THE COAL WITHIN

The journey of coal from the power plant to the human body leaves a path ridden with disease in its wake.

Living next to three smoky chimneys of the Anpara Thermal Power Plant,
50-year-old Rajkumar Devi connects the dots that led her to her ills.

 LEFT: ANPARA THERMAL POWER PLANT                                 RIGHT: RAJKUMAR DEVI, ANPARA TOWN

LEFT: ANPARA THERMAL POWER PLANT                                 RIGHT: RAJKUMAR DEVI, ANPARA TOWN

See, I got blood cancer right from the time the plant started coming up. By the time it had been built, my kidney problems had also begun.
I spend Rs 9000 for 30 tablets from PGI every month.
— Rajkmar Devi, 50, Anapara town, bordering Anpara Thermal Power plant.

The day starts for the government school beside her house with a thorough sweep and sprinkle, but the black soot remains settled deep within the cracks of the floors. In summer, the coal-dust storms often turn day into night, even as the teachers and children tie their scarves tightly around their faces while singing the National Anthem.

 LEFT: ASH, NEAR JAYANT MINES                                           RIGHT: GOVERNMENT SCHOOL, ANPARA

LEFT: ASH, NEAR JAYANT MINES                                           RIGHT: GOVERNMENT SCHOOL, ANPARA

With 11 power plants and 12 coal mines in it, the Singrauli-Sonbhadra region has been coined the ‘Energy capital of India’; understandably, it is high on the list of critically polluted areas of the country. Jagat Narayan Viswakarma, a petitioner in the National Green Tribunal's case in 2013 against the Union Government of India for pollution in the area, estimates that about 500 deaths occur every year here. Rarely, though, if ever, is the cause of death ascribed to heavy metal contamination.

Linking ailments to specific pollutants requires specialised testing. The few laboratories that should be equipped to conduct the tests, never end up releasing the results - either they actually don’t have the capacity to
or they’re being persuaded not to let the results come out.
— Prof. G. D Agrawal of Banwasi Sewa Ashram, the first Member-Secretary of India's Central Pollution Control Board.
 LEFT: JAYANT OPEN CAST MINES                                          RIGHT: PHOTO OF RAJU WHO DIED OF A 'STOMACH AILMENT',                                                                                                    GARIYA

LEFT: JAYANT OPEN CAST MINES                                          RIGHT: PHOTO OF RAJU WHO DIED OF A 'STOMACH AILMENT',                                                                                                    GARIYA

A forty-minute drive away from Anpara, Chilkadand village stands precariously at the edge of the Northern Coalfields open cast mine. During the monsoon, the dumps from the mine frequently spill into Chilkanand.

A study in 2012, conducted by Delhi-based non-profit organisation Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), confirmed that Fluoride, Mercury and Arsenic were all higher than the permissible limits in most water, soil and fish samples tested. It also revealed that over 84% of the blood samples of the local population contained mercury above the safe level. Environmentalists warn, mental retardation among the people will only spread over time.

 LEFT: A MURAL, AMROLI RELIANCE REHABILITATION COLONY   RIGHT: MENTALLY-RETARDED DAUGHTER,...., OF A MINE                                                                                                    LABOURER, CHILKADAND                                    

LEFT: A MURAL, AMROLI RELIANCE REHABILITATION COLONY   RIGHT: MENTALLY-RETARDED DAUGHTER,...., OF A MINE                                                                                                    LABOURER, CHILKADAND                                    

Look what my hands have become! When I come home after driving,
I wash my hands repeatedly but within minutes, they’re the same. All of us who work in the mines cough constantly. When the phlegm comes out, it’s black in colour. Coal kills one’s appetite. Whatever I’m earning goes into medicines anyway. My future? Whatever I do in these 2, 4 or maximum 5 years, I’ll do, and then my story is over. When my body stops delivering, no company will keep us.
— Vimlesh Sawhney, 40, open-cast mine driver, working for the last 15 years with a contractor of Northern Coal Limited Coal Mines.

LEFT: VIMLESH SAWHNEY’s HAND, CHILKADAND                      RIGHT: COMPANY LOGO OF A FIST, COAL TRUCK DEPOT OF                                                                                                       NCL JAYANT COAL MINES

Burnt coal emits so much gas, sometimes it feels like my body itself will catch fire. When the dump spills into our cabin, the glass breaks and our heads get smashed. After some basic first-aid, the company just asks us to go. After sucking our blood, the company says go, you are of no use to us now.
— Vimlesh Sawhney, 40, open-cast mine driver, Chilkadand.
 LEFT: JAYANT MINES                                                          RIGHT: VIMLESH SAWHNEY, CHILKADAND

LEFT: JAYANT MINES                                                          RIGHT: VIMLESH SAWHNEY, CHILKADAND

Vimlesh's neighbour, 17-year-old Rohit Kumar, is living out his father’s destiny.

