Another Bhopal? Sonbhadra-Singrauli has all the ingredients

AVESH TIWARI@PatrikaNews | 7 June 2016

Have you heard of the Sonbhadra-Singrauli belt? This region at the cusp of Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh is billed by many as India’s energy capital. What nobody talks of is how this belt is on the brink of a disaster that can match the Bhopal disaster.Another Bhopal? Sonbhadra-Singrauli has all the ingredients

The methyl isocyanate leak at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal led to India’s biggest industrial disaster on 2 December, 1984. Such was the scale of the leak that horror stories haven’t stop coming out three decades on. But have we learnt any lesson?

Doesn’t seem so if we look at Sonbhadra-Singrauli. The 40 square-kilometre area hosts some half-a-dozen power plants – both coal-fired and hydro-electric. Their combined capacity of about 21,000 megawatts (MW) cater to a large part of the country.

Now private groups such as Reliance, Lanco and Essar as well as state-owned utilities are set to add 20,000 MW more by setting up several projects in the next five years.

The belt also houses several other industries like an aluminum, chemical and carbon factories of the Birlas and a cement factory owned by the Jaypee Group.

But these impressive numbers tell just one side of the story.

The Sonbhadra-Singrauli belt is also known for the plight of its farmers whose land has been ruined by mining and limestone.

This region is also home to over five lakh Adivasis. In fact, Sonbhadra is the only district of Uttar Pradesh where tribals are in a majority.

However, the fruits of industrial activity have barely reached these people with most of them find it difficult to make ends meet.

The region is traversed by eight small rivers. With the area accounting for nearly 16% of the total carbon emission in the country, it is of little surprise that all the river waters are completely polluted.

In other words, every inch of this land is prone to a catastrophe like Bhopal. The greed of industrialists, politicians and bureaucrats is not the only reason for this risk.

The media is equally to blame for this state of affairs. It will highlight Sonbhadra-Singrauli’s issues only after a disaster. Otherwise, it is happy to look the other way.

Enrico Fabian for The Washington Post via Getty Images
The chloro chemicals division of Kanoria Chemicals & Industries Ltd, located at Renukoot, produces some of the most dangerous substances for industrial use. It was acquired by the Aditya Birla group in 2011 at a cost of Rs 830 crore.

It is estimated that the waste produced by this factory kills 40-50 people every year on average. Most of this waste is released directly into the Rihand dam. And the effect is telling on the surrounding population.

Thousands of residents in hundreds of villages around the Rihand Dam have been completely or partially crippled.

“Waste from the Kanoria Chemicals factory at Renukoot kills 40-50 people every year on an average”
In December 2011, 20 people of the Kamari Dand village in Sonbhadra district lost their lives after using the water from the Rihand Dam. Thousands of cattle had also met with the same fate.

Investigations proved that the chemicals released from the Kanoria Chemicals Factory had poisoned the water. Yet, the issue did not attract enough media attention.

Earlier, a gas leak from the Kanoria plant had killed five people in January 2005. The accident reportedly occurred because of the negligence of company officials.

Villages after village in Sonbhadra are falling prey to the fatal disease of Fluorosis, a chronic condition caused by excessive intake of fluorine compounds.

There is hardly a person in villages like Padwa Kodawari and Kusumha, who has not been afflicted with some of kind of physical deformity due to this disease.

The power plants of Sonbhadra-Singrauli emit 1.5 tonnes of fly ash every year. This fly ash is composed of mercury that is extremely harmful to the human body. Traces of mercury have been found in the samples of human hair, blood and even crops of this region.

The locals have no option but to live with the impact of this pollution. The sun here is paled with the dust coming out of towering chimneys. A blanket of haze engulfs the air as soon as the evening sets in.

The pollution has not even spared the still-to-be-born babies. The death of children during the pre-pregnancy period has become a regular occurrence.

Yet, the state-run Obra and Anpara power plants are operating without any environmental clearance. The Central Pollution Control Board has ordered a close down stating they are ‘too dangerous.’

“State-run Obra and Anpara power plants are operating without environmental clearance”
However, nobody seems baffled with such blatant flouting of norms. The seeds of a Bhopal-like tragedy are being sown, not only in Sonbhadra-Singrauli belt but in every corner of the country.

The state as well as the Union Government is avoiding accountability in the name of development. For now, the Sonbhadra-Singrauli region is nothing more than a hen laying golden eggs for them.

While one Warren Anderson may have gotten away, there are many more in the making.


Toxic waste spill at Essar’s Power Plant in Singrauli

Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh, Apr 15 : In yet another stark example of massive negligence, the mud wall that lined the fly ash dyke of Essar Energy’s Mahan-I (600MW) thermal power plant in Singrauli collapsed leading to fly ash-laden water seeping into Khairahi village, the Greenpeace said on Tuesday. 

