Nagpur: With the pallu of her saree covering her head, Shakuntala Shende made her way from the village health centre to her house in a narrow lane in Nagpur district's Khairi village, a visit she makes several times in a year. She has patches on her hands that have turned black and itch painfully. The treatment she gets at the health centre provides temporary relief, but then the patches return.

Shende's village is one of many in the district affected by coal ash pollution from two thermal power plants (TPPs). The ash has polluted the region's air, the river water and groundwater, according to government documents and an independent study. The government-owned company, Maharashtra State Power Generation Company Limited (commonly known as 'Mahagenco'), which owns the power plants, recently stopped the dumping of ash into a new ash pond in the area after repeated complaints, but the ash accumulated over decades in other ponds continues to threaten the health and water security of villagers.

Almost every water sample collected from the region did not meet the standards for drinking water, according to a November 2021 collaborative report by the non-governmental organisations (NGO), Centre for Sustainable Development (CFSD), Manthan Adhyayan Kendra and Asar. The water contained heavy metals, such as arsenic, aluminium, magnesium, manganese, mercury, iron, molybdenum, lithium and fluoride in concentrations high enough to be toxic.

The power plants lead to air pollution in three ways: from fly ash from stacks (chimneys), from dry fly ash from ash ponds blowing with the wind, and from fly ash blowing while being transported in uncovered trucks. This ash settles on people's homes and farms and the NGOs found similar heavy metals in its samples collected from the roofs of two houses next to one of the power plants.

Villagers in five of six villages IndiaSpend visited in the region complained of respiratory issues, skin ailments, gastrointestinal issues and kidney stones, among others.

As freely available water is polluted, villagers now buy water for Rs 150-Rs 200 a month from 'water ATMs' (water purifiers) that were installed by Mahagenco. They can ill afford this water, and use it only for drinking; for everything else, including cooking, washing clothes and bathing, they continue to use polluted water, resulting in the kind of debilitating ailments Shende complained of. Cattle, too, drink the polluted water, and instances of cattle dying as a result are not unknown.

These two power plants make up for around one-third of Maharashtra's installed thermal capacity and are a sign of the tussle between what many term as needs of development, and environmental and health concerns. They also show why many insist that coal, a polluting power source that is the single largest contributor of carbon dioxide emissions, heating up the world, needs to be phased out and replaced with renewable sources.

Maharashtra has seven thermal power plants which make up for around 75% of the state's installed capacity. India has said it will meet 50% of its energy requirements from renewable energy by 2030.

This is the first part of a two-part series that takes a look at the costs, including impacts on health, water security and livelihoods of the people, of living in the vicinity of coal-fired power plants.

Mahagenco has said that it is taking every measure possible to control emissions from the two power plants and blames low demand for fly ash for poor utilisation. The Maharashtra government will now conduct a comprehensive study to determine how ageing and polluting coal-fired power facilities in the state can be phased down.

In the meantime, locals continue to face health risks. "Why is this happening to us? What is our fault?" asked Bhaiyalal Makde, a farmer from Mhasala.

Shakuntala Shende has black patches on her skin, caused by polluted water, that itch painfully.
Local water sources are polluted because of coal ash from nearby thermal power stations.
Photo credit: Tanvi Deshpande/IndiaSpend

Power plants that make up one-third of Maharashtra's installed capacity

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

Three power plants are located in the Vidarbha region--the Chandrapur thermal plant in Chandrapur district, and the Koradi and Khaparkheda plants in Nagpur district.

Koradi, with a capacity of 2,400 MW, was commissioned in 1982, and Khaparkheda, with a capacity of 1,340 MW, was commissioned in 1989. To put this in context, Mumbai's peak power demand was 2,664 MW on April 2, 2021. The two power plants make up for around one-third of the state's installed thermal power capacity, but at a grave cost for locals, our reporting found.

In a thermal plant, the coal used as fuel is burnt through a combustion process in boilers, and ash is generated as a waste product. An ash pond is a large pond with a ring embankment and an internal and external drainage system. The pond is filled with ash slurry; the water drains and evaporates over a period of time and what remains is dry ash, which is supposed to be taken away in trucks to be used in the manufacture of bricks and for road construction, among other things.

