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Of rights, wrongs and infirmities in the law

Business line, New Delhi,  24 November 2013

Green regulations may be the biggest stumbling block for the power sector, but on the ground, their impact is seldom visible.


In the densely populated slums surrounding the Badarpur power plant, situated on the southern edges of the National Capital, little piles of a white cement-like substance are often used by children as makeshift sandpits. The ‘sand’ is actually fly ash — coal ash from the thermal plant.


Amina, the wife of a contract labourer, says: “Andar (indicating the plant) se aata hai. Ise cement mein milakar bechte hain hum (It has come from the plant. We mix it in cement and sell it).” She is referring to the practice of mixing fly ash with cement to make “green” concrete.


Fly ash is a by-product of the coal burnt in thermal power plants. And its disposal is a concern because of the dangers posed by air, land and water pollution.


Further, the presence of a number of heavy metals in fly ash adds to the health risks for the larger population.


“The incidence of lung diseases is very high, along with allergic skin and eye conditions. Almost 70 per cent of patients come with breathing trouble and are mostly diagnosed with asthma or bronchitis,” says a local GP, on condition of anonymity. “I cannot be certain but the trend could be due to exposure to air pollutants like fly ash.”


Fly ash contains silica, alumina, oxides of iron, calcium, and magnesium and toxic heavy metals like lead, arsenic, mercury and others. S. Pathak, a research fellow in Delhi, who has monitored health conditions in Badarpur, says: “The people there suffer from various diseases starting from their heart to the kidneys and reproductive organs that could be due to heavy metal toxicity.”


Environmental regulations may be the biggest stumbling block for the power sector, but on the ground, their impact is seldom visible.


Nitya Nanda, Fellow at TERI, says that right from mining, which degrades ecological diversity and causes air and water contamination, to burning coal, which releases carbon dioxide and other toxic gases, to production and disposal of fly ash, there are many problems associated with thermal power plants.


In recent years, many of these plants have found themselves stuck in the process of receiving environmental clearance. One such example is Mahan, which falls in a densely forested region in Madhya Pradesh. Under former Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, the region had been termed a no-go area, indicating that activities such as mining cannot take place. This was later revoked.

Disregarding the law


Activists allege that the plant is in an ecologically sensitive zone and violates the rights of the region’s tribal people.


Priya Pillai, an activist with Greenpeace, says that besides exposing the forest to environmental damage, the project does not respect the rights of local communities, under the Forest Rights Act.


“The Forests Advisory Committee had rejected the clearance for this project four times,” says Pillai. Besides, recently it was also found that some consent forms had been forged to get clearance.


The coal will be available only for about 14 years and it is unjust to destroy forests that have been around for thousands of years, she said. Only about a third of the forests in the region are currently standing. “The other problem is that if one mine is cleared there are seven others waiting for clearance in the region,” she adds.


Typically, the Government gives environment clearance for a project of public significance only after a proper cost-benefit analysis.


Environmental impact assessment studies are a part of this process. They determine the possible environmental challenges and magnitude of people displacement facing a project and also look at ways to mitigate the risk.


However, the implementation of these plans after project clearance has been shrouded in controversy.


Recently, local communities raised their voice against the Tata Mundra Plant in Gujarat. A study by the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO), the independent recourse mechanism of the International Finance Corporation (IFC), which funded the project, found credibility in the issues raised by the locals.


“CAO finds that IFC’s review of its client’s E&S (environmental and social) assessments was not “commensurate with…risk” in relation to fisher people seasonally resident on Tragadi and Kotadi bunders,” the report notes.


The audit arm found issues with the assessment of the project’s social impact, impact on marine life, air pollution and others.