"Aap ye samajh lijiye ki hum log sote hue bhi raakh kha rahe hain (We're inhaling coal ash even in our sleep)," said a despondent Sharad Makade, sarpanch of Mhasala village in Maharashtra's Nagpur district.
After years of protesting against the Maharashtra State Power Generation Company (MAHAGENCO) over coal ash pollution caused by two of its thermal power plants -- Koradi and Khaperkheda -- near his village, 43-year-old Makade is back to square one as MAHAGENCO, on 5 May, proposed two new units of coal-based supercritical thermal power plant in Nagpur's Koradi village.
'Supercritical' coal plants are said to be more efficient and less polluting than the traditional power plants as they emit fewer greenhouse gases.
The new plant proposed near Makade's village is set to come up in place of six other thermal power plants of the state including two plants at Parli in Beed district, two in Chandrapur, and one each at Koradi and Bhusawal in Jalgaon district.
In an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report submitted before the Maharashtra State Pollution Control Board (MPCB), MAHAGENCO claimed that the new plant is an expansion project as the units it is set to replace are old and either closed or scheduled for permanent shut down.
The proposal for this new plant, however, has drawn mixed reactions from residents, environmental activists and politicians in the region.
"The existing power plants have already done enough damage to the environment in the region. Water pollution levels are so bad that animals develop diseases because of drinking water straight from lakes and ponds. Several residents who cannot afford purifiers drink the same water. How do you think it impacts them?" asked Makade, whose family has lived in Mhasala for over four generations.
While residents such as Makade are vehemently against the plant on grounds of coal ash pollution, others argued that the new plant will generate employment.
Moreshwar Kapse, former sarpanch of Khairi village, is among those who support the new plant. "Due to high levels of pollution, our land is not fit for agriculture. The old power plants in our area are scheduled for permanent shutdown. There are no other industries here. Where will we go and work? The new plant will at least be a source of employment," Kapse said.
The Quint spoke to multiple stakeholders, vetted documents submitted by MAHAGENCO in court and before the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB), and looked at past records of thermal plants in the area to understand why these two new units have become a bone of contention among the locals, MAHAGENCO, pollution control bodies, and the politicians in Maharashtra.
When Thermal Plants First Came to Nagpur
Almost 770 km from Mumbai, Nagpur is already home to two thermal plants run by MAHAGENCO — one at Koradi and Khaperkheda each — which together generate 3,740 mega watts of power, contributing immensely towards making Maharashtra the largest producer of thermal power in India.
The Koradi power plant was established in 1974 and the one at Khaperkheda, 15 years later, in 1989.
While these plants were initially touted to generate employment, attract industry, and fast track development in villages, report after report suggested that they instead led to pollution, health issues, and water insecurity in the region.
In 2021, a report titled 'Polluted Power' was published by the Centre for Sustainable Development (CFSD), Manthan Adhyayan Kendra (MAK), and Asar Social Impact Advisors.
It stated that four out of 21 villages situated around the power plants reported health problems due to contamination of water, either due to coal ash settling in water or due to other forms of contamination.
Apart from this, nine out 21 villages reported health problems which they attributed to air pollution due to coal ash. These problems included difficulty in breathing (nine villages), respiratory diseases such as bronchitis and asthma (five villages), frequent cough and cold, throat infection (four villages) and irritation in the eyes and eye infections (seven villages).
Speaking to The Quint, Leena Buddhe, environmentalist and Director at the Centre for Sustainable Development, claimed that MAHAGENCO's history of flouting norms leaves little room for the locals to trust them again.
"MAHAGENCO repeatedly failed to control pollution caused by the existing plants and now they want people to trust them when they say that the new plant will be more efficient and less polluting. If they're decommissioning six plants and setting this one plant in their place, why is it being set up in Koradi? That place already has a severe pollution problem. What happened to the 2021 government declaration that no new thermal plants will be installed in the state? Also, Vidarbha has a power surplus. So, the power that will be generated here will mostly be used in Mumbai and Pune. Why should people of Nagpur pay the price for power need which isn't even theirs?Leena BuddheExpand
Those Who Want The New Plant Vs Those Who Don't
Amid protests and counter-protests by locals and environment groups, MAHAGENCO, on 5 May, filed a caveat in the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court against 87 people who opposed the two coal units at a public hearing organised on 29 May.