According to the government's fly ash notification of 2021, every thermal power plant should utilise 100% of the fly ash generated that year, and in no case shall they use less than 80%. The notification also said that each plant should use 100% of the ash within three years. The notification gave 10 years to power companies to use up legacy ash that had accumulated over decades. Power plants that do not comply by 2031 would be penalised based on the quantum of unutilised ash.

The Koradi plant has two ash ponds--Old Koradi spanning 150 hectares and Khasala, spread over 250 hectares. Khaparkheda has two ash ponds, Waregaon over 282 hectares and Nandgaon across 258 hectares. For context, each hectare is the size of 1.2-1.6 football fields.

Despite the government law, in 2020-21, Khaparkheda used only 68.5% of its fly ash, while Koradi utilised 81%. Koradi has 31 million metric tonnes (equivalent to 3.1 million truckloads) of legacy ash lying unutilised, one of the highest in the country, while Khaparkheda has around 26 million metric tonnes (equivalent to 2.6 million truckloads), as on March 31, 2021.

Drinking poisoned water

At first sight, an ash pond looks like a river from afar. To the touch, fly ash does not feel all that different from cement. Security staff have been stationed to monitor the ash ponds, and they actively discourage photography.

Papita Morle showing the grey, itching patches on her skin that recur due to water polluted from fly ash from thermal power stations.
Pictured on February 18, 2022 in Suradevi village, Nagpur.
Photo credit: Tanvi Deshpande/Indiaspend

Suradevi is a village much like any other in India, with the occasional home with plastered walls, paved yards and tiled kitchens, and dotted with unplastered brick houses with a dish antenna on the roof. Of the residents, some are farmers whose crops include cotton and tur dal; others work as labour on the farms, and those who cannot find work have migrated to other villages, or nearby cities, in search of employment. Villagers use water from water ATMs for drinking purposes but for all other needs, are dependent on the handpumps in their village or on Kolar river.

"If you leave a bucket of water from this hand pump for an entire day," said Papita Morle, a resident, "it turns red by evening. We don't even let passersby drink it." Villagers use water from the Kolar river for washing clothes and utensils but it causes patches on the body, and in the monsoon, the river turns into a drain, Morle added.

"There is a water treatment plant in the village, but even that water has 'cheela' (a white layer) over it. We want clean water because we cannot afford to spend Rs 150-Rs 200 a month to get water from the ATMs," said Morle. "In summer, our daily water requirement doubles. Where should we get the money from?"

The water ATMS were set up recently, said Durga Mankar, Morle's neighbour. But for years the villagers would drink polluted water, and Mankar's mother-in-law and brother-in-law have kidney stones, Mankar said.

Another neighbour Parvati Pandel said that the river was not always polluted. "Decades ago, women used the river water for everything," Pandel said. "Now, everyone has some disease or the other."

This anecdotal evidence is backed up by data. Every water sample collected for the CFSD-Manthan-Asar report in 2021, including during the monsoon season, failed to pass the Bureau of Indian Standards benchmarks for drinking water.

The NGOs had identified 25 locations for collecting regular samples, including locations on the river and streams and in villages. These locations were either where effluent discharge was suspected, or were water sources for people around. Samples were also collected from water treatment plants and water ATMs. Fly ash samples were collected from five locations across three seasons. These included ash from the Khaparkheda and Koradi ash ponds and from two households in the Pota Chankapur village.

A water ATM at Suradevi village, Nagpur, on February 18, 2022.
Photo credit: Tanvi Deshpande/IndiaSpend

Samples collected from Kanhan river showed that the entire stretch, from upstream of the Khaparkheda thermal power station, downstream to Khaparkheda ash pond, is highly polluted. The river water has high levels of aluminium, magnesium, manganese, mercury, iron, molybdenum, lithium and fluoride.

Samples tested from Kolar river showed high levels of aluminium, magnesium and mercury. Even ground water samples had high concentrations of various heavy metals, including aluminium, arsenic, calcium, copper, fluoride, lead, magnesium, manganese, mercury, molybdenum, lithium and selenium. In a dug well in Khairi village, mercury levels exceeded prescribed standards by 51 times, arsenic by 13 times and selenium by 10 times.

People who consume high levels of heavy metals, including arsenic, copper, lead and selenium, risk acute and chronic toxicity, liver, kidney, and intestinal damage, anaemia, and cancer. Excessive consumption of fluoride can cause skeletal fluorosis, a condition characterised by pain and tenderness of bones and joints.

