IN TODAY’S India, two areas most critical for biodiversity preservation are forests and coastal areas. These are also the most invaded places by mega development projects. It is not to say that the biodiversity of rivers and inland water bodies are not facing threats. The aquatic biodiversity of rivers is greatly impacted in India by hydro-power plants, huge warm water discharge from thermal power plants, extremely polluted slurry discharge from mines, pollutants from factories, and unplanned urban waste disposal.
The stories of forests and coast land are much worse. In fact, in 2007–2012 alone, more forest areas have been opened up to coal mining than was done in the previous 40 years. Most of these areas are rich tropical forests, home to adivasis and traditional forest dwellers. In addition, a large number of luxury tourism and defence projects and fast-paced urbanisation, among other things, are located on or near different Indian coasts stretching over 6,000 kilometres in the mainland (and another 1500 kilometres in the islands) and are home to over 3,200 fishing villages. The loss of biodiversity that occurred as a consequence of these ‘development’ projects — human and other life forms — are of unthinkable magnitude in many of these places.
Let us take the illustrative case of the Mundra coast on the Gulf of Kutch, which is/was also a mangrove area in Kutch district of Gujarat, to show how these coal power projects are affecting ecosystem, people’s health and livelihood (see google earth image). The reality of Mundra will give you a preview of a dark future awaiting the Sunderbans, if the Bangladesh government, defying global voices, continues with the Rampal coal-based power plant. The rivers and coastal areas of the Sunderbans are now on the brink of a future similar to that of Mundra.
The Gulf of Kutch
SITUATED on the extreme west of India sharing an international border with Pakistan, Kutch is the largest district in India, spanning across 45,652 sq km, nearly 30,000 sq km of which are salt deserts — the Rann of Kutch. As described in a study titled ‘Kutch Coast – People, Environment and Livelihoods’ by Fishmark and Kutch Nav Nirman Abhiyan:
Kutch Coast is one of the rare ecological zones in the world having rich bio-diversity. It comprises of mangroves, coral reefs, mudflats, seaweeds, commercial fishes and several rare marine species. The mangroves of Kutch are the second largest after the Sunderbans in the mainland of India. A prominent feature of the Kutch Coast is the vast intertidal zone comprising a network of creeks, estuaries and mudflats. The Kutch coast provides a conducive environment for several sea based traditional occupations like fishing, salt making apart from land based occupations like agriculture, horticulture and animal husbandry.
The Gulf of Kutch and its coast is a highly bio-diverse area. No one needs telling how important mangroves, coral reefs and creeks are for nurturing biodiversity. In such a fragile and biodiversity rich area, the government has permitted, even invited a big multi-berth port including coal terminal, a big special economic zone and a number of huge coal power plants. The associated coal terminal, the big port and the rows of massive coal power plants have destroyed a large area of mangrove forests. The railway from the port to the coal power plants has blocked large areas of intertidal zones, drying it out and killing the unique intertidal life forms.
Endangering aquatic biodiversity
THE coal power plants discharge coal-washed slurry straight into the coastal water of the Gulf of Kutch. It is damaging to the sensitive marine life. After washing the coal, the water used to suppress dust also gets contaminated. Though the power plant operators claim that the cooling water contains no chemical contaminants both visual and scientific evidence show otherwise. On testing both the intake and outfall waters, the contamination becomes clear. An independent water testing exercise initiated by a fact-finding committee (author of this article coordinated the committee) collecting data on the intake and outfall channel water gave the following revealing results shown on Table-1.
Thus, it can be clearly seen that some acidic material is being added to the cooling water, lowering its normal pH value. Both the colour and odour are also strong indicators of this. The dissolved oxygen level also dropped significantly increasing stress level on marine life as their food system is dependent on the availability of oxygen in water. Mercury and heavy metal are documented to occur in coal ash, and get transmitted to living beings, particularly bio-accumulators like larger fish.
The Tata-Mundra plant alone is taking in over 15 million litres of water a day killing fish seedling with the pumped intake of water without a high technology special filter. On being specifically asked, the Tata-Mundra management could not give any specific information. In all likelihood, they are not using any such screening device, though this has become standard practice in most countries. The US EPA document indicates that any intake rate over 2 million gallons/day should follow these safeguards. Therefore, death of fish becomes a challenge for fishermen and other livelihoods dependent on fish catch.
