- Chhattisgarh has the highest number of thermal power plants in the country. Fly ash released in large quantities from these power plants is affecting the health of the local people.
- In 1999, the central government had issued guidelines for 100% utilisation of fly ash, but even today they have not been fully adhered to.
- The fly ash from power plants is being dumped illegally on roadsides, ponds, school grounds and even crematoriums.
In Chhattisgarh, lakhs of tonnes of fly ash, released every day from thermal power plants, is affecting the lives of the local people. Many of the ponds built to store this ash are also filled to the brim. For several years now, this ash has been utilised in road construction, for making bricks or for dumping mines that are closed. However, the large quantities of ash released every day is affecting the health of the people.
The coal found in India has 30-40% ash content. This ash emanating from the burning of coal in thermal power plants not only contains particulate matter 2.5 (PM 2.5), black carbon, arsenic, boron, chromium and lead, but also silicon dioxide, aluminum oxide, ferric oxide and calcium oxide. These ash particles fly for many kilometres in the air, and eventually settle on water and other surfaces.
Summers are worse. In cities like Korba and nearby villages, it is common to see clouds of ash storms spread over many kilometres. On the other hand, during the monsoon lakhs of tonnes of ash flow along with the water and end up contaminating fields and polluting water sources.
Dharamraj Dewangan, a resident of Korba, says, “Now that summer is here, Korba is going to turn into a hell. Fly ash flies around when the wind blows. Every day, a layer of ash accumulates on the roofs and courtyards of our houses. Our throats are always itchy and when we spit, particles of ash come out. Ash particles also settle in the corners of our eyes.”
Fly ash everywhere
The deadline fixed for 100% utilisation of ash released from thermal power plants keeps getting extended year after year. In 1999, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) issued guidelines for the full utilisation of coal ash. But these guidelines have not been implemented in many states to date.
In 2021-22, 200 thermal power stations across the country, having a capacity of 213 megawatts (GW), produced 270.82 million tonnes (MT) of ash. The central government claims that out of this, 95.95% (259.86 MT) of ash was utilised. On the other hand, in the same period, 31 thermal power plants in Chhattisgarh generated 25 GW of electricity and produced 44.95 MT of ash, the highest in the country. Of this, 35.28 MT of ash was utilised.
According to the data available till March 31, 2022, 1,734.01 MT of ash released was from power plants across the country. Chhattisgarh alone held a share of 236.43 MT.
Ash lakes are filled to the brim
As per data from the Department of Housing and Environment, Chhattisgarh, which Mongabay-India has procured, until March 2023, 1,056 lakh metric tonnes of ash was collected in the Dhanras Rakhadbandh ash dyke i.e. a pond-like dam to keep the ash from coming out of NTPC’s Korba plant.
Similarly, 520.12 lakh metric tonnes of ash was collected in the Dagniakhar, Lotlota and Jhabu ash dams built for fly ash releasing out of the state government’s power plant. 192.56 lakh metric tonnes of ash has been dumped in the Pandripani ash dam. According to the state Housing and Environment Department, until the last fortnight, a total of 1,962.54 lakh metric tonnes of ash has been collected in Korba and this quantity is increasing day by day. Many ash mountains can be seen in Korba and the surrounding areas. In the monsoon, this ash will get dissolved in rainwater and contaminate fields and water sources.
In districts like Korba, Raigarh, Janjgir-Champa and Bilaspur, power companies are illegally dumping ash in open fields, forests, drains and ponds. Ash can also be found dumped on roadsides, crematoriums, school grounds and in many pockets of cities, affecting the daily lives of people. But the process of dumping ash continues unabated.
Lakhekumari Rathore, the sarpanch of Seoni in Chhattisgarh’s Janjgir-Champa district was dismissed from employment after she allowed the dumping of ash from a power company in the village pond. The power company ended up filling the entire pond with fly ash.
Around the same time, officials from the Environment Protection Board imposed a fine of Rs. 5 lakh on a power station. The officials arrived at a spot after receiving a complaint about several truckloads of ash being dumped illegally behind a school in Godhi in Korba district. Earlier, a power company in the nearby Risdi village was fined Rs. 1.90 lakh for the illegal dumping of ash.
