Choking slowly to death

  • 30/01/1993

Choking slowly to death WHEN ABOUT 200,000 litres of furnace oil spilled into the Damodar river from the Bokaro Steel Plant on April 2, 1990, it took the authorities four days to wake up to the disaster. By then, the oil had travelled about 150 km downstream to Durgapur and for at least a week after the incident, the five million people in the area drank contaminated water. Even then, it was"nt the pollution control authorities who spotted the disaster. A downstream thermal power plant, which suddenly found its intake water for cooling its boiles totally unfit for use, raised the alarm.

The incident is not just a grim reminder of the hazards of industrial accidents -- it also draws attention to how the numerous industries that have mushroomed on the banks of the Damodar have polluted the river. There are more than 50 major and medium industries along the river in Bihar alone and more than 400 industrial units. Today, the Damodar is perhaps the most polluted river in the country. How did it earn such a dubious distinction?

The 563-km-long Damodar originates near Chandwa village in the Chhotanagpur hills in Bihar"s Palamau district. It flows through one of the richest mineral belts in the world before draining into the Hooghly, about 50-km south of Calcutta. The Damodar valley has an area of about 57,000 sq km. Less than 8,000 sq km of this area is in the plains of West Bengal, where agriculture is an important activity. In the upper valley area, mining and mine-based industries are the dominant economic activity, with low agricultural productivity. In general, the region is poor in vegetation, the lack of which gets accentuated over the years. This, combined with the heavy mining activity in the area, has made the valley particularly vulnerable to soil erosion.

Industrialisation along the Damodar has rendered it a river of slurry. Minerals, mine rejects and toxic effluents are washed into the Damodar and its tributaries. Not surprisingly, today both its water and its sand are infested by coal dust and waste from the myriad industries that have sprung up in its basin.

The Damodar and its tributaries drain almost the entire coal mining area under the Central Coalfields Ltd (CCL), the Bharat Coking Coal Ltd (BCCL) and the Eastern Coalfields Ltd (ECL) -- three of the six subsidiaries of the public-sector Coal India Limited (CIL). The Damodar"s catchment area also houses the Jharia coalfields. The Chhotanagpur region has sustained India"s model of heavy industrialisation over the past 100 years. Most of the coal consumed by industries in the country comes from this belt.

The region is rich in other metallic and non-metallic minerals as well. It has substantial deposits of iron ore and bauxite. The upper valley -- parts of Hazaribagh and Giridih districts in Bihar -- supplies about 90 per cent of India"s mica. Fire clay and limestone are also found in abundance in the upper valley area, particularly in the Palamau and Hazaribagh regions.

Journey"s beginning The Damodar"s journey through the mineral belt begins at the North Karnapura coal mines in Hazaribagh district. It traverses the hilly terrain of Bihar for about 300 km before entering West Bengal. Beyond the Raniganj coalfields in West Bengal, the river loses its gradient considerably while flowing through the deltaic plains and turns south near Burdwan. The 225-km-long Barakar river, a tributary that accounts for about 40 per cent of the Damodar"s discharge, meets it on the borders of Burdwan. Upstream, near Bokaro, another major tributary, the 136-km-long Konar, meets the Damodar.

The average annual rainfall in the Damodar valley is about 1,400 mm, most of which occurs during the monsoon. On an average, there are 65 rainy days per annum although the delta plains receive more rain. This sometimes leads to floods and it was the devastating floods of 1943 that forced the authorities to set up the Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC). The command area of the DVC is about 26,000 sq km and three reservoirs have been set up, with flood control as the primary objective. But the corporation seems to have changed its priority and opted for power generation as its main objective because, according to Satyesh Chakravarty, a former professor of the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta and an authority on the Damodar valley, the Centre made money for power generation more readily available. This has complicated problems as DVC"s power plants consume a lot of the Damodar water and add to the pollution by dumping ash in the valley.

Indian industry"s dependence on the region is evident in a simple set of statistics: Industry accounts for 91 per cent of the coal consumed in the country, 60 per cent of which comes from the Chhotanagpur belt. Increasing pressure to reduce India"s dependence on petroleum products has resulted in increased coal production, which has risen from 17 million tonnes in 1972, when the coal industry was nationalised, to the current output of 230 million tonnes. Today, India is the fifth-largest producer of coal in the world. Similarly, three Steel Authority of India Ltd plants on the banks of the Damodar -- Bokaro, Durgapur and Burnpur -- account for more than 2.5 million tonnes of saleable steel out of the 7 million tonnes produced in the country today. Coal also provides for about 20 per cent of the transport industry"s energy consumption requirements.

How heavily India depends on the region was made obvious when Jharkhand agitators called an economic blockade of the region in August 1992. In just one week, almost all industrial activity and rail transport in the country faced paralysis. Besides, the states of Bihar and West Bengal depend almost entirely on the area for their power requirements. DVC thermal power plants alone generate about 1,800 MW.

Today, ironically enough, it is the mineral wealth of the region that poses the biggest threat to the river. As Balram Bose, a professor in the water resources department of Jadavpur University, put it, "The moot question is: Will the river survive? I doubt if it can withstand the impact of the mining and industrialisation that are taking place in its catchment area."

Many DVC and CIL officials share this concern, but argue that degradation of the Damodar Valley and the heavy pollution are high prices that have to be paid for India"s industrialisation. Many others disagree. Geeta Verma, a social worker associated with Gramya, an NGO working near Bokaro, asks: Is it fair to expect the Damodar and the people who live near it to subsidise the costs of Indian industrialisation?

