(This is the second story in a two-part series documenting the plight of people living near two coal-fired plants in Maharashtra's Nagpur district. Read the first story here.)
Shakuntala Shende, hasn't had a good night's sleep in 15 days.
A 65-year-old domestic worker in Khairi village in Maharashtra's Nagpur, she spends the better part of her night nursing patches on her hands. "The pain is unbearable. Sometimes, I scratch so much that my flesh comes off," she says, detailing how these patches, which first developed in 2015, have turned itchy and painful over time.
Khairi is one of the many villages in the vicinity of the Koradi and the Khaperkheda Thermal Power Plants (TPPs), set up by the Maharashtra State Power Generation Company (MAHAGENCO) on the outskirts of Nagpur district in 1974 and 1989, respectively.
Residents in the villages have time and again raised concerns regarding the impact of these power plants on their health as they claim that breathing issues, skin ailments, cases of bone fragility in residents, and deteriorating cattle fertility, are on the rise.
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).
Shakuntala's three-year-old grandson Aarav has respiratory problems. "In the first year of his birth itself, he developed asthma-like symptoms," says Sita Shende, Aarav's mother.
"We don't see any other reason behind his health condition. Our water and air are contaminated by coal ash. We drink this water and breathe in this air," adds Sita, as she points at water stored in a container. A layer of white ash floats over it.
High Levels of Heavy Metals in Drinking Water
Coal ash is the main pollutant discharged from a thermal power plant. It contains heavy metals such as calcium, sodium, aluminium, nickel, and arsenic, among others. To dispose off this ash, the authorities have acquired large tracts of land near the thermal plants and use them as a landfill to prevent the release of ash into the air. These landfills are called ash ponds.
The pond is filled with ash slurry. Over a period of time, the water drains and evaporates and all that remains is dry ash. Ideally, this ash is supposed to be used to manufacture bricks and construction material.
These ash ponds, however, suffer breaches and wall collapses, often due to mismanagement and poor maintenance. As a result, the ash slurry stored in them leaks to nearby rivers, wells and other sources of water, thereby polluting them.
Something similar happened on 16 July. The wall of the Koradi ash pond collapsed and flooded nearby villages. Shakuntala's village was among the worst affected.
"After the breach, water mixed with slurry from the ash pond flooded our homes. Around the same time, several children in the locality, including my son, complained of stomach ailments. We had to take him to a doctor," Sita tells The Quint.
Sita attributes this contaminated water behind the painful patches that have spread across her mother-in-law Shakuntala's hands. "She is a domestic worker, and uses water straight from the pipe for all household chores. We don't see any other reason behind her condition," says Sita.
"The elderly and the children in our area often complain of breathing issues. This happens because in the summers, the ash blows with the wind and engulfs our homes," she adds.
Beyond anecdotal evidence, the Shende family has no concrete proof to link the medical conditions of Shakuntala and Aarav with the two power plants in the region.
Sita says that the family cannot afford expensive medical treatment. "We don't have the money to get any tests done. We visit doctors, and they prescribe medicines, and we come back home," she adds.
Interestingly, a 2021 study shows high concentration of heavy metals in the water available in Khairi and other villages in the region.
The Quint spoke to Leena Buddhe, a researcher at CFSD and author of 'Polluted Power,' the 2021 report on how the Koradi and the Khaperkheda TPPs are impacting the environment and the lives of villagers in their vicinity.
"We collected water and fly ash samples. The samples were collected in all three seasons. At least 11 samples were collected along the (Kanhan) river because it was polluted, and 14 samples were collected across the villages. We analysed ground water, surface water, water from dug wells, bore wells and from the water ATMs. We found a lot of heavy metals in water such as aluminium, antimony, chromium, boron, cadmium, mercury, and arsenic.Leena Buddhe, Researcher & Author
In a dug well in the village, mercury levels exceeded 51 times the prescribed standards while Arsenic exceeded 13 times.
The Cost of Water
In 2013, when 21-year-old Bhagyashree Makde married Sharad Makde and came to Nagpur's Mhasala village, she had little idea of what was in store for her. Nine years on, Bhagyashree says that her life has been reduced to 'ash'.
"Each day of my married life, I have wondered what sort of village have I moved to. There's ash in the water we drink, ash on the floor, ash on the rooftop, and ash in our clothes drying in the sun. Name a place and ash has reached there," she says.
Nine members of Bhagyashree's family including her mother-in-law, her husband, their two-year-old daughter, her brother-in-law, sister-in-law, three nephews, and a niece, suffer from breathing ailments and skin diseases.
"My two-year-old developed fungal patches on her scalp. We had to get her head shaved and apply medicines prescribed by a dermatologist for two months."Bhagyashree Makde, Homemaker
Bhagyashree too developed patches on skin during her pregnancy. She claims that the root cause of these problems is the ash discharged from the Khaperkheda power plant, four km away from her village.
Her husband is the deputy sarpanch of Mhasala and the family owns large plots of land in the village. "Our house is right next to the main road of the village from where trucks used for transporting coal ash pass. During the summers, the ash from these trucks blows with the wind and covers our house like snow," she says.
While the Makde family can afford treatment at private hospitals in Nagpur, many like the Shendes find it difficult.
"My mother-in-law first visited the Primary Health Centre (PHC) in our village for treatment. However, when they couldn't help, she had to visit a doctor in Kamptee (a neighbouring city five km away from Khairi)," says Sita.
Doctors in private hospitals charge more than what Shakuntala can afford. "Each visit to the doctor costs her (Shakuntala) over Rs 2,000. If she is to visit the doctor twice a month, she would spend her entire monthly income on treatment," explains Sita.
Shakuntala, as a result, has stopped going to the doctor. "Whenever I have enough money, I buy the tube (ointment) prescribed by the doctor," she says. "The patches don't itch as long as I apply the tube but there is no permanent solution."
With water pollution in the region being common knowledge, MAHAGENCO has installed water ATMs for villagers to access clean drinking water. Villagers now buy water for Rs 150-200 per month from these ATMs. But not everyone can afford it.
"With mounting medical bills and fluctuating income, we cannot afford to spend money on water. I boil drinking water for my children but my husband, mother-in-law, and I drink water from the tap," says Sita.
Bhagyashree, on the other hand, claims that while her family can afford buying water from the ATM, even that is "not completely free of ash". Her claim is backed by the study conducted by Buddhe's group.
One out of three water samples collected from a water ATM in Mhasala showed high levels of magnesium, antimony, and lithium, as per the 2021 CFSD study.
MAHAGENCO's History of Flouting Rules
The two thermal power plants in Nagpur generate a total of 3,740 MW of electric power per hour, playing a significant role in making Maharashtra the largest producer of thermal power in India.
These plants, however, are habitual offenders as far as flouting environmental and pollution control norms is concerned.
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 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.
In February 2022, Aaditya Thackeray, the then Minister of Environment in the Government of Maharashtra, ordered the authorities to “conduct a comprehensive study to determine how ageing and polluting coal-fired power facilities in the state can be phased down in a systematic manner”. Within 24 hours of his visit, the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) directed officials at the Khaparkheda power plant to remove the accumulated ash from the Nandgaon and Waregaon ash ponds.
Aaditya Thackeray during his visit to Nagpur.
(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)
Aaditya Thackeray during his visit to Nagpur.
(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)
Despite repeated warnings and documented evidence to show how the two power plants have over the years contributed to legacy pollution, action against MAHAGENCO or plant officials rarely go beyond paperwork. While the authorities go unpunished and continue flouting norms, people like Shakuntala await a permanent solution to their problems. "Will these patches ever go away? Is there a treatment for this?" she asks.