2021 will mark four years since the initial deadline to bring toxic air emissions under control. Thermal Coal-fired Power Plants in India have sought several extensions till date and are not adhering to the new standards.
Globally, air pollution causes 7 million deaths each year, that’s 13 deaths every minute. Coal-fired Thermal power plants is one of the main contributors of India’s worsening air quality. According to a 2019 World Air Quality Report by IQAir Visual, twenty-one of the world's 30 cities with the worst air quality are in India.
It is a known fact that air pollution hurts the youngest members of our society – the children – most. It causes asthma, reduced lung capacity, behavioral and cognitive problems, school absenteeism and altered immunity. Most recent research from India now finds an association between obesity/overweight in children and higher prevalence of asthma, where the role of air pollution causing obesity is suspected. The report concluded twin pathways causing asthma; one directly by polluted air and second via obesity arising due to air pollution.
In December 2015, the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) proposed to amend the Environment (Protection) Rules of 1986 by bringing in tighter emission norms for coal-based power plants. According to this amendment, all existing and new Thermal Power Plants were given time till December 2017 to comply with the new rules.
By bringing the notification for stricter norms in December 2015, the MoEF&CC had committed to a reduction of Particulate Matter (PM), Sulphur Dioxide (SO2), Nitrogen dioxide (NOx) and mercury in air. According to experts, the implementation of the tighter emission norms would help cut PM emissions by 40%, SO2 and NOx emissions by 48% respectively and mercury emissions by 60% compared to earlier levels in the existing plants.
2021 will mark four years since the initial deadline to bring toxic air emissions under control. Thermal Power Plants in India have sought several extensions till date and are not adhering to the new standards. At first the MoEF&CC complied with power producer’s demand and extended the deadline for implementation till 2022 and now it’s been further extended to 2025. The main arguments for such repeated extensions are economic and the cost to the producers. This also raises questions of the scientific basis of the decisions of the MoEF&CC and the fact that no consideration to public health is given in such decision making.
Our children are set to lose the most with every day of the delayed implementation of the norms. Analysis from Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) suggest that missed deadlines of implementation of emission norms each year causes an estimated 88,000 cases of childhood asthma, 1,40,000 cases of pre-term births and 3,900 premature deaths among children.
As we continue to struggle to get the norms implemented without delay, we should also keep in mind that we have a very long road ahead in ensuring that power plants don’t pollute. That said, implementation of the stricter emission norms is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the cumulative emissions from the power plant. We need to assess at the power sector from a life cycle point of view. There is ample evidence to demonstrate that each phase of coal’s lifecycle - mining, disposal of contaminated water and tailings, transportation, washing, combustion and disposing of post‐ combustion wastes –cause pollution that harm human health. According to the World Federation of Public Health Association, research conducted in several countries like India, China, the US, Australia and the EU consistently demonstrate that coal communities and workers have higher rates of lung cancer, asthma, coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP) as well as chronic heart, respiratory, kidney, and cardiopulmonary diseases.
Indian regulations are overtly focused on stack emissions which are just a part of the problem as the name suggests focuses on the stacks or the chimneys. However, fugitive emissions go completely unchecked. Fugitive emissions comprises of sources in the power plant such as fly ash ponds, coal storage yards and heavy vehicles transporting coal to the plants. Research indicates that fugitive emissions in industries have a larger share of contribution to local air pollution than the stack.This is further corroborated by the testimonies of the residents living at the fence line of coal plants. Unlike other places, air pollution for fence line communities is a year-round problem. That’s why at the peak of lockdowns of COVID-19 when the rest of the country was cheering blue skies and sight of snow-clad mountains, residents around coal plant hubs like Korba in Chhattisgarh, Ennore in North Chennai and Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh continued their daily quest for survival amidst toxic air. A recent report released by Healthy Energy Initiative India and Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE) found that coal fly ash pollution was rampant in India in 2020-21 despite the COVID-19 lockdown. The report found at least 17 major incidents that occurred in seven states from April 2020 to March 2021, at least six of them were of serious air pollution due to fly ash.
So, while it is important to fight for stricter norms as a first step, we must keep our eyes at the larger goal of transitioning away from polluting sources of energy choices to those that don’t pollute. The government needs to develop a health-based framework and a mechanism of health impacts assessment for assessing the impacts of the energy options before us and invest in policies that prioritize public health. For India to be the future superpower, India needs to meaningfully invest in our future citizens – our children’s health.
Shweta Narayan is an International Climate & Health Campaigner, Health Care Without Harm