In Baridih village, a pond dug at a cost of Rs 13 lakh under the Employment Guarantee Scheme was illegally dumped with ash by a power company before it could be used. The matter is still under investigation. Cases of cattle dying after getting stuck in ash swamps or due to the breaking of the bund of the ash ponds are common.
The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has issued several guidelines in the last few years taking into account the detrimental effects of fly ash. The Chhattisgarh High Court, while hearing a petition filed last month regarding the issue of ash being thrown around arbitrarily, and its side effects, appointed three advocates as amicus curiae and directed them to investigate the matter.
Social activist Lakshmi Chauhan, who has filed several petitions in the High Court and the Supreme Court regarding pollution and the heavy presence of ash in Korba, tells Mongabay-India, “The government had directed that this ash should be used to fill the lands vacated by coal mines. Three coal mines in Korba were also allotted for the same purpose. It is a pity that no one is interested in following these guidelines.”
Impacts on the livelihood of people
The fly ash is impacting the health of the people and making the land infertile. Three years ago, the State Health Resource Center in Chhattisgarh claimed after a survey that fly ash is also contaminating irrigation water which is affecting paddy crops. In addition, many farmers have reportedly abandoned their lands due to the reduction in crop productivity.
On the basis of the survey, The State Health Resource Center claimed last year that air pollution in Korba is 28 times more than the national standard level and is at a critical level.
According to the Air Quality Report-2021 released last year by the State Health Resource Center, the standard level of particulate matter 2.5 or PM 2.5 in the air in India is 60 µg/m3 and 10 µg/m3 in the world. But in Korba, it is at an alarming level in the 14 areas that were examined in its survey. The level of PM 2.5 in the air in the Imli Chapar area was 1,613.3 while it was 1,699.2 in the Gandhi Nagar Sirki. The lowest PM 2.5 level was registered at the BALCO checkpost (150.3) but even that was much higher than the standard level.
In some areas in Korba, silica was found to be 89.9 against the standard level of 3, Nickel stood at 0.050 against the standard 0.0025, Lead was at 0.117 as opposed to 0.15 and Manganese was at 0.994 against the standard 0.15. This has directly affected the nervous system, lungs, respiratory system, heart, kidney, skin, blood, and eyes of the people living in Korba.
Mrityunjay Chandrakar, a science student who had come to the district hospital for the treatment of his asthmatic mother, says, “Earlier, my mother’s asthma was under control, but now we have to visit the hospital every month. Power plants in Korba have ruined our lives. It sometimes feels as if we are living on a pile of ashes.”
According to the report of the State Health Resource Center, the level of PM 2.5 in and around the same district hospital was measured at 185.5. The levels of nickel, silica and manganese were at 0.042, 14.1 and 0.070, respectively.
However, RP Tiwari, member secretary of the Chhattisgarh Environment Protection Board, who holds office in the state capital Raipur, completely rejects all these figures and claims. The department also claims that the report of the State Government’s Health Resource Center is completely wrong.
“We have tied up with several mines for the disposal of ash released from power plants. Everything is going on as per the norms in Korba. If there are any complaints, let us know, we will take action,” says Tiwari.
Jyotsna Mahant, a Member of Parliament (MP) from Korba, accepts that in the past four years, her government has not been able to take steps to get rid of the ash. A large population of Korba is facing multiple issues due to the presence of fly ash”, he said while talking to reporters. “We could not do much in four years. There are shortcomings. We accept our faults. I will tell the local minister and the chief minister that this issue should be dealt with head on.”
State Health Minister TS Singhdeo also admits that the situation in Korba, Raigad and Siltara in Raipur is worrisome due to fly ash pollution. He told Mongabay-India, “People’s health has been adversely impacted due to fly ash in Korba as it directly affects the lungs. The condition is worrisome. Our department is doing its bit, but it is necessary to deal with pollution on a war footing. We need to focus on optimum utilisation of ash from power plants.”
This story was first published in Mongabay Hindi.
Read more: [Photos] In the dark world of white clay
Banner image: A worker cleaning fly-ash dust on the Hasdeo Barrage. Representative Image. Photo by India Water Portal/Flickr.