The Ghosts of Coal Greenpeace India reports (1 & 2) have highlighted thermal power plant emissions as a major source of air pollution in India. While these reports have focused on the impact of coal fired power plants on the air in cities hundreds of miles away from the source, a recent visit to the small villages around one such plant in Tamil Nadu revealed to me the drastic effects it has on the land, water and most importantly, to the lives of the people who live in the shadow of these highly polluting power plants.

For decades now, India has been relying on coal as the primary source of energy to power its growth and development. But all this energy comes at a steep cost: for decades, coal has also been recognized as a major source of pollution of the air and water, and we have seen how much it has cost in terms of the loss of forest cover, wildlife, and the impact on the lives and livelihoods of forest communities displaced due to massive coal mining operations. My colleagues and I visited thermal power plants in two states last month, one group heading to Chhattisgarh in central India, and another to Tamil Nadu, in the south. Our objective was to understand the effect of thermal power stations on the communities living around them. We expected to see landscapes ravaged by ash, rows of power transmission pylons, coal conveyors and industrial smoke stacks choking our atmosphere. But we wanted to see and hear more - we wanted to bring back the stories of the people forced to live around these coal hungry thermal power stations.

A view of the NTPC Tamil Nadu Energy Company Limited thermal station, neighboring Kuruvimedu Village, Vallur. The village is located between a massive ash dump and ash pond on one side and the thermal station on the other.

This is the path leading up to the village of Kuruvimedu, so tiny that, many from the neighboring town Vallur weren't even aware of its existence. In fact, we only got directions to it when we asked some locals about the ash pond. We discovered just how much of an issue this ash pond poses for the locals; although we were complete strangers who had showed up uninvited, as soon as we showed an interest in the effect of the ash pond, they were happy to talk to us, gladly showing us around their villages, even inviting us into their homes.

Kuruvimedu Village (pic 1), squeezed in between the backyard of a thermal power station and a huge fly ash dump. Right behind the bulldozer and the huge overburden of ash (pic 3), is the border of the village. Winds carry dust and ash straight into the village, leaving everything covered in a layer of dust. Nagaraj (pic 2) is a resident of Kuruvimedu, he says that the dust is so bad, that even a walk outside leaves your clothes, hair and feet covered in it.

‘Fly-ash’, or the superfine particles of ash released after burning coal, is a hazardous waste, and must be disposed of correctly: there are clear guidelines for where and how it must be stored or disposed of. In fact, if these thermal power plants were to follow the rules, they had identified recipients for using up a hundred percent of the ash they generate. (The ash can be compressed into bricks, for instance, instead of being dumped into the poorly-contained ponds we saw for ourselves.)

Fly ash on the ground in the village of Kuruvimedu, Vallur, located on the border of a fly ash pond and dumping yard. When the ash pond overflows, it seeps into the village leaving a layer of ash behind, contaminating the soil and having drastic effects of soil health. This makes it almost impossible to grow crops and plants, according to the villagers.

The villagers of Kuruvimedu seem to live in a perpetual dust haze. The water sources, the air, the vegetation - even the vegetables growing in little home gardens… everything is covered in the fine, silvery dust that rises off the ash pond.

A Fly Ash pond behind Kuruvimedu Village, Vallur, Tamil Nadu. According to local sources, the ash pond behind the village extends over an area of approximately 2 square kilometers. In the pond, the slurry dries, leaving behind a layer of ash, as well as contaminating the soil and groundwater.
This is a Google Maps image of the Ash Lake in Vallur, Tamil Nadu
Seetha and her husband invite us into their home to show us how, even though their house remains closed all day, the ash and dust still manages to make its way in. Seetha lifts her mattress to show me just how invasive this ‘dust’ is - a fine layer coats the wooden surface under the mattress.
Kalpana and Bhaskar, residents of Kuruvimedu Village in Tamil Nadu, both live about a 100 feet away from the fly ash dump. Their house and their belongings are covered in layers of ash and coal dust, all year round. Even if they leave their doors and windows shut, dust still manages to make its way inside their homes.

Seetha, Kalpana and Bhaskar are just three of the many people with troubling stories about the way the ash has literally smothered their lives. There isn't a single household in this village where someone hasn’t been gravely ill. Most of the villagers are daily wage workers, some even working at the power station. They say that most of their earnings are usually spent on medical bills and hospital visits.

Pictured here is one of the 4 solar micro grid installations in Dharnai Village, Bihar. Yes, there are many parts of India that remain in darkness even today, without access to electricity. So yes, there is tremendous demand; indeed, a great and constantly growing need for affordable energy. But we must consider all the costs of energy production and distribution when we think of making energy ‘cheap’? And surely, with the advancements in renewable energy technology, we can safely turn to Decentralized Renewable Energy to meet all our energy requirements? Energy Minister Piyush Goyal has himself said that solar power is already cheaper than thermal power in India.

Air Pollution has become fatal, it is the biggest stakeholder in the climate change debate with global temperatures seeing record highs in the past few years. The villagers of Kuruvimedu may be living at the forefront, but we are all part of this, whether we like it or not. The energy that powers our homes and our lives, make each one of us responsible., responsible enough to know and be aware that Air Pollution is a pandemic issue, spreading across borders and cultural differences. We must come together as a country to tackle this and ask the government to take strong measures to improve the quality of air we breath.

We must keep campaigning to ensure that we break free from fossil fuels, and secure a healthy, sustainable future.

Join Seetha, Kalpana, Bhaskar, and thousands of other citizens who have joined our Clean Air Nation campaign.

Sign our petition now, so we can see an end to this dependency on coal in our own lifetimes.

References:

Created By
Sajan Ponappa / Greenpeace India
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Sajan Ponappa/Greenpeace

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