Nagpur: It was a winter morning in Vidarbha and the road to Nagpur district's Nandgaon village was lined with hoardings and posters welcoming Maharashtra's environment minister Aaditya Thackeray who had visited the village just earlier that week.

This village is the site of an ash pond, literally, a pond of fly ash that is the residue from coal power plants. After villagers and civil society activists protested the dumping of fly ash here over concerns of pollution, the Maharashtra government asked the state utility to stop dumping more coal ash and remove the freshly-dumped ash within 15 days. Land for this ash pond had been acquired from the same village and an ash pond constructed over it around two decades ago.

Environmentalists have hailed it as a win but Dashrath Giri, the watchman of the ash pond, does not agree.

"I gave up 3.45 acres of land for this ash pond," said Giri, standing at his post near the pump house. "For the 10 years that I have been working here as a watchman, my salary has only been Rs 6,000. As compensation for land acquisition, my son got a job at Khaparkheda thermal plant--but only as a temporary workman, which means he can be sacked at will. Soon I will retire, and with no land or source of income, what will we eat?"

Giri's story is not unique, and many young men speak of how they felt cheated. Despite giving up land for the ash pond decades ago, the jobs they are eligible for are mostly temporary, with salaries as low as Rs 6,000-Rs 7,000.

Even those whose land was not acquired are miserable. Imagine a giant bowl located at a height, with an embankment--that is the ash bund that has the village on its downward slope, leading to flooded fields, damaged crops and the entire village being marooned during the monsoons.

While people elsewhere in the country are protesting displacement due to infrastructure projects, residents of Nandgaon, living in the shadow of a coal power plant's ash pond, are demanding to be displaced from their ancestral land and rehabilitated elsewhere.

"Ithe kay rahila nay. Amhala ithna bhayer kadha (There is nothing left here, take us out of here)," Ashwini Thakre, a villager, told IndiaSpend.

This is the second and final part of our series on those who are impacted most directly by power plants fuelled by the carbon dioxide generating fossil fuel, coal. The first part reports on the environmental and health fallouts of the fly ash generated from the power plants, and the failure of the state utility to prevent water and air pollution in the area. The second part is about how a coal ash pond's construction left the very village it took land from uninhabitable, taking away villagers' livelihood and giving what they call a paltry compensation in return.

From landowners to landless workers

Note: The map is representational and is based on a November 2021 report by the NGO, Centre for Sustainable Development. Base map - ESRI/QGIS.
Designed by: Vishal Bhargav/IndiaSpend

The 258-hectare Nandgaon ash pond was constructed to service the Khaparkheda thermal power plant, located about 10 km away. The thermal power plant's earlier Waregaon ash bund had exhausted its capacity, following which the Maharashtra State Power Generation Company Limited (commonly known as 'Mahagenco') started dumping ash slurry into Nandgaon in December 2021.

While the locals had given land for this ash pond decades ago, when dumping actually began, it was met with resistance as stories of fly ash causing health problems had become common in the area.

"The acquired land had been lying idle for many years and ash dumping was just starting. One day, a team of NGOs invited me for a meeting with other heads of villages," said village Sarpanch Sonali Varkhade. "In that meeting, I watched a documentary about how other villages are suffering due to coal ash pollution. Ash water was already leaking into our river through the pump house; we did not want any more pollution."

Varkhade was referring to the NGOs Centre for Sustainable Development (CFSD), Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, and Asar, who studied the impact of fly ash on the water and air of villages around two power plants, Khaparkheda and Koradi, in Nagpur district. In a report released in November 2021, the NGOs detailed extensive air and water pollution in the region due to fly ash from the two thermal power plants.

State Environment Minister Aaditya Thackeray visited the Nandgaon ash pond on February 14, 2022 and ordered that both Nandgaon and Waregaon ash ponds be permanently shut, Nandgaon ash pond be restored to its original state and coal power plants be phased down in the state.

