A pond polluted by the Kanti thermal power plant. Photo: Rohit Upadhyay.
Kanti, Muzaffarpur: Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district is known for producing the world-acclaimed Shahi litchi.
Located at a distance of 16 kilometres from the district headquarters, Kanti is a green belt. The Burhi Gandak river flowing close by has led to the formation of deep, large ponds across the region which are perennially filled with water. Fishing there is the livelihood for most local villagers.
In 1985, a coal-based thermal power station came up in Kanti under the NTPC Limited.
Huge amounts of coal are burned at the plant for power generation. Trains are always off-loading coal to keep the plant functioning. Though it is the cheapest way of producing electricity, it is also the most toxic for the environment.
Due to this, a thermal power plant is not supposed to be built anywhere near a residential area. Yet, Kanti is a green belt area. The locals were promised that the plant would provide them jobs, bring about prosperity in the region and give access to free electricity. As a result, many of them donated or sold their lands at throwaway prices for the construction of the plant.
The plant was constructed and electricity was generated but only a handful people got jobs. Many of the residents contracted asthma and skin diseases. Some had heart attacks.
The burning of coal produces two types of ash, namely fly ash and bottom ash, in addition to greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and methane.
Fly ash is a fine powder released in the air while bottom ash is released in the form of liquid waste.
The particles of fly ash blow with the wind to surrounding areas of the thermal power plant, causing people in the vicinity to inhale it. This results in several respiratory diseases among the people.
Bishni Sahni, who lives in the Kothiyan village, adjacent to the thermal power plant, says that he contracted asthma as a result of the air pollution and has also suffered a heart attack.
Another local resident, Phoolo Devi, says, “The ash enters the house and mixes with the food. It deposits on trees and plants and harms the animals. The ash particles also enter ours eyes, affecting eyesight of the villagers. When there is a storm, the ash enters the house and it becomes difficult to even breathe. The children are the worst affected.”
According to a report of the Global Burden of Disease 2017, a child dies due to air pollution every three minutes in India.
A UNICEF study conducted the same year suggests that children under the age of one living in a polluted environment are more prone to brain damage. The lungs of such children shrink relatively.
In the Kothiyan village, children and elders alike are compelled to inhale toxic air and the ash emitted from the thermal plant.
In addition to fly ash, bottom ash released from the plant along with water should be disposed of in a pit called an ash pond.
At the time of disposal, special care needs to be taken to avoid the residual ash from mixing with the groundwater which would be rendered toxic otherwise.
However, the villagers allege that the plant operators have arbitrarily disposed of the waste into regular ponds where they used to catch fish. The ponds are now continuously layered with ash and the villagers who had hoped to get employment at the plant now find their earlier source of livelihood in peril.
This by-product from the plant could, in fact, be a substitute for sand in the construction of buildings. Therefore, it is extracted from ponds.
The NTPC grants contracts for ash extraction to private companies. But the ash released from the Kanti Thermal Power Plant is drawn out by locals as it has sabotaged their livelihood. In exchange for a paltry sum, they are compelled to handle the ash and load it in trucks without any safety gear.
The ash released from the power plants also contains radioactive substances, allege villagers. Many in the village suffer from skin diseases as a result of handling it without protection.
“When the plant was being set up, the villagers were promised jobs, but we got nothing,” says one Prem Lal Sahni. “We used to catch fish for a living but our ponds were lined with ash. Only a handful of ponds are left now, which are not sufficient for us. As a result, we are forced to load ash in trucks. Look at my foot, I have developed a skin disease. I apply an ointment, but the wound does not heal. The foot is always hurting.”
Ram Vilas was also an ash loader like Prem Lal. The wounds on his foot have worsened with time, and he walks with great difficulty.
When asked as to why they do it when the NTPC prohibits them from handling the ash without safety equipment, Ram Vilas says, “All the men in the village are earning through it. Should we starve to death?”
A walk through the village reveals how the entire area has become laden with ash. The farmers in the village claim that production has decreased in the fields, compared to earlier. The toxic gases in the air have also affected the Shahi litchi crop and several trees have withered.
“There is a lot of difference in the litchi crop earlier and now,” says litchi farmer Mohammad Hussain Warsi. “The fruit produced before the plant was built used to be bigger in size but now they are smaller. Many people now use chemicals to increase the size. But it is not the same.”
“It has affected the yield as well,” he adds. “Since the Shahi litchi is the primary cash crop of Muzaffarpur farmers, their earning has also suffered a setback.”
Sulphur dioxide is another by-product of coal burning, which leads to acid rain. Acid rain is highly dangerous for plants and trees as it destroys nutrients like magnesium and calcium found in soil, causing plants to wilt.
Desulphurisation is carried out to prevent sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide from entering the air. The process is called Flue Gas Desulphurisation or FGD.
Is desulphurisation being carried out at the Kanti thermal power plant? When NTPC officials were contacted for a response, human resources official Atul Prashar said he did not have much information. He told The Wire that he could comment after discussing the matter with his seniors once the Bihar assembly elections were over.
Greenhouse gases like CO2, CFCs and methane emitted from coal-fired plants trap the energy from the sun in the earth’s atmosphere due to which the region experiences a rise in temperature.
“It is all right now that the winter has set in,” says Vijay Kumar, a local resident. “But it becomes difficult to endure during summer. The heat is unbearable and the ash enters our houses along with the dry loo winds. It ruins the food and creates a lot of problem for the people.”
Kanti thermal power plant has been a towering poll issue in Muzaffarpur. It has helped the Hindustani Awam Morcha leader Ajit Kumar secure a win in the assembly election several times. Kumar is currently a cabinet minister.
When asked to comment on the problems faced by the people of his constituency due to the plant, he said, “I will fix everything after the elections. Everything will be fine once the elections are over.”
The villagers allege that the compensation amount disbursed by the NTPC under Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) does not reach them. Blankets are distributed among some of the villagers, but the remaining amount is pocketed by officials and public representatives.
Air pollution levels are dangerously high not just in Kanti but in the whole of Muzaffarpur. Though the thermal power plant is not the only reason behind it, it is one of the primary causes.
The assembly elections are underway in the state but the thorn of the power plant, like all other crucial issues, is absent from poll rhetoric.
Rohit Upadhyay is an independent journalist.
Translated from the Hindi original by Naushin Rehman.