Singrauli
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This article is written by Anisha Bhandari, from the Institute of Law, Nirma University. This article discusses the development of the power of industry and how it has crumbled along with development.

Introduction

Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh, India’s energy industry hub, is estimated to supply around 35,000 megawatts of electrical power to the grid. However, communities living around coal mines and power plants in Singrauli, are facing extreme pollution that has an impact on their health, access to education, employment and overall quality of life. The Central Pollution Control Board and the National Green Tribunal have expressed concerns about the continued pressure on coal in the region, but there is no visible improvement in the lives of locals. Displacement and inequality, owing to power schemes, are not at the core of the forthcoming Madhya Pradesh state elections.

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Coal hub development

Singrauli is more than 670 kilometres away from the capital of Madhya Pradesh, Bhopal, and less than 200 kilometres away from the electoral district of Prime Minister Narendra Modi- Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh.

According to the MP Government, the exploration carried out in the Singrauli area has so far revealed that the area has an abundance of energy-grade coal resources. The government believes that the Singrauli region is the ideal location for high-capacity pithead power plants coupled with an easy water resource from the nearby Govind Ballabh Pant Sagar reservoir. Sonebhadra in Uttar Pradesh and Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh are all adjacent to each other. Together, the Sonebhadra-Singrauli belt is one of India’s largest power companies, with scores of coal mines and power plants in the region.

The majority of the coal produced in the Singrauli district is produced by the Northern Coalfields through mechanized opencast mines. According to the government estimates, coal supplies from the Northern Coalfields (‘NCL’) in Singrauli, have rendered it possible to produce more than 11,000 megawatts of electricity from pithead power plants of the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC). The total electricity generating potential of such power stations is 13,295 megawatts.

Abundant coal reserves have made Singrauli a centre for India’s electricity industry. It is projected that, in the coming years, Singrauli alone will provide about 35,000 megawatts of electrical power to the grid. The ills and side effects of coal mines and thermal power plants seem to have been part of life for about 1.1 million residents in Singrauli. Mongabay-India has recently travelled across the district, finding that air pollution or contaminated groundwater/water bodies are no longer an issue for many in the region. 

NCL maintains, however, that since its inception, it has been a leader in environmental management among open-cast mines in India, and that its work is “guided by sound environmental practices, without exception.”

New recovery techniques and initiatives have been taken to manage all mining projects in an environmentally friendly manner. The proposed construction of mines with proper planning, greening, settlements, blacktopped paths, scheduled backfilling, and bio-reclamation have been the highlights of environmental management, “states NCL on its website. “The amount of trees planted so far has been the largest of all the coal companies and more than 2,33 crores have been planted.”

Later, the government introduced a plan named ‘Transform Singrauli,’ which contributed to an increase in SingrauIi ‘s rank on paper, but, on the ground, the fact did not shift.

Environment degradation

Activists and analysts said that there are dozens of cases concerning Singrauli problems in the [National Green Tribunal] NGT has issued a series of instructions to improve the environmental quality of the city, however, the execution of the NGT’s instructions on the ground, remains uncertain.

Singrauli is listed by the Central Pollution Control Board, India’s main pollution inspector, as a highly contaminated industrial region. The field, which has one of the last remaining natural carbon sinks in the form of the oldest sal forests, has been overburdened by mining and power production and has been losing at a rapid pace over the last decade. The livelihood of individuals, the most important elephant migratory corridors, along with the flora and fauna of the region, is on the brink of extinction, due to unregulated and unchecked coal mining.

Most power plants in the area that emitted above the permitted limits provided by the Union Environment Minister for coal-fired power plants, are little more than a violation against the Singrauli residents. Also, the power plants such as Badarpur have been shut down as a consequence of pollution problems in Delhi, but on the other hand power plants in Singrauli are authorized to hold emissions above per capita.

Coal has been a fuel for geographies and nations, but Singrauli turned out to be a plague that not only influences human health, the climate and the economy but also the biodiversity as a whole. Power plants were required to retrofit and regulate the pollution as early as practicable, and no new coal-fired power plants or industry were permitted to work in the regions, because the area’s combined ability to prevent all additional contaminants, has been depleted for a long time.

If coal-burning were a symbol of growth, Singrauli might have become the most viable place in India by supplying around 15% of the country’s coal-fired electricity on its own. Yet the fact is quite the reverse. Singrauli suffers from serious environmental damage. The term “sustainable development” has no meaning for people in this area, where coal mining started several decades ago. Tribal communities in the region have been expelled from their homes and compelled to lead a miserable life. Once upon a time, this region was recognized as a pulse cup, but today farmers are struggling at the hands of power companies who are purchasing their property.

Forest production, which was a source of livelihood for locals, is no longer there. As a result, the whole area of Singrauli is currently in a state of emergency where people are suffering from poor health. In some cases, mercury is found in the blood of newborns, which shows that the so-called development of the area over the last 50-60 years has made the food cycle of the area poisonous. It has caused permanent harm.

The dimension of politics

Madhya Pradesh is one of the five states – along with Chhattisgarh, Telangana, Rajasthan and Mizoram – that go to polls. There are three legislative bodies in the districts of Singrauli, Chitrangi and Deosar. Although the governing Bharatiya Janata Party is largely quiet on these concerns in its state election manifesto, the Congress Party’s 116-page “Vachan Patra” aims to use 25 percent of the royalties earned [from mining for the provision of drinking water, sanitation, skills growth to skilled unemployed citizens, schooling, safety and empowerment of women in the village itself.