When IndiaSpend visited the village on February 19, the villagers said that even though ash dumping has stopped, agriculture was not tenable in the region because the ash pond's construction causes flooding in their farms. In addition, the Pench river is already contaminated.

With very little farming, and no other livelihood opportunities, villagers ask Mahagenco for secure employment or permanent rehabilitation, they told IndiaSpend. According to the terms of the land acquisition, most people got compensation and one job per family, based on their educational qualification and skills. With limited education, most were offered--if they cleared an exam--contractual temporary posts, which left them with a fraction of their earlier agricultural income.

Hiralal Dhanole also got a job as compensation. "I have been working at Khaparkheda thermal power plant for more than 10 years. My first salary was Rs 6,000, and it has reached Rs 14,000 now--but I have no job security."

In Yogita Dhurve's joint family of nine, it was her brother-in-law who got a job at the thermal plant. One day, on his way home from work, his motorcycle met with an accident and he died. He is survived by his wife and two children, who are now dependent on the rest of the family members. The family's remaining 1.5-acre farmland is their primary source of income, but its yield is grossly insufficient to support them. Yogita and her husband go to faraway villages during the off-season, to work as farm labour. "But the income does not even come close to what we would have earned had we still had our land," said Dhurve.

Yogita Dhurve, with her father-in-law, in front of their house in Nandgaon on February 19, 2022. Dhurve and her husband are farmers but also work as labourers to support their family after the death of her brother-in-law who worked at Khaparkheda thermal plant.
Photo credit: Tanvi Deshpande/IndiaSpend

The majority of the villagers said that the monetary compensation they received for land acquisition lasted only for a short while and since then, their financial condition has worsened. A case in point is Yenubai Bangde. She got Rs 1.75 lakh for her 4.5-acre farm. After the land was acquired, her son got a job, but after eight years he is still designated as a "trainee". His salary is Rs 7,000, about half of which is spent on fuel for his motorcycle that he needs to commute to work. There are six people in his family, and Bangde's two other sons are dependent on daily labour to get by.

"We do not want our land back," said Bangde. "What use is it now? We want a better job for my son because what can we do with Rs 7,000?"

Most people in Nandgaon want to be rehabilitated out of this village because of the recurring flooding of their fields. Vijaya Wadel said that the entire village was inundated for three days during last year's monsoon. Despite the village giving up hundreds of acres of land for the ash pond and related activities, there is no hospital or even primary health centre here, and the nearest medical facility is 30 minutes away by motorcycle.

The livelihood crisis has hit the most vulnerable the hardest. Ramdas Meshram is blind. He has five children. His five-acre land was acquired, but nobody from his family got a job because all of them were uneducated and did not have the requisite documents either, according to his son. The same happened with Shaligram Rachore, who had given up most of his 1.45-acre land. Of his two sons, one was offered a job as an apprentice in the plant but could not take it up for lack of documents. The documents required to secure a job include a birth certificate, documents related to land ownership, a project-affected persons' certificate and a land acquisition notice, and both Rachore and Meshram's families had one or the other missing.

"My second son is 25 and does farm labour like me. How do I even save money to do my sons' weddings?" Rachore asked.

The landless have historically depended on working as farm labourers in the village, but with large parts of the land acquired and farming activities dwindling, they now have to go to faraway villages in search of work.

Ramdas Meshram's five acre land was acquired for the Khaparkheda thermal power plant, but nobody from his family got a job there as all of them were uneducated.
Meshram, sitting outside his home in Nandgaon, on February 19, 2022.
Photo credit: Tanvi Deshpande/IndiaSpend

The land acquisition in Nandgaon also robbed women farmers of their jobs, because it was only the men who received work in return for the acquired land. Women had also been working on their family farms, but were not considered for jobs, they told IndiaSpend. "If we can work as farm labourers, why can't we be considered when government jobs are allotted?" said Wadel.