My father died of Tuberculosis in 2014. By 2015, I got it. I was 10 years old when he fell ill, and had to leave my studies to work. The house is in God’s hands now.”
— 17-year-old Rohit Kumar, Chilkadand.

In desperation, his mother Sukhraj Devi would collect loose coal at night which she'd sell in order to pay for her husband's treatment. After his death, she travelled all over for her son's treatment - from Ashram, Badwahi and Renusagar to NTPC, Anpara and Buxar - but Rohit still remains bed-ridden. 

 LEFT: ANGEETHIS (OVENS) AT CHILKADAND                            RIGHT: ROHIT KUMAR, CHILKADAND

LEFT: ANGEETHIS (OVENS) AT CHILKADAND                            RIGHT: ROHIT KUMAR, CHILKADAND

Ash slurry from the Belvadah Ash pond, disposed of by NTPC Shaktinagar and Vidhyachal Thermal Power Plants, overflows into Rihand Dam. Even the committee constituted to look into the NGT case, chaired by AB Akolkar, Member Secretary of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), shared its concern over the contamination of the Rihand river - the main water source of the area. Ash pipes of several thermal power plants have leaks, which also adds to the contamination of fields and ground water.  

 LEFT: VISHAL, 8 YEARS FLUORIDE PATIENT, BICCHI, GARIYA    RIGHT: ASH PIPELINE LEAK,......

LEFT: VISHAL, 8 YEARS FLUORIDE PATIENT, BICCHI, GARIYA    RIGHT: ASH PIPELINE LEAK,......

Gariya Block is located 10 kms away from Anpara. Records maintained
by its Pradhan (elected head) show that as many as 33 deaths were registered in 2016 alone.
On testing samples at a recognised laboratory at Ahmedabad, the Gram Panchayat found that not a single water source was uncontaminated. This is accepted by the Jal Board (Department of Water) too. Yet, the official cause of death of 22-year-old Raju from Bicchi Village of the same block was 'an acute stomach ailment'. 

We are realising that this is all happening due to water - it is the fluoride that is polluting us. They tell us not to drink from the well, not to drink from the hand pump. So where should we drink water from? My whole family, our two kids have become handicapped. We have become disabled, both my wife and I, and our spines have bent. Our bodies have no life, no strength, no power at all.
— Laleram Yadav, Gariah, 10 kms away from Anpara Thermal Power Plant.
 LEFT: LALERAM YADAV’ S WIFE AND SON                                  RIGHT:  ASH SLURRY,....

LEFT: LALERAM YADAV’ S WIFE AND SON                                  RIGHT:  ASH SLURRY,....

The red, stagnant lake at Pipragaon Nayi Basti, 20 kms from Obra Thermal Power Plant, tested positive for pollutants with far higher-than-permissible limits. Lying in the direct direction of the wind blowing from the plant, the lake stands testimony to the continual passage of arsenic, mercury and fluoride in the air. This exceeds the15 km safe-radius that the government recognizes. For bedridden patients of the Basti like Vijay Kumar and Vindhyanchal, hope too lies forgotten.

On my own, I can’t move at all. It takes two people at a time to move me in and out. If I don’t have my medicines, I won’t be able to survive for even one day.
— Bed-ridden patient Vijay Kumar Sharma
 LEFT: RED LAKE, PIPRAGAON NAYI BASTI                                  RIGHT: VIJAY KUMAR SHARMA, PIPRAGAON NAYI BASTI

LEFT: RED LAKE, PIPRAGAON NAYI BASTI                                  RIGHT: VIJAY KUMAR SHARMA, PIPRAGAON NAYI BASTI

During our time, there was no illness. In the last 10-15 years, it is everywhere. Those days, the water was not like this. Now, the water itself is the illness! My whole body has got jammed like iron. Only my hands move a little. Whatever little moves, I move. I eat, I shit, everything I do
is on this cot only. How long can I live like this?
— Vindhyachal, 70-year-old patient
 LEFT: CHILKADAND                                                                  RIGHT: VINDHYACHAL, PIPRA GAON NAYI BASTI

LEFT: CHILKADAND                                                                  RIGHT: VINDHYACHAL, PIPRA GAON NAYI BASTI

Yet, the story continues. 95% of the new power plant projects that have got the green signal don’t have treatment devices like flue gas desulphurisation (FGD) units and selective catalytic reduction (SCR) units to limit pollution.

The problem is not awareness or even of acceptance, but one of commitment. When most of the industries are either government-owned or have government sanction, they would have regulated them if they wanted to.
— Prof. G. D Agrawal

In spite of a two-year notification, the deadline of December 7, 2017- set by the Supreme Court for thermal power plants across India to reduce their emission of PM, SO2 and NOx pollutants below specified limits- has been missed. With a staggering 66% dependence on coal for its aggressive power-generation plans, the government itself has appealed for a further extension till 2022.

In the meantime, the lives of the affected and forgotten will continue to get cut short.