(This is the first story in a two-part series 'The Ash Fields of Nagpur' documenting the plight of people living near two coal-fired plants in Maharashtra's Nagpur district.)
Inside a small ditch on a hardened soil lay a rotten brinjal, skeleton of a withered, lifeless plant stood next to it. "Coal ash burnt my entire crop this year," said Dashrath Balaji Thakre, a 65-year-old farmer in Nagpur's Waregaon village, as he pointed at almost eight acres of his farm.
Along with his family of five, Thakre cultivates seasonal vegetables and legumes and has not seen a decent harvest in over five years.
He is one of the many farmers in villages on the outskirts of Nagpur, a district in Maharashtra, severely impacted by coal ash pollution due to the Koradi and the Khaperkheda Thermal Power Plants (TPPs).
These two power plants, set up in 1974 (Koradi) and 1989 (Khaperkheda) by the Maharashtra State Power Generation Company (MAHAGENCO), collectively generate 3740 MW of coal-fuelled power per hour, making for almost one-third of Maharashtra's total installed thermal power capacity.
Over the years, several independent and government bodies have pulled up the power plants for violating environmental norms and contributing to water and air pollution in the region.
In 2020, for instance, the Maharashtra cabinet deferred the expansion of Koradi power plant after MAHAGENCO failed to get environmental clearance owing to its failure to install flue gas desulphurizers (device used to remove sulphur dioxide from the exhaust flue gases of fossil-fuel power plants) on existing units of the plant.
In 2021, a collaborative report by three non-governmental organisations – Centre for Sustainable Development (CFSD), Manthan Adhyayan Kendra (MAK), and Asar Social Impact Advisors found that drinking water collected from 11 locations in several villages contained abnormally high-levels of metals such as chromium, arsenic, aluminium, antimony, cadmium, boron, and mercury.
The 'Silver' Farms Where Crops Don't Grow
Thakre's village is approximately four km away from the Khaperkheda TPP. "Every year, when the pre-monsoon winds blow in April and May, the coal ash discharged through the chimneys of the power plant settle on the leaves of our plants and on the soil," he said, as he gazed at his field, entirely covered in ash, silver in colour.
Thakre explained that over the years this ash has seeped into the soil making it toxic and thus reducing the quantity and quality of the produce year after year. "The crops are not the same as they used to be. The quantity and quality have both taken a hit," he told The Quint.
Toxins from the two power plants reach the farmlands in their vicinity through multiple channels: coal ash discharged from chimneys of TPPs; dry coal ash on the surface of ash ponds (large plots of land used by MAHAGENCO to dump ash discharged from the power plant); coal ash escaping from trucks used to transport the ash for treatment; and coal ash discharged in rivers or other groundwater resources.
"The most common medium of pollution are the ash ponds," said Leena Buddhe, a researcher at CFSD and author of Polluted Power, a 2021 report which detailed the impact of the two power plants on people in the region.
"As per the latest fly ash notifications issued by the government of India, every power plant is supposed to ensure between 80-100 percent utilisation of fly ash generated in that year. What the power plants instead do is that they acquire large patches of field around the units and dump fly ash in those fields. These fields, full of ash, are kept moist to prevent the ash from mixing with air and they resemble large ponds."Leena Buddhe, CFSD Director
Buddhe explained that due to large-scale evaporation and inability of MAHAGENCO to develop a proper system of checks and measures, the upper layer of ash in the ponds usually dries up and when the wind blows it pollutes air and water resources in the region.
'Ash' Flood in a Drought Prone Region
Early 16 July morning, Damodar Kumble, a farmer, woke up to something unusual. Eight acres of his farmland, in an otherwise drought-prone region, was heavily flooded. The reason wasn't torrential rain or a cloudburst.
In fact, the retainer wall of the Koradi ash pond had collapsed and as a result the coal ash discharge flooded nearby farmlands, including those that belonged to Kumble.
