The Toll of Producing Power in India

May 10, 2012 Updated: October 1, 2015
India energy
Children in Chillika Daad village living in extreme poverty. Aggressive mining leading to water shortage in Chillika Daad Village near the open cast coal mine over burden in Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh, India. (Courtesy of Greenpeace/Sudhanshu Malhotra)

SINGRAULI, India—India is hungry for energy, and Singrauli—the energy capital of India—is providing it with its needs. Its human costs, however, are becoming increasingly clear.

The Singrauli region spreads across the north-central Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh—a vast area that boasts a richness in mineral resources.

Coal mining spread over an area of 850 square miles and the thermal power plants, however, have taken a toll on some of India’s most threatened forests and on people’s health.

The lack of sustainable coal waste management and the increase in forest clearance have put the industrial region on India’s top-10 list for pollution in highly populated areas, according to data published by the Central Pollution Control Board of India.

“Coal ash is the main waste that comes out of the coal mines. It is either disposed of as smoke or mixed with water into the liquid ash pond. The chemicals in coal ash are more toxic than poison. It has caused irreparable damage to the health of people here,” said Ranjeet Gupta, an environmental activist from the village of Dibulganj.

The village is near two power plants and the Rihand Dam. “In the vicinity of the dam passes a pipeline carrying liquid coal ash waste from the power plant to the liquid ash pond. We constantly fear underground leakage from the pipeline. The village depends on groundwater from hand pumps, and there’s every possibility of the water being contaminated,” Gupta said.

“We don’t even have water to take a bath. The open bodies of water are so dirty. This in itself is a big problem,” he said.

Greenpeace, which published a report last September on the situation in Singrauli, says that there are 21 key harmful substances in coal.

Just two decades ago, the area was still being tended by small landholders, who were dependent on the region’s forests. Massive industrial development over the past decades has significantly altered local peoples’ lives.

“The landscape of the region today appears to have been overcome by an energy juggernaut, an overwhelming and advancing force that crushes any other manner in which the region can be approached or understood,” the report said.

The water supply is not alone in bearing testimony to this high pollution. According to Gupta, while the air is better during monsoon season, the summers witness extremely poor quality of air. “The smoke coming out of chimneys keeps on falling on our homes and we keep on inhaling it!” he said.

In all the villages in the proximity of the coal mines and/or thermal power plants visited by Greenpeace’s fact-finding team, residents complained not only of health problems, but of a complete lack of access to health facilities.

According to the report, many people in the region have multiple health problems. People often complain of respiratory ailments, tuberculosis, skin diseases, polio, and joint pains. In many instances, they also described a sudden drop in energy levels and the ability to carry out normal activities.

Gupta’s 50-year-old mother, Neerpata Devi, often suffers from respiratory disorders. She says, “Sometimes I cough as long as one and a half hours. There are times when it continues for the whole day. I have been consulting a doctor in the nearby NTPC hospital for four or five years. There is no respite. Doctors say it’s allergies. I cannot enjoy drinking water and eating like a normal person would. I cannot work to my best. It’s very troublesome.”

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