India Beyond Coal

Jan 29 2013

A journey from food bowl to ash dykes: Lessons from Punjab

Punjab, the food bowl of India has been learning ground for agriculturists, scientists, and farmers. Even before the Green Revolution, the farmer community in Punjab was known for its agricultural practices. Till date small farmers in states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, praise the skills of farmers from Punjab and wish to have land and production like the fertile region of Punjab. Farmers in other states are eager to learn from their counterparts, but our government has decided to turn a blind eye towards the great ecological disaster of Punjab.

A sudden increase in birth defects, physical and mental abnormalities, and cancer was recoded by doctors and health workers. This alerted the medical group who are now concerned about the issue . Unfortunately, the issue failed to get attention from concerned authorities and politicians. In last 3 years various Indian and international scientists have carried out research to determine the levels of radioactivity in villages near coal-fired powered plants in Bhatinda and Lehra Mohabat. The results are unbelievable and shocking. Many children were found to have massive levels of Uranium in their bodies[1].

According to recent research by professors of Punjab University, the uranium concentration in the shallow ground water from handpumps was found to be very high with a maximum up to 100 ppb. An example is the water from tube wells of Sh. Beera Singh. These wells are about 100m away from the ash dykes of Guru Nanak Dev Thermal Power Plant (GNDTP). The Uranium level was 45 (mg/L) which is three times more than the WHO (World Health Organization) recommended level of 15 mg/L.[2]

Punjab till date has only 3 coal power plants but have 10 more in the pipeline. Various reports have already indicated very high level of arsenic and carcinogenic components owing to high usage of fertilizers and pesticides in the state. Upcoming power plants would only add fuel to fire.

Today Punjab stands as a learning example for other states. Chhattisgarh which is only twice the size of Punjab, has 12 operational coal power plants and is planning to have 60 new coal power plants by the year 2020. Maharashtra a state facing huge water crisis, with farmers committing suicide due to lack of water even for irrigation is planning to commence 50 new thermal power plants in addition to the existing thirteen. States of Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh etc also have similar plans of increasing the number of coal power plants.

Residents of most of these states are primarily tribal forest dwellers or small farmers. To meet ever-growing power greed of Indian cities, fertile agricultural land is taken over for power plants, pristine forests a source of existence for India’s glorious wildlife are destroyed to mine coal for power plants. And to add insult to injury, those that remain in the vicinity are treated to continuous exposure to poison that is being emitted into the air as well as the land.

But the story doesn’t end here. A recent study conducted by School of Environmental Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), has found that vegetables grown near thermal power plants* to be highly contaminated with heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)[3]. Power plant samples showed 184-475% greater metal pollution index (MPI) values as compared to the background location while health risk indices (HRI) for Cd and Ni exceeded the safe limit for most vegetables[4]. This clearly means that grains, vegetables, fruits grown in areas near to thermal power plants are not fit for consumption. But they eventually wind up in market for sale.

Last year in September the overflow of ash dykes from the Rajiv Gandhi Thermal Power Plant located at Khedar village, in Hisar district of Haryana damaged standing crops in the nearby fields. No amount of monetary compensation could undo the damage done to soil, water and farmer’s hard work by the ash. The fine particles of ash that would have leached down in soil and groundwater would continue to impact crops in coming seasons as well.

Farmers in Ratnagiri, in Maharashtra blame thermal power plants and pollution from it for sudden decrease in Mango production and such great is their belief that they have been protesting against seven new thermal power plants being proposed in district.

The real cost of coal based electricity is much higher than our monthly electricity bill. Apart from social cost incurred by those who directly affected by these plants, people like you and me sitting in the comfort of our urban homes end up paying for contamination in our food because of these plants. We may switch to organic food to avoid pesticide contamination, but we cannot avoid contamination caused by power plants. Fly ash ponds and dykes pollutes underground water sources used for irrigation. Fly ash particles deposits on standing crops, smoke from chimneys pollutes the air that plants use for photosynthesis, and no farming technique can avoid contamination from these sources.

It’s time we realize the actual price we are paying for our electricity and no subsidy in power rates can substitute price of a healthy unpolluted life. We as voters and responsible citizens have immense power in our hands, we as concerned consumers have strong say in what we purchase, it’s time we make the right choices. We have to demand the promotion of decentralized renewable energy, energy efficiency and better power distribution systems. We have to make sure that governments of other states learn a hard lesson from Punjab and rethink their ambitious plans of making each city increasingly power hungry.

Photo Courtesy: File pictures, The Hindu

Written by Renuka Saroha