For context, the ash pond in question is spread over 617 acres of land and contains 2.5 crore metric tonnes of ash slurry (explain).
"What will grow in this ash?" asked Kumble as he picked up a lump of soil from the farmland. "We are thankful that the wall of the pond collapsed early in the morning. If this had happened overnight, I would never have been able to use my land again," he added.
Both Kumble and Thakre have lost their crops and are neck deep in debt. "My crops would have been in the market by now, had it not been for the collapse of the pond," said Kumble.
He and his family of five are dependent on agriculture for livelihood. "I owe Rs 40,000 to my landlord, and Rs ,8000 in electricity dues. I might have to invest over Rs two lakh in soil, fertilisers and manure to make the soil fit for cultivation next season," he said.
Caught in a similar situation, Thakre hopes for government intervention. "We don't know what to do. They (government) might announce a loan waiver or some compensation," he told The Quint.
In July, MAHAGENCO announced a compensation of Rs 50,000 for the families impacted by the collapse. Till the date of publishing of this report, neither Thakre nor Kumble had received this money.
No Land, No Problems?
Ambadas Patil, 79, has spent the latter half of his life spreading awareness among the people of his village about the dangers of the two power plants. "Ironically, I was one of the labourers who laid down bricks to construct the Khaperkheda plant," he told The Quint.
"My family didn't own any lands. We worked on farms as labourers. The power plants killed agriculture in this region as MAHAGENCO acquired large tracts of land. While the landlords were compensated, the labourers didn't get anything."Ambadas Patil, Social Activist
Once Patil discovered how the TPPs were contributing to pollution in the region, he started writing letters to the authorities, trying to convince them to come up with a solution. "I have written letters to everybody – the Chief Minister, Guardian Minister, Power Minister, MLA, Department Commissioners, Zila Adhikaari, Tehsildars and NGOs," he said.
Bundles of papers are kept by the window of his modest one-room house, along with a portrait of Babasaheb Ambedkar. "Sometimes my wife and my son get annoyed when I stay up till midnight drafting these letters. They want me to switch the lights off and sleep," added Patil.
A few kilometres away, at Thakre's farm, Shakuntala Devi earns Rs 175 per day for work as a farm labourer. In the month of July, she skipped 14 days of work due to health-related issues.
For the month of July, she didn't get paid for those 14 days -- Rs 5,250, to be exact.
"Stomach ache and fever are very common here," she said, as she sat next to two other women labourers for lunch. Devi can't afford medical help, especially after losing half of her monthly income due to her absence at work.
Thakre explained that the well that supplies water to their farm is polluted. "My children and I bring water from home for our own consumption but it is not possible to bring water for the labourers. They often end up drinking the contaminated water," he said.
"The water in our village is contaminated by ash. That might be a reason for these problems. Lekin abhi hume kaise pata chalega? (But how will we know for sure?)" asked Shakuntala.
Interestingly, Patil, Thakre, Kumble, Devi, and thousands of others impacted by the power plants unanimously said that they do not want the plants to shut down. "When the plants were being set up, we were told that they will improve the quality of life in the surrounding villages. We want the government and MAHAGENCO to keep that promise," said Patil.
CFSD's Buddhe explained that there isn't much that MAHAGENCO needs to do. "They must stop evading responsibility and ensure 100 percent utilisation of fly ash and set up a proper system of checks and measures to ensure that the infrastructure meant to keep the toxic discharge away from soil, air and water in the region, remains intact," she added.
Raju Ghughe, the Chief Engineer of the Khaperkheda power plant, told The Quint that the ash slurry reaching the farms in the region is "rainwater and it will recede once the monsoon is over." Ghughe also claimed that "there isn't enough demand for coal ash in Nagpur for the plant to achieve 100 percent utilisation," yet his team is working to meet the targets set by the government of India.
Till then, people of the 'ash' fields of Nagpur await a permanent solution.