradesh to continue facing ill-effects
There are 14 operational coal-powered plants in Madhya Pradesh including those in Anuppur, Khandwa, Singrauli, Narsinghpur, Betul, Umaria, and Seoni districts, while another 20 private thermal plants have been granted environmental clearance to go ahead with construction.
Apart from the impact on air quality by thermal power plants and coal mines, the high rate of fly ash generation and poor rate of its utilisation in the state also adds to the environmental woes of the state.
According to the Central Electricity Authority, Madhya Pradesh is among the top five states in terms of fly ash generation and among the bottom five states when it comes to fly ash utilisation (with only 35 percent utilisation).
“The fly-ash discharged from the thermal power stations has been a source of environmental degradation. Due to fly ash in the agricultural fields, the water sources have become polluted, and livelihood of villagers has been severely affected. With their crops destroyed and their lives threatened, many of the families choose to migrate to market areas, to cities where they become construction workers, security guards, vegetable sellers to survive. If the thermal stations are strictly going to follow notifications of the central government’s environment ministry such incidents may not occur,” said health activist Amulya Nidhi of the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan.
“Such incidents are happening due to careless approach of companies that refuse to follow the guidelines of the environment ministry. It’s high time that both the environment ministry and the Madhya Pradesh government comes up with stronger guidelines so that such ash dyke breach doesn’t happen in future. Otherwise, invaluable human lives will always remain on risk and our rivers, flora and fauna will become toxic,” said Shamarukh Dhara, an environmental activist.
Mongabay-India reached out to the officials of the Sasan Ultra Mega power plant but there was no response. However, in an earlier statement after the incident, the company had said, “We are deeply anguished by the incident involving the break in the ash dump yard wall at our Sasan Power Plant… We are investigating the reasons underlying the incident. The power plant operations will continue as the relief and restoration work is not affected by the same.”
Banner image: Fly ash slurry that entered the villages and farms. Photo by Anup Dutta.