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How Modi Government’s Thermal Power Reforms Aggravate Pollution

Ayaskant Das |
The push for the use of domestic coal is directly focused on revitalising coal mining and thermal power companies, including addressing their sluggish response to the coal auctions, said experts
thermal power

New Delhi: Even as most of India is gripped by severe air pollution, reforms by the Modi government for the thermal power sector, particularly those undertaken to push the use of domestically-produced coal, could further aggravate the situation. In the latest in a series of relaxations, the BJP-led Central Government has granted thermal power plants leeway to change their sources of coal without amending environmental clearances.

The restrictions on sourcing of coal were lifted through an office memorandum issued by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MoEF&CC) on November 11. Instead of seeking an amendment to environmental clearance, a thermal power plant will now simply need to ‘inform’ the ministry that it would be changing over to a new coal source, irrespective of the potential environmental hazards such a change would entail.

“Details regarding change in source (location of the source, proposed quantity, distance from the power plant and mode of transportation), quality (ash, sulphur, moisture content and calorific value) shall be informed to the Ministry and its Regional Office. The quantity of coal transported from each source along with the mode of transportation shall be submitted as part of EC [Environmental Clearance] Compliance Report,” the memorandum stated.

The memorandum also allows for transportation of coal along road routes, albeit in lorries covered with tarpaulins, which, nevertheless, could also be a potential source of air pollution.

In June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced the auction of 41 coal blocks for commercial mining by private players. The auction process for allotment of the blocks is still underway even as the number of blocks were later scaled down to 38, primarily due to environmental concerns raised by the Chhattisgarh government.

However, in the run up to the auction of coal blocks, the Centre brought about policy changes that laid greater impetus upon usage of domestically produced coal. Coal mined in India has a higher percentage of ash as compared to high-grade imported coal, which is of better quality and hence, expensive. Environmental hazards from fly ash are only expected to increase over the next few years as more thermal power plants shift to domestically produced coal.

Experts say the move to allow thermal power plants to change the quality and source of coal at will, needs to be understood alongside the pool of reforms for the coal sector in India, including carte blanche approvals for road transportation where precautions, prior approvals or impact assessments do not exist.

“The push for domestic coal is directly focused on revitalising the mining and coal power companies, including addressing the sluggish response to the coal auctions,” said Kanchi Kohli of the Center for Policy Research, a Delhi-based public policy think tank.

Reforms for thermal power and coal mining industries have been brought into effect notwithstanding the fact that combustion of fossil fuel is one of the major sources of environmental pollution. Fly ash, which contains highly toxic elements, is one of the byproducts from coal combustion in thermal power plants. Improper management of gargantuan quantities of fly ash accumulated over several decades has resulted in large scale air and water pollution in areas close to thermal power plants. Apart from fly ash, thermal power plants are also cause air pollution from sulphurous emissions, where coal containing high percentages of sulphur is used.

In April 2020, the Modi government had come out with a policy which encouraged thermal power firms to switch over from imported coal to domestically-produced coal. The Union Ministry of Power, which issued the policy advisory, had also set up a mechanism to ‘deal with difficulties faced by the power companies in obtaining required quantity, quality of domestic coal including logistic bottlenecks’.

In May, the central government did away with the mandatory need to use coal with ash content below 34% in thermal power plants. Domestically-produced coal has an ash content in the range between 35% to 40% or above, while most coal imported to India has an ash content between ten to fifteen per cent. The notification, issued on May 21 by the MoEF&CC, also did away with the mandatory requirement of washing coal before its usage in thermal power plants. As per experts, coal washing is a procedure that helps remove ash percentage by around eight per cent.

Though usage of domestically-produced coal is expected to generate larger quantities of fly ash, the central government has, however, ruled out any entitlement for thermal power plants to increase capacities of their existing fly ash ponds unless they expand their electricity generation capacities. 

In the latest office memorandum issued on November 11 too, the Centre has clearly ruled out any provision for additional ash ponds other than that which have been allowed in the environmental clearances to respective thermal power plants.

These relaxations have been granted even as several regions in the country are battling with air and water pollution caused by thermal power plants. There have also been numerous instances of fly ash pond dyke breaches in which toxic slurry has spread over farmlands and habitations resulting in loss of lives, damage to agricultural crops and pollution of nearby water bodies.

“Substitution of imported coal with domestically produced coal is good from the point of view of increasing our forex reserves. However, there are certain plants located along the coasts of the country that have been designed to have the natural advantage of using imported coal. A few ultra-mega power projects have also been specifically designed to use a certain quality, quantity and blend of coal. The correlation between fly ash generation and its utilisation is important. The economics of fly ash utilisation should not work to anyone’s disadvantage. Transportation of fly ash not only blocks rail capacity but also involves rail freight charges. And there is obviously the threat of environmental pollution during the loading and unloading processes,” former Advisor (Coal) to government of India, R.K. Sachdev, told NewsClick.

At the same time, most thermal power plants in the country have missed the December 2017 deadline for 100% fly ash utilisation. The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, as it was called during the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, had in November 2009 issued a notification regarding fly ash utilisation. The notification had set a five-year time period with staggered deadlines for thermal power plants to utilise fly ash. For existing plants, a maximum period of five years was set for 100% of fly ash from November 2009. For new plants, the ministry has set a deadline of four years for 100% utilisation within a period of four years from the date of commissioning. This notification was later amended by the Modi government in January 2016 to extend the deadline for existing plants further, till the end of 2017.

However, as per the latest report of the Central Electricity Authority, fly ash utilisation in the country was only 78.19% during the first half of financial year 2019-20. Only 39 out of 105 thermal power plants had fly ash utilisation in the range of 100% or above.

On November 6, the National Green Tribunal reiterated its earlier order upon the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to compute and recover environmental compensation from thermal power plants that have missed deadlines for the 100% utilisation of fly ash. This order was issued following a CPCB report, submitted to the tribunal in September, as per which 102 of 112 thermal power plants had refused to pay environmental compensation on various grounds (including appeals pending in the Supreme Court). Eight plants never responded to the CPCB notices while only two plants paid up the penalties.

“Ironically, this comes at a time when there is a global move away from coal-based power, including financial support. It also comes with complete knowledge that Indian coal which is high in ash content will only add to the huge backlog of fly ash mismanagement,” said Kohli.

The writer is an independent journalist.

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