Greenpeace demanded that Essar should take full responsibility of the fly ash spill in the region and shut down its plant immediately.

This is the second instance in a matter of a few months. 

In September last year, Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board’s (MPPCB) regional office in Singrauli reported that large quantities of fly ash was flowing from the plant into the Garha stream and surrounding areas. 

In January, this year, MPPCB had ordered the plant to be shut down because of this overflow. But the company managed to restart operations soon without putting any safeguards in place, Greenpeace noted.

“Fly ash from the coal power plantshas been a perennial problem for the residents of Singrauli. And the recent leakage of toxic fly ash from the Essar Power Plant in Mahan is simply unacceptable. Fly ash contains harmful heavy metals such as, mercury, arsenic and lead that can cause direct harm to the health of the people and the environment,” said Aishwarya Madineni, campaigner with Greenpeace India.

Fly ash is an end product produced from the burning of coal and when it is released in to the atmosphere, it contaminates both water and air. Large open spaces located amidst the villages known as ash ponds act as designated dumping yards, posing a direct threat to the lives of the people.

“Spilling of fly ash laden water is the worst form of water pollution. With the breaking of the fly ash dyke, water can also seep into the ground water system, rendering the water in wells and other water sources absolutely unfit for consumption. This way they enter into our food chain,” said Shripad Dharmadhikary, founder of Manthan Adhyayan Kendra. 

Recent reports highlighted mercury poisoning in the region. Both fish and human blood samples were found to have high levels of mercury in it. Mercury is a heavy metal associated with neurotoxicity and it is one of the major components that constitute fly ash.

While Essar’s new ash dyke is still under construction, Dharmadhikary points out that “to prevent such spills, the fly ash dykes have been directed to be lined properly. Unfortunately power plants seldom comply with this rule.”

Apart from heavy metals, fly ash is also suspected to have radioactive properties, which can cause genetic mutations. This precarious disposal of fly ash endangers the lives and livelihoods of all people living in the region. 

“The Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the Ministry of Environmentand Forests (MoEF) has expressed strong reservations against the utilisation of fly ash because of the heavy metals and radioactive elements,” said Dharmadhikary.

Coal ash is disposed off in two ways. One is through dry disposal, wherein ash is deposited in ash mounds. The second is wet disposal, where ash is mixed with water to make slurry which is disposed of in so-called ash ponds. 

“Both the methods have their own share of risks, with dry ash polluting air, and ash ponds contaminating water steams. There are ways in which, fly ash is ‘utilised’ in agriculture, filling low lying land areas, mine voids, or manufacturing fly ash cement and bricks. But the risk that the heavy metals and radioactive elements pose cannot be mitigated,” he explained.

In Singrauli, despite repeated complaints of the fly ash pollution from the residents and the local health officials, the government along with the profit-making companies have shown no interest to tackle the issue whatsoever, Greenpeace claimed.

It demanded that Essar should shut down all their activities until and unless it can ensure that adequate pollution control measures will be put in place and followed.

–IBNS (Posted on 16-04-2014)



Battle over Essar-led project reflects new mining pains

By Reuters Mar 20 2014, 

With an axe on one shoulder and lugging a large log over the other, Bhajandhari Kushwaha emerges from the dense Mahan forest in central India with his dog by his side after a day of foraging and wood cutting.

For Kushwaha, the timber, leaves and seeds of this centuries-old forest not only sustain his family of five, they represent a vital part of his community’s cultural identity that has suddenly come under threat from two of India’s largest mining companies.

“This forest is our life. We get everything from it,” says the 45-year-old, vowing to fight plans by Mahan Coal Ltd (MCL) – jointly owned by London-listed Essar Energy Plc and the Aditya Birla-owned Hindalco Industries Ltd – to mine part of the 1,000-square-km (385-square-mile) woods for coal. “Whatever compensation the company is offering us, we do not want it. We will fight until we die, if that’s what it takes.”

It is a sentiment shared by many villagers in this dusty corner of Madhya Pradesh, a sign of growing popular resistance spurred by a new forest law that gives people a greater say over how natural resources are exploited.

What happens at Mahan could determine if anti-mining campaigns will increasingly seek a legal recourse under the new law, underscoring a new twist in the challenges facing India’s quest for energy security and its industrial future.

Hundreds of projects are stuck over similar local oppostion, where protests often turn violent, including more than two dozen multi-billion dollar proposals.


In January, London-listed Vedanta Resources Plc lost a seven-year battle to dig bauxite in Odisha after the Supreme Court ordered that local tribespeople should decide on the project. The villagers voted against it.

