A case study of how ultra mega power plants has meant environmental destruction, loss of livelihood to the local people

singrauliBy Counterview Desk

A just-released report, prepared by Anuradha Munshi and sponsored by Washington-based Bank Information Center (BIC), which partners with civil society in developing countries to influence the World Bank and other international financial institutions (IFIs) to promote social and economic justice and ecological sustainability while implementing developmental projects, and Srijan Lokhit Samiti, a Singrauli-based NGO, has said that the Sasan UMPP has only exacerbated the continuous displacement caused due to power and coal projects in the Singrauli region of Madhya Pradesh, forcing the local and indigenous people to a poorer life and causing considerable loss of the environment and nature. 

Recognizing that India is a country of chronic power deficits, the report states that UMPPs have been planned to serve Government of India’s aim to provide “power for all” by creation of an additional capacity of at least 100,000 MW over the next few years. One these is Sasan UMPP, a pit-head coal-based UMPP, with 3,960 MW capacity, being set up in Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh. The Power Finance Corporation (PFC), under the Ministry of Power, lndia, is the nodal agency for getting the basic infrastructure like land, water supply, environment clearances, etc. for the UMPP and the Reliance Power Limited has been given the task of executing the project.

The lenders for the project are a consortium of almost l4 banks led by State Bank of India, the country’s largest bank. The lending was done on a project finance basis and with an estimated project cost of around Rs. 20,000 crore. The international funding institutions that have provided funds for the project are Bank of China, China Development Bank, Export-Import Bank of China, Export-Import Bank of the United States, and Standard Chartered Bank. The transmission and distribution lines for the project are being funded by the World Bank.

Power generated from the project would be sold to 14 procurers in seven states in the country – Madhya Pradesh. Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand — at a levelized tariff of Rs l.l96/ kwh (kilo watt per hour). The report points out, “This project is another addition to the already long list of power projects in the area, but its impact is huge as the capacity of the plant is about 4,000 MW and huge amount of land has been acquired for the plant and for coal mines to feed the plant resulting in large scale displacement.”

Sasan UMPP’s coal is proposed to be allocated at three captive coal mine blocks —Moher, Moher Amlori extension and Chhatrasal – which have reserves in excess of 750 million tonnes. The approved mine plan of all three mines put together envisages production of 25 million tonnes of coal per annum, making these mines among India’s largest. The Sasan UMPP along with the coal mine would on completion become the largest integrated coal-cum-power plant in the country. “The scale of the project can be understood from the fact that the project and the coal mines together involve almost 10,000 acres of land, of which almost 7,000 acres would be coal mines”, the report states.

It adds, “Moher-Amroli extension coal mines forest area in the Vindhyachal mountain ranges has abundant coal reserves and has been acquired by the company for coal mining. The coal from these plants is being used for the power plants being constructed by Reliance. This area was home to the Baiga tribe and there were approximately 100 families living in that area”.

Further, “for the last five years, ever since the coal mining for the Reliance project started, most of the families have been displaced and are now living in Krishna Vihar Rehabilitation colony, which is located about eight km away from the forest on a barren land. Now only three families reside there and are still fighting the company. The forest has only one patch of green left, from two sides one can only see the mountains of overburdened dump from the mountaintop coal mining. Its legally accepted height is about 90 metres, but here the height of the dump goes much beyond that, risking the lives of the community”.

One of the tribes which has been most affected because of acquisition in the area is Baiga. A scheduled tribe, it practices shifting cultivation in the forest areas. The report says, “They are totally dependent on the forest. They have been worst hit by the development in the region. Thrown away from the forests due to expansion of coal mining in the region, they have been exploited and marginalized with no specific plan for their rehabilitation. The village Tierra in Singrauli is a rehabilitation colony for the people who had been displaced for the construction of residential area for the Reliance officers and staff. The displaced community is mostly the Baiga tribal community.“

The report informs, “In the village Tierra about 100 households from the Baiga community are living. They have been displaced from their land which after years of effort they had converted into fertile land and were practicing agriculture there. Ever since their displacement, they have been shifted to the area across the road which is rocky and not at all suitable for agriculture. Since agriculture was their primary occupation, now they are left with no work and struggle to make ends meet”.

Referring to the tribals’ impoverishment, the report says, “Most of the people from the community now are always in search of some manual labour work for income. Some Reliance contractor has given them work to break and load stones in the nearby area. For every one truck of stones (which means to dig the stone break them and load them in the truck) they are paid a meagre amount of Rs 900. They are made to work in inhuman conditions for almost 18 hours a day. Some women have started working as domestic labour.“

Then, “the people who have been displaced were promised an allowance for food until they were provided with some job. The first month they got a cheque of Rs 1,000 as food allowance of which they got only Rs 500 in hand as the other five hundred was used in opening the account at the bank. And now the company has conveniently stopped giving the allowance. With no work or any employment, on the pretext of which they were displaced by the company and the government officials, people are now forced into living a life of starvation.”