In our villages, you will find people's hair going grey prematurely and people with skin diseases, said former Sarpanch Sharad Makde of Mhasala and Kawatha gram panchayat. "If someone gets injured, the injury doesn't heal quickly."

And it is not just the humans who are affected. "From where will we bring purified water for cattle? They drink polluted water and eat hay with fly ash in it," said Bhaiyalal Makde, a farmer from Mhasala. "When a cow or buffalo dies prematurely, doctors tell us that after postmortem they recover a large quantity of fly ash from the animal's stomach."

Bhaiyalal Makde (far right, in white on February 18, 2022) said cattle die prematurely in Kawtha-Mhasala villages and vets have found fly ash in cattle's stomach during post-mortem. These villages are impacted by fly ash pollution from nearby thermal power plants.
Photo credit: Tanvi Deshpande/IndiaSpend

Breathing toxic air

The air the villagers breathe is as harmful as the water they use. "My son Aarav has breathing problems even though he is only three," said Sita Shende, of Khairi village. "Everyone in this village has some or the other ailment."

There is no doubt that such ailments are caused by pollution due to fly ash, said Tushar Mohan, health assistant at the Khairi primary health centre's sub-centre. "We regularly see patients with itching skin, boils, cough, asthma or with eyes watering constantly. The water pollution also causes gastrological issues such as dysentery."

As in the other villages, fly ash collected by the CFSD team from the houses in Pota Chankapur village also showed the same dense concentrations of dangerous chemicals. Pota Chankapur shares a wall with the Khaparkheda thermal plant, and the residents are affected by the ash blowing out of the Waregaon ash bund as well as the smoke emanating from the power plant.

"My son's eyes itch constantly, and he has recurring symptoms of flu," said local resident Rita Meshram. "The doctor said this is due to pollution. He has asked my son not to play in the dust, and to always wear a mask."

'Habitual offenders'

As far back as 2014, while requesting diversion of 0.96 hectare of forest land for laying its ash pipeline for Nandgaon ash pond, Mahagenco said in a project note that the Waregaon ash bund was at capacity. "It may cause water pollution in Kanhan river as the overflow from Waregaon ash bund flows in it." They also noted that the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) had already issued a notice to Mahagenco for Kanhan river water pollution.

Over the years, Union environment ministry and MPCB have pulled up Mahagenco for pollution from their thermal power stations. In connection to Koradi power plant, an Expert Appraisal Committee in 2019 asked Mahagenco to submit a detailed action plan for reducing pollution in the area, because the ambient air quality did not meet national standards, the effluent treatment plant (ETP) was not functioning and effluents were getting mixed in with the ash slurry and discharged into open drains. Also, there were no HDPE (high density polyethylene) liners in the ash ponds at both Koradi and Khaparkheda, which prevent ash slurry from seeping out of the ash pond.

In response, the utility said that air quality is regularly monitored at Koradi and that it is within prescribed limits. It also said the ETP had been made functional; that HDPE lining at the existing ash ponds is not possible, but will be done for the new ash pond coming up at Nandgaon. They also said that 100% ash utilisation will be done through Mahagenco's subsidiary MahaGAMS, and that a fly ash cluster is under development. The cluster is supposed to be a hub of fly-ash based industries and brick kilns that would utilise fly ash from the power plant.

After the release of the CFSD-Manthan-Asar report in November 2021--a report that showed, among other things, that Mahagenco's promises had remained unfulfilled--the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board issued a show-cause notice to Koradi thermal power station on December 3, 2021 for violating the conditions laid down while giving consent for the power plant.

The violations include, "failing to achieve emissions standards for SO2 (sulphur dioxide), NO2 (nitrogen dioxide) and particulate matter, not providing HDPE/LDPE lining to the ash ponds, failing to utilise ash entirely, and dust extraction system not provided at ash handling area."

MPCB had referred to Koradi thermal power plant as a 'habitual defaulter' in another show cause notice issued in January 2022, saying "…you are knowingly and wilfully violating the provisions of Water Act, Air Act, Hazardous Waste Management Rules and causing serious nuisance in terms of air and water pollution in the surrounding areas being a habitual defaulter."

