This Is Why India’s Lethal Coal Power Plants Won’t Stop Polluting

Emissions from thermal power plants are among the biggest contributors to surging particulate matter levels in India

5 min read
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Over five years to 2017, thermal, or coal-fired power plants – among India’s chief polluters – pushed nationwide levels of sulphur dioxide, a toxic gas, by 32% and fine particles called PM 2.5 by 34%.

Despite agreeing to a two-year compliance period, these plants ignored a 7 December 2017 deadline and a 2015 law promulgated by the Environment Ministry to clean themselves up. Now the same ministry is arguing that so many power plants cannot go offline and is urging the Supreme Court, which will hear the case on 1 February 2018, to push the deadline to 2022.


If the power industry had implemented the new norms, emissions from thermal power plants could have fallen by 70-85%, said a 2017 brief released by a group of citizens, volunteers, and activists from non-profits Greenpeace India, Help Delhi Breathe, My Right to Breathe, Jhatkaa, The Climate Agenda and URJA.

More than 300 thermal plants nationwide were to install scrubbers and filters after the Environment Ministry notified new air pollution regulations in December 2015 under the Environment Protection Act, 2015.

A government affidavit filed before the Supreme Court in November 2017 argued that all units could not be taken offline to retrofit equipment because power supply from thermal plants – which supply 80% of India’s electricity – could not be interrupted.

Emissions from thermal power plants are among the biggest contributors to surging particulate matter levels in India
A part of the affidavit.
(Photo courtesy: Indiaspend)

The 2015 rules aimed at reducing toxic emissions of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, PM 2.5 and mercury. PM 2.5 – and its larger cousin, PM 10 – are tiny airborne particles that can enter human lungs and sicken or kill people. Nitrogen oxide can cause respiratory infections and sulphur dioxide can lead to bronchoconstriction.

PM 2.5 pollution caused more than 5,00,000 premature deaths in India in 2015, according to a October 2017 report in The Lancet.

The study estimated 1.9 million deaths across 21 Asian countries in 2015, out of which one in every four deaths was in India.


Thermal Power Plants Spewing Pollutants Nationwide

Emissions from thermal power plants are among the biggest contributors to surging particulate matter levels in India, according to a 2016 report from Greenpeace India.

The report identified air-pollution hotspots in India visibly linked to thermal power plants clusters. An updated 2017 Greenpeace study used satellite data to calculate the 32% rise in sulphur dioxide levels and 34% rise in PM 2.5 levels, to which we earlier alluded.

Pollution from thermal power plants killed about 115,000 Indians and caused an economic loss of $4.6 billion (Rs 29,500 crore), according to the 2017 Economic Survey. These figures are based on 2012 data; India’s coal capacity has grown by more than 150% since, so the impact to life, health and the economy will keep rising unless held in check, said Nandikesh Sivalingam, climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace India.


Thermal Plants Did Very Little to Cut Pollution: RTI Replies

A series of right to information (RTI) applications filed by Jhatkaa revealed that thermal power plants did very little over the two years granted to check their emissions.

Of the 90 plants that received Jhatkaa’s RTI queries, no more than 17 responded. These replies show that most of these plants had technologies that could scrub particulate matter, but almost none of them could control sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions.

Emissions from thermal power plants are among the biggest contributors to surging particulate matter levels in India

Status of Emission Control Compliance.

(Photo Courtesy: indiaspend)

Under the 2015 rules, thermal power plants were supposed to install three pieces of technology: Electrostatic precipitators (ESPs) to curb particulate matter, flue gas desulphurisation to minimise sulphur dioxide and mercury, and selective catalytic converters and selective non-catalytic converters to reduce nitrogen oxide. The RTI replies show that most plants are still studying the feasibility of Flue Gas Desulphurisations and have not installed catalytic converters.


In a statement, the Executive Editor of Jhatkaa, Avjit Michael, said the Ministry of Environment must penalise defaulters to demonstrate that it considers the health of Indians a priority.

It is disappointing to note that power plants have not taken sufficient action in the past two years and are now requesting even more time to install the necessary emission reduction technology.

Avijit Michael

Retrofitting Plants Will Take Time, Make Power Costlier: Industry

In its reply to the RTI query, the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) said it could not shut down its more than 20 power plants, which collectively produce almost a fourth of India’s electricity, to install catalytic converters and Flue Gas Desulphurisations because that would “plunge the country into darkness”.

It would cost Rs 2.4 lakh crore to clean up India’s coal-fired power plants, said New Delhi-based Association of Power Producers, and electricity would become costlier.

However, the Centre for Science and Environment, a think tank, in a 2016 study estimated clean-up costs would lead to an increase of less than 3% annually in power tariffs over the next three years.


Environment Ministry Secretary CK Misra justified the delay.

“The ministry stands by its notification. However, we need to be practical. We can’t switch to these technologies overnight,” Misra was quoted as saying in the News18 on 10 December 2017. “Conversations are on with them (thermal power plants) to do so within a reasonable frame of time.”

The two years of compliance time, which the ministry now deems as being too short, was decided after many meetings between the Environment Ministry, the Power Ministry, the power industry and the Central Pollution Control Board.

Set Up a Committee To Oversee Compliance: Petition

The Environment Ministry is also fighting a case before the National Green Tribunal (NGT) against Greenpeace India campaigner Sunil Dahiya, who has alleged that the ministry is not implementing the 2015 air pollution rules.

The NGT has asked the ministry for compliance status, Ritwick Dutta, an environment lawyer appearing for the petitioner Dahiya, told IndiaSpend. “We have demanded a committee to oversee the compliance,” said Dutta. “Plants not abiding by the new norms should be penalised under the Environment Protection Act.”

This article has been published in an arrangement with Indiaspend.

(Breathe In, Breathe Out: Are you finding it tough to breathe polluted air? Join hands with FIT to find #PollutionKaSolution. Send in your suggestions to or WhatsApp @ +919999008335)

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