THE Mundra area has fisher-folk, pastoralists and salt makers. They all depend on free access to the coast line, grazing grounds and mud-flats. The two gigantic coal power plants in Mundra (one by Adani’s, the other by Tata’s) have blocked many access roads, put multiple check-points, and erected boundary walls across creeks, denying essential livelihood support for thousands. People around the newly started coal plants in Mundra are already reporting health problems. They also reported a large increase in intestinal disease of cattle, which was corroborated by local veterinarians, with possible cause being pointed at the contamination of grazing grounds and material with fly-ash and coal-dust.
The Tata-Mundra power plant though using comparatively high sulphur Indonesian coal, has not installed flue-gas-desulphuriser. As a result, there is emission of acidic SO2 and acid rain possibilities. Several studies have shown that installing FGDs reduce the mortality rates from sulphur oxide emissions. Still, our coal power plants operate without them. Coal dust and fly ash made life difficult for nearby villages of Tunda-Wand. People even complained about coal dust in their food, water and all over their bodies when the sleep outside at night. The fish being dried also gets contaminated from huge amounts of fly ash and coal dust.
The radioactivity from coal ash is a serious threat which has not attracted enough attention in India. However, in several European countries and also in the United States, there are studies to show that this is a threat (US EPA has clear markers). In the Mundra area, we found the radioactivity to be more than double at 0.21–0.23 micro-sievert/Hr (it is a measure of radioactive dose that anyone is exposed to there) about 300–400 metres from the newly started ash pond of Tata-Mundra coal power plant, in comparison with 0.08–0.09 in the villages a few kilometres away. This happened when just one of the five units of the Tata-Mundra plant was operational, and only for a few months; it makes one shudder to think of the situation when all the five will come on stream and the dry ash beds will spew ash in the strong coastal wind.
Destruction of fish sanctuaries also devastates small fishermen. Some of the fish traders (who have records and often buy from fixed boats) gave us these approximate figures:
In the year 2004–2005, 12 boats (4–6 persons in each boat) used to get Rs 25–27 lakh/boat worth of fish each year;
In the year 2010, 16 boats were used here, netting Rs 21 lakh of fish; and
In 2011, 21 boats were used here the catch was less than Rs 10 lakh/boat, so very little is left after expenses,
As we can see, instead of getting better off from this ‘developmental’ project, the fisher-folk in this area are getting poorer and facing harsher conditions due to the setting up of these power plants.
Going a little further to understand how these power plants have affected different marine species and associated livelihood, it was found that two of the most prized prawns and pomfrets have drastically declined. The following figures were obtained from two ‘bunders (Saleiha and Tragdi)’:
As can be seen, the local fisher-people’s complaints about drastically reduced fish catch for the economically important species is backed by actual data and the economic hardship resulting from this can be easily imagined.
The two power plants in Mundra (along with a smaller one) will burn about 30 million tonnes of coal annually, thus releasing anything between 60–65 million tons of CO2, or nearly 1.5 per cent of India’s total CO2 emission, while contributing to a tiny fraction of a percentage of its total economic activity. The resultant addition to global warming, and its further impacts on biodiversity and vulnerability of the poor will be significant.
Denied access to their grazing lands, more pastoralists have been forced to leave. Figures of the amount of grazing lands handed over to these plants and industries in this regions shown in Table 3 brings out the extreme pressure that this lack of access to common grazing land has created (data provided by Machhimar Adhikar Sangharsh Sangathan):
Some of the data presented here are a bit old and from a few years back. The situation today is much worse in Mundra than before.
With the Indian government taking a policy of promoting large-scale coal power plants in coastal and other eco-sensitive zones, and approving destructive projects like Rampal coal power plant in the name of friendship with Bangladesh, the duplicity of the government policies that claim to prioritise coastal and marine biodiversity and livelihoods is now out in the open. No matter in what term or ideological clothing it is presented, it is not development if it destroys lives and livelihood on a large scale, as it did in Mundra.
Soumya Dutta is national convener of the Indian people’s science group Bharat Jana Vigyan Jatha and convener of the Climate and Energy Group in the Beyond Copenhagen collective in India, a network of more than 40 organisations. He has been involved in science education, environmental rights and people’s science movement for 25 years, but over the last decade and a half, has become more involved in activist movements.
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