The report regrets, “Most of the displaced people of the Baiga community living in the forest are either shown as landless and paid meagre amount for their homes, while the others were forced into selling their lands. Also, some were promised permanent jobs, which of course no one got. Since most of the displaced people were living in the forest, they had no patta (title) to the land. In this particular area the Forest Rights Act is not applicable as the forest has been categorized under urban forest. So, most of the people who lost their land did not get any compensation.”

Also, “about 60 youth were provided with ITI (Industrial Training Institute) apprenticeship and were promised a permanent job after six months by the company. But they have not been made permanent and their apprenticeship is extended every three months. Even after three years they are still getting the stipend of Rs 100 per day. This meager amount is hardly enough for the survival of entire family.”

The report also notes important changes in the usage and purpose of Rihand dam, which is in the neighbourhood. “Rihand dam was constructed in I962 with the purpose of generating hydro electricity and for irrigation purpose. Today, mostly the water feeds the innumerable thermal power projects which require huge amounts of water as coolant. Apart from that the water from ashpond and other toxic material also are disposed of in the reservoir.  The National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) power plant ashpond clearly exposes the disposal of the wastes from the ashpond directly into the reservoir water of the Rihand dam. Especially during the rains the ashpond is flooded and the toxic water mixes with the dam water”, it says.

The report adds, “Also, through the industrial water pipe, water from the ashpond is being disposed into the dam water. Around the ashpond, one could clearly see the Vindhyachal ranges with only a few patches of green and mostly it was mountains overload dumping from the coal mines that was visible. Along with that a skyline with only power plants was visible. With this as the condition, it will not be far that the Rihand dam would soon be called the dam for toxic water. Locals complain of deaths of cattle that wander off or drink water from the area.“

The points out that first signs of how the project might mean a major environmental destruction came to light when, in October 20l2, Reliance Power’s Sasan UMPP applied for expansion and had to face hurdles as the Ministry of Environment and Forests, which sought additional information from the company stating that the proposal in the current form is premature. Reliance Power’s local arm, Sasan Power Ltd, had approached the ministry seeking clearance for the expansion of the project. A central environmental committee decided that the proposal in its present form is premature for recommendation of environmental clearance and, accordingly, the proposal was deferred. “The committee observed that the area is not far from critically polluted Singrauli, and therefore decided that the action plan for mitigation formulated for Singrauli region”, the report states.

With its history of unplanned and aggressive development rested primarily on exploitation of its coal reserves, Singrauli today is a recognized ecological disaster. “The establishment of thermal power stations and chemical and cement factories has resulted in large scale gaseous air pollution due to particulate matter through fly ash and cement dust and due to liquid effluents. Surface coal mining has caused extensive damage to the natural ecosystems with growing dumps of overburden”, the report states, adding, “Even after knowing the impacts of this kind of aggressive development the Singrauli region saw an influx of state mining and power companies.”

The report says, “Post-2005, there was an influx of private companies in power sector. Singrauli got more than its share of thermal-based projects and mining leases. As a result, Environment Ministry decided to impose a moratorium on clearances for all projects in Singrauli coalfields, as environmental pollution in these areas exceeded norms. This was part of the 2010 order, in which the ministry announced a moratorium on environmental clearance in 43 critically polluted areas or industrial clusters as identified by the Central Pollution Control Board.“

The ministry lifted the moratorium on 26 of these clusters and Singrauli was one of them. However, in September 2013, after the Central Pollution Control Board reassessed the environmental quality conditions in 43 industrial clusters, it found that the Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index was critically high (above 80) in Singrauli. However, the report regrets, the moratorium does not apply to “projects of public importance or national security” and the ministry also “decided to allow modernization of existing projects as long as it doesn’t increase in the cluster’s pollution load.”

Despite environmental and livelihood concerns, the report alleges, “Reliance Power Limited has shown a complete disregard to due process of land acquisition. Communities’ properties were destroyed much before the clearances and acquisition process was complete. In spite of reluctance on the part of the affected community and without any prior information, the property of the community was demolished.” Giving the instance of the villagers of Harrahaawa, the report states, are already being displacement. In fact, displacement here began “as the company wants to acquire land for building ashpond.”

Though the land acquisition work is still not complete, the company has razed the houses without the permission of the locals and has asked people to shift to the rehabilitation colony 13 km away, Suryavihar Basti. “The villagers are predominantly farmers and their agricultural land is around Harrahaawa village, making it very difficult for them to commute between the rehabilitation colony and their village. In fact, this village was one of the fertile areas with very high agricultural productivity. The vegetable produce from this village used to go up to Varanasi. The company also does not have any regard for the proper procedures with regards to land acquisition”, the report says.

It adds, “There has also been diversion of irrigated agricultural land for power plant, ashpond and for mining overdumping. Being the area of Vindhyachal ranges with abundance of water (Son and Rend rivers pass through the region), this entire region was once a fertile land and had abundance of forest cover. Most of the population in the region depends on agriculture. Still, every year this fertile land is being diverted for industrial purposes. In Harrahaawa village most of the agricultural land has been taken by the company to build ashpond, where ash is already being dumped.”

— Ashok Shrimali

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