Angul The Next Minamata
The districts of Angul, Talcher, Jajpur, Sundargarh and Jharsuguda in Odisha are rich in natural resources—water, forests, fertile soil, coal and minerals. As a result, this region has seen the highest national level of industrial activity encompassing coal mines, thermal power plants, aluminium smelting, iron and steel, sponge iron etc. Understandably, the region has also emerged as one of the most polluted areas in the country, or perhaps even in the whole world.
There are more than three dozen sponge iron plants, which spew heavy black dust. The discharge of contaminated waste water from the various downstream industrial plants and the run-off from the stock piles and the beneficiation and washing plants of coal and other minerals has leached into the groundwater, contaminating it to a level where it is unsafe both for human and agricultural use.
The solid waste is being dumped into local water bodies like nullahs and rivers, and the ash slurry from ash ponds has choked all the water bodies and riverine system of the districts. The coal ash dispersal due to wind has resulted in the area having one of the highest percentages of Suspended Particulate Matter (SPM) levels in the country. Woes betide if a cyclonic storm happens in summer, the dry ash will be blown up to the stratosphere with perilous consequences, similar to what happened in the skies after volcanic eruptions recently. But pollution is not the only problem. Use of increasing amounts of land for coal ash and solid waste disposal, depletion of ground water due to mining activities and direct diversion of water for industrial purposes, increase in local temperatures due to the industries like thermal plants, are the other impacts in the area, all leading to severe health problems and destruction of livelihoods like agriculture and fisheries.
However, for the populace there is worse to come in the coming years. The inhabitants of these four districts are grappling with the problems of pollution, depletion of water resources, displacement from their villages, ill health and malnutrition. Just last month there was an epidemic spread of dengue and cerebral malaria. Important determinants like the Infant Mortality Ratio, the Average Life Expectancy etc. are alarmingly much higher than the national average.
However, the Government of Odisha has on the anvil a massive industrial expansion plan that will increase the industrial activity in the area manifold from what it is now. The biggest growth in these districts will come in the numbers and capacities of thermal power plants being set up. The abundance of coalfields in these districts make it the Mecca of the power corporates. The present installed power generation in Odisha, most of it coal based, is close to 7500 MW. Now, capacity addition to the tune of 75000 MW is at various stages of planning. Out of this, about 40000-45000 MW is just in few districts of Angul, Jharsuguda, Dhenkanal and Sundargarh. The impact of this expansion and creation of a concentration or a cluster of thermal power plants is likely to be catastrophic.
Large areas of land will be taken up for the plants, related coal mines as well as for the ash disposal. Air, water and land pollution will increase tremendously. One of the major problems is the impact of the ash generated. Burning of coal generates large quantities of ash with about 40 tonne of ash being generated for every 100 tonne of coal burnt. The 1080-MW Nalco Captive Power Plant in Angul generates about 7200 tonne of ash per day, nearly 2.2 million tonnes per year. Though the ash is disposed of into ash ponds by converting it into a slurry and piping it out to the pond, it still causes many problems to the neighbouring villages.
According to locals, the ash from the ponds is very often surepptiously discharged into the Nandira river at night. Over the last few years there have been three incidents of the ash pond breaching and engulfing the nearby area, rendering fertile land unusable for years to come. The dried ash gets blown by the winds and settles everywhere. At times even spectacles get covered with sooty layers. One can only imagine what will happen when the ash generation goes up eight-fold from the current levels after the large number of power plants being planned come online.
However, the biggest impact is likely to be on the water resources of the area. Thermal power plants need large quantities of water for cooling and for ash disposal. The Central Electricity Authority gives a thumb rule for water requirement for thermal power plants as 3.92 million cubic metres per year per 100 MW of capacity. This means that the 45000 MW to be added will require 1700 million cubic metres of water per year to operate.
To put it in perspective, this water is sufficient to irrigate close to 350,000 ha of land. Besides, the upstream and downstream requirements of water for these thermal plants will be huge. Combined with the pollution, this consumption of water will have a shattering impact on the health and livelihoods of the people in the area. It is no wonder protests against such plants are coming up strongly in the state. In 2007, more than 30,000 farmers gathered at the Hirakud reservoir, forming a human chain in protest against the allocation of water to industries when they were not getting water for irrigation.
The Siddhivinayak Anchalik Suraksha Samiti of Naraj Marthapur is opposing the Tata Power’s 1000 MW thermal power plant being constructed on the banks of the Mahanadi in Cuttack district. They are opposing the project on grounds of displacement, ash and other pollution and the large quantities of water consumption of the project all of which will result in the destruction of agricultural and fisheries-based livelihoods.