IndiaSpend spoke to R.S. Ghuge, chief engineer of the Khaparkheda thermal power plant, about the villagers of Nandgaon. Ghuge said the major flooding in Nandgaon had happened not because of the ash bund, but because the floodgates of the river Pench had to be opened.

"The ash bund is designed by the Central Design Organisation, and it is done scientifically," said Ghuge, referring to the organisation, under Maharashtra's water resources department that designs dams and power houses. "We have been very considerate towards the villagers. We allowed them to do farming on our land for all these years, but if they want rehabilitation, then it's a policy matter."

He refuted allegations of injustice in job allocation. "We have 50% reservation for PAPs (project-affected people) in our jobs," he said. "Under one of our schemes, employees are given a one-year training. There is a limited salary for PAPs, but those who are permanent get increments."

Villagers had taken up the issue of jobs and livelihood with the state's environment minister Thackeray, who assured them that a plan will be prepared for the "upliftment and employment opportunities for locals in 10 days". That was on February 14. The minister was not available for comment, when IndiaSpend reached out. Calls, messages and an email to District Collector R. Vimala regarding the status of this plan also went unanswered.

Women of Nandgaon ask if they can work as farmers, why were they not considered for compensatory employment when land was acquired for a nearby thermal power plant.
Photo credit: Tanvi Deshpande/IndiaSpend

Crops wilting under toxic ash

On the other side of Nagpur, agriculture in the Kawtha-Mhasala villages is affected by coal ash pollution and not flooding, but the effect is the same. People here too have given up farming and are working in brick kilns instead. Unlike Nandgaon, they do not want to be rehabilitated elsewhere, but want pollution to stop, they said.

"Our crops would die in the second month due to fly ash deposition," said Bhaiyalal Makde, a farmer from Kawtha. "Farmers have given up farming. Those whose land was acquired got compensation in return--but what about those whose lands were not acquired, who received no compensation, but our source of livelihood was destroyed? What was our fault? We should also be getting jobs," he said, echoing concerns of villagers of Nandgaon.

Rajus Irkhede, whose family cultivates tur and soybean in Kawtha, said that their yield has halved due to fly ash deposition. "We are now doing odd businesses, like a small dairy, to supplement our income," she said.

In neighbouring Waregaon, the policy to give one job per family has not gone down well with residents. Rohini Janai, a resident of Waregaon said, "Had the ash bund not come here, both men and women of the family would have cultivated crops and laboured in the family farms. The government gave one job per family, which was not enough and which has forced people to move out. Those who remain do odd jobs like in brick kilns or as coolies, drivers."

A hoarding welcoming Maharashtra environment minister Aaditya Thackeray to Nandgaon. Villagers are satisfied with his announcement that Mahagenco will stop dumping coal ash here, but they also want livelihood opportunities. Photo credit: Tanvi Deshpande/IndiaSpend

The experiences of farmers were also reflected in a report by the CFSD-Manthan-Asar teams, who surveyed 21 villages of Nagpur district. The results showed that at least 18 villages were affected by fly ash deposition on water bodies, fields and homes. At least 14 villages reported that their agricultural land is impacted by ash. Almost all the farmers who responded said that fly ash was depositing on their lands and crops, with 16 out of 20 reporting that their complete holdings were impacted and three reporting that their holding was partially impacted.

Shripad Dharmadhikary, co-author of the report and co-ordinator at Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, believes that the state government must take a decision regarding legacy ash in ash ponds in the region which affects crops, health and water security. He believes that Nandgaon must be the starting point to resolve the larger interconnected problems of those living around thermal power plants.

"Stopping of ash dumping in Nandgaon was the first step," he said. "That land has to be restored now and it is going to be a very complex process, because some villagers believe it cannot be used for farming anymore. For them, livelihood is a big concern and there needs to be a multi-faceted solution to their issues."

As this reporter leaves Nandgaon, an excavator is hard at work, scooping up ash from the ash pond. Giri looks on, from his position near the pump house.

"Bagha, kara kahitari (See if you can do something)," he said, as he waved goodbye.

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