It also agreed that the 1996 PESA (Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Area) Act will be enforced in all proposed (tribe) regions. This pledge can have some relevance with many of the Adivasi citizens who have lost their land to coal mines and thermal power plants and are still fighting for proper resettlement even years after they had been displaced. For example, the Krishna Vihar Colony is now home to Adivasis of the Baiga group who had been displaced from their forest land for a coal mine a few years earlier. However, a few years down the road, the Adivasis affected have yet to obtain the expected fruits of growth.

The settlement, which is situated in the Singrauli headquarters, Waidhan, has electricity meters built, but the Adivasis have no money to compensate for it. Much of their houses are built of dirt, so they always have to get the proper work they were told. As a result, they are forced to work as a wage labourers on a daily basis. None of the inhabitants of Baiga Adivasi was unable to manage even a mud house after they migrated from the jungle.

Singrauli is an area dominated by Adivasis, a land of abundant water, forests, and agriculture. It was never meant for the industry, but when coal was discovered here, it led to the destruction of forests. Here, all the major corporations of the world have built power plants, and the farmers of the region have gradually become employees. This led to issues of migration and jobs. Citizens are not even willing to operate for life today, because businesses working here tend to import staff from other states because they fear the residents would sooner or later start seeking permanent employment. Of the three assembly seats in the Singrauli area, the CPI is battling for only two seats – Singrauli and Deosar – where mining displacement is a matter of concern.

Incidents affecting the district

The latest ash dyke breach of the Sasan Ultra Mega Power Project (UMPP) coal-owned dependency power plant on 10 April 2020 is not a stand-alone occurrence, it is a repeated trend over the years and it seems like the frequency of incidents is that over time. This is the third such incident that has taken place in the region since August 2019. There is a large mix of ash in the rivers and the Rihand dams, which renders the question far more relevant than what we might usually find in the general debate on related situations. 

Not only did NTPC and Sasan breaks result in damage and ash spills in residential and agricultural land, but they also contaminated the nearby streams and ultimately led to ash spills reaching and contaminating the Rihand Reservoir. Contamination of the Rihand Reservoir, the largest source of water for both human and ecological needs in the area, is a serious concern. Environmental risks and the harm to the environment incurred by these leaks into water sources. In an earlier research conducted by the Centre for Science and Environment ( CSE) in 2012, CSE checked blood and hair samples in people living in the district of Sonbhadra and found that 84% of the blood samples tested and 58% of the hair samples tested had very high mercury rates. The study has also reported that:

Mercury in Sonbhadra has poisoned groundwater. The highest mercury concentration was found in the hand pump water sample of Dibulganj–0.026 ppm. 

Gobind Ballabh Pant Sagar ‘Rihand’ Reservoir is also contaminated by mercury. The amount detected in the reservoir where Aditya Birla Chemicals Limited’s caustic soda production unit releases its effluent (Dongiyanallah) was 0.01 ppm.

The fish in the area have been found to be contaminated with methylmercury. Fish from nearby Dongiyan Allah had 0.447 ppm of methyl mercury, almost double the level set by the Food Health and Quality Authority of India (FSSAI).

MoEF&CC (Ministry of the Environment Forest and Climate Change) came into force in 1999 with the Fly Ash (Utilization) Notification under the Environmental Protection Act, which provided for 100% of the use of fly ash within nine years from the date of notification. More than 20 years have gone by and the usage of ash by power plants remains an unresolved problem. Since then, deadlines have been expanded many times coupled with the flexibility of the use of fly ash for various uses.

Conclusion

Coal ash includes small quantities of heavy metals such as (lead (Pb), mercury ( Hg), arsenic (As), cadmium (Cd ), chromium (Cr), and antimony (Sb). After human contact, these heavy metals destroy nearly any organ and related organ function, including the liver, heart, central nervous system, and blood supply in humans. Exposure to these factors has often been associated with reduced language abilities, heightened agitation, extreme distress, academic impairment, hallucination, child development retardation, and premature birth. 

With these increasing incidences, such as high level of presence and spilling / disposing of coal into the soil, air and water environments and ultimately finding its way into the human body through contact with the skin, respiratory tract and food chain, Singrauli people are exposed to all kinds of health hazards mentioned above and many more.

More ironically, the government is still granting permission to add new coal-based power to the region. Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) recommended environmental clearance for the establishment of two additional units of 800 MW each (1600 MW) at the NTPC Singrauli Super Thermal Power Plant in February 2020.

The only way to ensure a healthy environment in the region is to take strict measures to ensure the non-compliance of regulations and ignorance leading to such incidences, i.e. to provide appropriate compensation to all directly and indirectly affected persons. Efficient pollution control and strict implementation of standards/regulation by power plants, industries and mines in the region. Reduce the pressure on the area by halting all new added potential for coal mines and power generating ventures in the country. Aggressive interventions in the area to ensure the preservation of livelihood prospects for communities, i.e. entitlement to community / individual land rights; agriculture and livestock breeding and employment development in the clean/decentralized renewable energy generation field.


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