"We pray that no orders be passed without due notice under section 148A of the Code of Civil Procedure to the caveator in any application for grant of stay and/or status quo and/or injunction and/or any other interim relief, in any writ petition challenging the environmental public hearing held by Maharashtra Pollution Control Board on 29/05/2023 for the proposed Koradi 2 x 660 MW coal based supercritical thermal power plant," said a copy of the caveat accessed by The Quint.
Makade, who was present at the hearing on 29 May, alleged that close associates of local politicians "hijacked" the meeting.
"There were very few dissenting voices. This is mostly because close associates of local politicians in favour of the plant hijacked the meeting. My house is very close to the Koradi ash pond. Every third person in my village is an asthma patient. Skin diseases are common. Our vehicles, rooftops, utensils, are always covered with fly ash. How do you expect us to give our nod to this plant now? Saying yes now means undoing our decades old struggle against MAHAGENCO and successive state governments who did nothing about the problem."Sharad Makade, Resident
Meanwhile, Kapse, a resident of Khairi village, who has been a member of Khairi Gram Panchayat since 2002, said villagers now need to think "rationally and not emotionally" about the issue.
"MAHAGENCO acquired our land for the power plants at a rate of Rs three lakh per acre. Today, that land is easily worth Rs one crore per acre. If the power plants are decommissioned and a new plant doesn't come up, will MAHAGENCO return our land to us? Let's say they do that, what will be we do with that barren land? A new plant will at least generate employment," Kapse said.
Having protested against the existing plants for decades, Kapse is well aware of Nagpur's pollution problem. He said, "I have seen pollution levels in the area rise astronomically. I am also breathing the same air and drinking the same water. At the public hearing, we were told that new plants will adhere to environmental norms. If they (MAHAGENCO) fail to do that, there is nothing stopping us from taking them to the High Court."
MAHAGENCO's environment assessment report, accessed by The Quint, claims that the new plant has an efficiency of 99.98 percent, which means that generation of Sulphur dioxide and Nitrogen dioxide -- two major thermal pollutants -- will be less than 100 milligrams per cubic meter.Expand
MAHAGENCO and a History of Coal Ash Pollution
MAHAGENCO, Maharashtra's major power generating body and a subsidiary of the Maharashtra State Electricity Board, has a long history of flouting environment norms while operating the two power plants in Nagpur.
In 2014, an internal investigation by MAHAGENCO revealed that the ash pond of Khaperkheda power plant in Waregaon is responsible for polluting the Kanhan river.
In January 2019, the Union Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) noted gross violations of the environmental clearance conditions at Khaparkheda Thermal Power Station (TPS) including unsatisfactory fugitive emissions.
In the same year, the MoEF&CC found that toxic effluents from the Koradi TPP were directly being discharged into nearby drains instead of the ash pond.
Coal ash is one of the major pollutants in villages near these two power plants. It contains contaminants such as Mercury, Cadmium, and Arsenic. Without proper management, these contaminants can pollute ground water, drinking water, and the air.Expand
On 21 May, Union Minister and senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Nitin Gadkari wrote a letter to Maharashtra's Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and expressed concern over the construction of the new power plant after receiving complaints of pollution.
Residents and environmentalists had expressed their concerns in a letter to Gadkari.
On 17 May, Gadkari wrote a letter to Fadnavis. Accessed by The Quint, it reads, “Koradi Thermal Power Station falls in the Nagpur Metropolitan region. The current units at Koradi are adding to the health problems of the local residents. The installation of the new two units with a capacity of 1,320 MW may create severe health hazards for the people. An NGO has opposed the proposed hearing by MPCB on 29 May. It says that thermal power generation at Koradi and Khaparkheda has reached the upper pitch. Proposed power generation units can be installed at Parshivani.”
He added, "This may help generate employment in Parshivani tehsil and help find solutions to the pollution problems at Koradi. In view of the above, I would like to request you to consider the points raised by people and take a decision abiding by the guidelines, due verification, and the stand of the state government in the matter."
While Fadnavis is yet to publicly respond to Gadkari's letter, environmental activists such as Leena Buddhe said that they will continue their fight against the upcoming power plant units through judicial and non-violent means.
"The government is trying to bulldoze its way and bypass standard procedures as it tries to get approval for the plant. Our fight will continue," said Buddhe, environmentalist and Centre for Sustainable Development (CSD) Director.Expand