The last—the water offtake of the project—has found resonance with the people of the area. They fear that the massive industrialisation in the Mahanadi basin and withdrawal of increasing amounts of water for industries from the river and the upstream Hirakud reservoir will have a serious impact on the water resources on which they depend for the domestic needs, and for fishing and farming. A Mahanadi Bachao Samiti has been formed in Cuttack to protest against such water withdrawal, including water for the POSCO project, which is to be taken from the Jobra barrage near the city. The Baitarini Bachao Samiti of Keonjhar too is spearheading the Save Baitarini Campaign against the drawing of water by Essar and BRPL for pipeline transportation of iron ore. Just last month, the Collector of Keonjhar stopped the project on grounds of gross violations of forest and environmental laws.
The response of the state has been to prepare environmental management plans in December 2010 that promise that the current situation of “critically polluted industrial clusters” will soon be alright. The State Pollution Control Board has prepared two plans for the three Critically Affected Areas, namely Ib Valley, Jharsuguda and Angul-Talcher. These plans state that the CEPI has already dropped significantly below the critical level of 70, and will soon drop even further with the implementation of the action plans.
As a response, the MoEF issued a memo on March 31, 2011, stating that the moratorium on considerations of projects for environmental clearance from Angul-Talcher area is being lifted as the state has submitted and initiated the implementation of the environmental action plans. Thus, even though the pollution due to the existing industries hardly been addressed, the way has been opened up for large number of new industries to come up. This is hardly any solace to the local people.
I travelled around the area recently and visited the hotspots. The huge embankment of the Ash Pond of the Nalco Captive Power Plant is visible as the train reaches Angul Station. The height of the pond is increased every year, as the pond gets filled up. One can only guess about the consequences if this pond breaches once again.
The locals have little faith in the government’s assurances that things will change or improve. The State Pollution Control Board agrees that contamination of groundwater with fluoride has been found in villages near the Nalco smelter but villagers say that little has been done to mitigate or compensate the terrible sufferings they have been put through. Given the track record and the disconnect between the situation on the ground and what’s recorded on paper, given the enormous financial muscle and political clout of the big corporates who have the state administration eating off their hands, there is little hope for the people to believe that things will improve.
I went for an early morning visit to Jindal Nagar, the township coming up on the outskirts of Angul. There was a huge gate and when I tried to take a photograph from the road, a whole phalanx of security men came charging at me. An argument ensued and they told me that photography was strictly prohibited, even from the public road. Even my press credentials did not hold good. On my insistence, I was connected to their security manager one GBS Chauhan who said that he would meet me only if I deposited my camera at the security gate. The paranoia strengthened the rumours that I had picked up in the vicinity of the high-handedness of the project authorities which resulted in repeated clashes with the locals. Just last month, the Inspector of the Banarpal Police Station was beaten up by villagers for siding up with the plant authorities. Among police authorities, it is a wellknown fact that postings in the plant areas are lucrative as it ensured a double pay packet with a lot of freebies thrown in. The police also act as brokers for getting employment for their relatives in these projects.
With the number and capacities of industries such as coal mining and thermal power plants are likely to go up manifold, the situation is likely to deteriorate further. Under the circumstances it is imperative that there should be a moratorium on giving permission for new projects and to ensure that environmental clearance of the already approved projects are subjected to scrutiny.
The monitoring and regulation of pollution is being done mostly in a bureaucratic manner. This has to change to include the local communities, giving them a consolidated voice in monitoring and regulating pollution and its impact.
Angul teaches us about politics, particularly as they might apply to environmentalism. The affected people are suffering not only from a physical handicaps but also are politically handicapped. Due to their economic status and the social dimensions of industrialisation their livelihoods are being destroyed in degrees. Unless corrective measures are taken, Odisha is headed for another round of severe unrest and protests similar to those that have been faced in POSCO, Kalinganagar, Niyamgiri and other places.
India has seen disasters such as the massive release of methyl isocyanate gas from Union Carbide plant in Bhopal. In the global scenario, incidents like those at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl or the Valdez oil spill can also be dismissed as “accidents” or exceptional single occurrences. One should not forget the larger threats are posed by low-level but more sustained release of chemicals, the “slow-motion” Bhopals.
Angul is a paradigm of informing an environmental ethos that treading lightly is advisable where consequences are unknown. Even so, no one can foretell the longer-term and sometimes undesirable consequences of action, and we must cope with them as they emerge. But it is hard to measure the real cost. One should not forget the consequences when man disregards environment and the after effects of his actions.
By Anil Dhir from Angul