The government accepted the decision even though Vedanta, had already spent more than Rs 50,000 crore on an aluminium refinery, smelter and power plant in anticipation of access to local mines. The company has been forced to bring in bauxite from the neighbouring state of Chhattisgarh.

In Mahan, MCL was granted environmental approval last month to extract around 100 million tonne of coal. Essar and Hindalco have already invested $3.2 billion building a power plant and a smelter that will run on locally mined coal.

But local resistance, led by environment group Greenpeace, could still derail the coal mine project, affecting the economic viability of the power plant and smelter.

The final forest clearance for MCL came from environment minister Veerappa Moily, who in less than three months in the job has approved more than 70 big-ticket projects worth over $40 billion, some of which were stalled by his predecessors over green concerns.

Moily, who is also the oil and gas minister, has been criticised by environmentalists who accuse him of acting in haste to mollify industrialists who complain that approval delays are strangling economic growth.


Greenpeace says MCL’s project will fell hundreds of thousands of trees and affect the livelihoods of 14,000 people who sell products such as mahua seeds and tendu leaves, used to make cheap alcohol and hand-rolled cigarettes respectively.

MCL says only about 4,500 people will be affected and they will be compensated for as long as they live for lost income.

“There are a lot of phantoms over social and environmental concerns that are being created about this project,” says MCL’s chief executive, Ramakant Tiwari. “I personally believe that sustainable development is possible.”

Only 1% of Mahan will be cleared and a massive reforestation programme will be undertaken to regenerate the woodland, he told Thomson Reuters Foundation at a site office.

But there are fears that the MCL project will open the doors to the mining of the entire Mahan forest, a concern raised by environment minister Moily’s predecessor when he put it on hold.

Besides MCL, seven other coal mines are proposed across Mahan, including one by Reliance Power . Jaypee group also has an operating coal mine in the area.

The mining sector has been at the centre of a multi-billion-dollar corruption scandal after the government’s opaque and discretionary mining rights allocation system was questioned by the country’s top auditor. The furore slowed decision making in the sector and put a brake on mining.

India is desperate for power and coal is expected to remain at the heart of its energy security for decades. Government-controlled Coal India Ltd has not been able to mine fast enough, forcing power producers to import costly coal from Indonesia, Australia and South Africa to bridge the shortfall.

Seventy million households – 35-40% of the country’s 1.2 billion people – have no access to electricity. In 2012, a blackout left over 600 million people in northern India without power for nearly two days, exposing Asia’s third-largest economy and an aspiring global power to international humiliation.

“It’s a painful paradox for me,” says Tiwari. “Nearly one-third of our domestic production is imported from outside, despite India having the fourth-largest coal reserves in the world.”

The project, he says, will not only bring in millions of dollars for the government, it will also bring skills, jobs and better infrastructure to a backward area.


The tussle over Mahan has divided the local community.

In Amelia, the largest of the affected villages, some wealthier, higher-caste villagers want the coal mine and have already sold land to MCL to build its offices.

“I want the same life for my children as they have in the cities,” says Amelia’s village head, Santosh Singh, who sold off some of his land and got jobs for his family at MCL. “I have no interest in the forest. Those who want to fight the company can go and hang themselves from the branches of the trees in Mahan forest if they want.”

But Singh may be in a minority against Amelia’s poorer residents where mistrust of corporations runs deep, partly due to an unfulfilled earlier promise to provide jobs at Essar’s power plant.

Painted on the mud-and-brick walls of many homes, Hindi slogans read “Our forest, our right.”

Inhabitants say clearance was given to the project in violation of the Forest Rights Act, a 2008 law that gives affected communities a right over the forests.

A village vote in Amelia supporting the MCL mine was rigged with hundreds of forged signatures, they say. The company said it had no say in the vote, which was conducted by the village head in the presence of government representatives.

Still, the allegation has forced district authorities to launch an inquiry, which is due to completed at the end of March. The outcome could scupper the project.

“If the majority is not with the resolution then, at my level, I would report to the government that mining should not be done in this area because it is a legal right of the people,” said M Selvendran, the top government official in Singrauli district, which covers the Mahan forests.

Selvendran recommendations will go to Madhya Pradesh state’s mining department, which is responsible for granting leases to companies – the final clearance required for a mining project.

In a show of strength last month, hundreds of men, women and children from Amelia and surrounding villages gathered on the fringes of Mahan forest to demonstrate. Arranging themselves in lines, the crowd formed three words: “Essar quit Mahan”.

“We are poor people but we are not afraid to take on these big companies,” said villager Kripan Nath Yadav, comparing the battle against Essar and Hindalco to India’s fight for independence from British colonisers almost 70 years ago.