A resident of Pota Chankapur village showing fly ash deposited on her house's terrace with Khaparkheda thermal power station in the background, on February 19, 2022.
Photo credit: Tanvi Deshpande/IndiaSpend

In a meeting in January 2022, Koradi power plant had to pay Rs 13 crore as environmental compensation since it had utilised only 29% of the ash in 2018-19 and 42% in 2019-20.

On February 14, 2022, state Environment Minister Aaditya Thackeray visited Nandgaon ash pond and ordered that both Nandgaon and Waregaon ash ponds be permanently shut.

MPCB issued directions to Khaparkheda thermal power plant on February 15, 2022 to remove all the ash from Nandgaon ash pond and restore the pond within 15 days. It also ordered the removal of pipelines laid for disposal of ash into this ash pond, to stop disposal of fly ash in Waregaon ash pond immediately, and utilise 100% of the fly ash generated. The MPCB also asked for a time-bound action plan for utilisation of the legacy ash accumulated in Waregaon ash pond. Read our story on why the residents of Nandgaon see this only as a partial victory for the village.

"An audit of all power plants in Maharashtra for pollution control measures will be done," Thackeray said in a statement on February 14, 2022, explaining that the Maharashtra government planned to conduct a comprehensive study on how ageing and polluting power stations in the state could be phased down. "The power plants that are not meeting prescribed standards will face decisive action," he said. The minister also announced that the state environment and energy departments will come up with a detailed mitigation plan to control air and water pollution around the two power plants.

On March 7, 2022, the Union environment ministry also asked that a committee be formed for the surveillance of environment-related issues in connection with the two power plants, with representatives of MPCB, Mahagenco, CFSD as well as sarpanches of the affected villages.

Slow, inadequate change

Can change come overnight? R.S. Ghuge, chief engineer of the Khaparkheda power plant, told IndiaSpend that work on removing ash from Nandgaon is ongoing, but that there is little demand for fly ash.

"The pace of clearing ash from Nandgaon is slow," said Leena Buddhe, director of CFSD. "Mahagenco needs to act quickly to remove this ash before the next monsoon. After our report, Mahagenco has tried to stop discharge of ash into rivers at three locations. Also, legacy ash needs to be controlled and utilised to prevent pollution in neighbouring villages."

Sita Shende's son Aarav, 3, has respiratory problems due to fly ash pollution in Khairi village. Pictured on February 18, 2022.
Photo credit: Tanvi Deshpande/Indiaspend

"So far, we have removed 15,500 metric tonnes of fly ash from the Nandgaon pond. We have reached out to various government bodies, panchayats and private players to take away the fly ash but there is very little demand," Ghuge said. "So much so that the machine is idle sometimes, otherwise we could do extraction even at night."

He said that there was greater demand for fly ash from the power plants around Mumbai, but the small cement industry in Nagpur meant that the demand here was low.

Other activities for controlling pollution include retrofitting of Electrostatic Precipitators (equipment to control particulate matter pollution) and the installation of Flue Gas Desulphuriser (equipment to control Sulphur Dioxide emissions), said Ghuge. He added that air and water quality was being monitored regularly. "We were not involved in the collection of their (NGOs') samples, we only saw the pollution results in their report," Ghuge said. "Our reports show emissions are within limits."

IndiaSpend has asked Ghuge to share the relevant pollution reports and will update the story when we receive the reports.

P.K. Khandare, chief engineer of the Koradi power plant, did not respond to calls, messages or an email from IndiaSpend.

Don't close down plants, but control pollution

While all villages IndiaSpend visited report the same issues, they do not want the plants to be shut down, because they provide employment. What they are asking for is pollution control measures. Sarpanch Pavan Dhurve of Pota Chankapur said the panchayat expects Mahagenco to at the least spray water on roads to settle dust and undertake tree plantation.

"We need a hospital here, and health cover for all villagers," said Sarpanch Sharad Makde of Mhasala and Kawatha gram panchayat, villages that were not relocated when the power plants were built. "For now, people depend on private hospitals or go to Nagpur city. They borrow money for expensive hospital treatments and get caught in a debt trap."

Until the state utility gets its act together, women like Shakuntala Shende continue to bear the brunt of legacy pollution, having spent the prime of their lives inhaling and ingesting contaminants. "I have spent Rs 2,000-Rs 3,000 so far on treatment, but the skin patches keep coming back," she said, wringing her hands in despair--hands that are clearly marked with the toxic impact of the environment she lives in.

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