Today, many parts of the Damodar and its tributaries look like large drains carrying black, highly turbid water. According to P Mishra, former chairman of the Bihar State Pollution Control Board (BSPCB), the Total Suspended Solid (TSS) count at most places along the upper and middle stretches of the river is 40-50 times higher then the permissible limit. For the most part, between Rajrappa in Hazaribagh district and Durgapur, the river has a film of oil and grease from industrial effluents. The Tenughat reservoir is a case in point. Its entire surface is coated with a greenish-yellow film, while its bed, according to the superintending engineer of the reservoir, C N Jha, is a mixture of coal dust and soil.

The crux of the problem is, of course, the mining in the area. Coal extraction began in the 1770s and has continued at an increasing pace. Most of the damage, as CIL technical director S K Ghosh points out, was caused by the numerous small mines that existed before the nationalisation of the industry in 1972. Now, many of the small mines have been merged to form larger mines. However, nationalisation of coal itself led to ecological destabilisation in a big way as production leapt up 14 times since 1972. Things don"t bode well for the future either -- CIL is poised to produce 370 million tonnes of coal by the turn of the century.

With productivity of underground mines not keeping pace with rising demand, there has been a tendency to go in for large, open-cast mines. Today, about 60 per cent of the coal extracted from the area comes from these mines. However, these mines also happen to be the most serious sources of land degradation, and disposal of overburden -- rock and soil extracted with the coal -- is one of the biggest problems the coal authorities face. The total volume of the overburden, which is about 200 million cubic metres, is likely to be 500 million cubic metres by the turn of the century.

Chakravarty blames the mechanical extraction of coal as the major source of land degradation since the machines don"t distinguish between coal and rock. The rock mined just adds to the volume of waste generated.

While Ghosh insists the overburden goes back into the mines after all the coal has been extracted, critics point out it takes years before a mine is fully exhausted and, meanwhile, the overburden contributes to the silt load of the river. Between Hazaribagh and Dhanbad, huge overburden deposits are placed so close to the river banks that, as Balram Bose of Calcutta-based Jadavpur University predicts, they may soon begin to choke the river.

Coal dust accumulation near mines, washeries and other coal-handling centres cause similar problems. Kameshwar Sinha, additional chief engineer of Dugdha Washery in Dhanbad district, admitted the biggest problem was how to dispose about one million tonnes of coal dust that has gathered in the vicinity of the plant over the past 15 years.

Proliferation of industries
The other serious problem is the numerous coal-based industries of all types that have come up in the area because of locational advantages and the easy availability of water and power. Says Ghosh, "Because of the minerals and availability of cheap land and water here, coal-based industries were set up and a large number of them came up when effluent discharge was not an issue." Some of them are coal washeries, coke oven plants and soft coke batteries. In addition, the landscape is dotted with a number of other industries, varying from steel and cement plants to fertiliser and explosives plants. But what Ghosh does not mention is the industries that have come up recently, but have not performed any better in effluent treatment.

While the big plants in the public sector are gradually taking cosmetic steps at least to reduce the TSS level and other pollutants in effluents, the small private factories have no compunctions about discharging effluents into the open.

Among the big coal-based industries, 15 washeries account for the bulk of pollution in terms of TSS, oil and grease. The volume of coal the washeries handle varies between 3,000 tonnes and 8,000 tonnes per day and even though the exact volume of coalfine generated by the washeries is one of the best kept secrets of the coal authorities, sources say in certain plants, anything up to 20 per cent of the coal handled goes out in the form of slurry, which is deposited in ponds outside the plant. After the slurry settles in the pond, the sediment -- coalfine -- rich in calorific value is collected manually.

The amount of coalfine recovering as well as the oil and grease used in the washeries (see box) is, however, variable. Often, the water discharged into the river from the pond after coalfine is recovered carries high amounts of fine coal particles and oil. This happens either because the retrieval methods are inadequate or they are conducted before all the sediment settles.

The other major coal-based polluters are the coke oven plants that heat coal to temperatures as high as 1100oC in the absence of oxygen to prepare it for use in blast furnaces and foundries. The volatile components in coal are removed, leaving hot, non-volatile coke in the oven, which is washed with huge quantities of water and crushed after cooling. However, the water discharged after the wash contains oil and suspended particles.

Often, the effluents also carry toxic substances such as cyanide. For instance, Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd"s (BHEL"s) pollution control research institute, which conducted a survey of some of the plants earlier this year, found cyanide levels in the effluents from the Lodna coke oven plant at Dhanbad to be as high as 0.54 mg/l, while the dissolved oxygen was "very low." Suspended solids, BOD and oil and grease levels were also found to be far in excess of tolerable limits. The Bararee plant in Dhanbad district was also found to be discharging effluents into a pond that was used by the people in the vicinity.

In this case, although only the TSS, oil and grease levels were above tolerable limits, many villagers complained the pond water often made them ill. "It is possible that the effluents are not adequately treated when the frequent power failures occur," says Gurdeep Singh, a professor at the Indian School of Mines" Centre for Mining Environment.

Flyash pollution
The other major polluters of the river are the seven thermal power plants in the Damodar Valley, three of which, with a combined installed capacity of about 1,800 MW, belong to the DVC. The first of these was set up by the DVC in 1952. It was also, incidentally, the first public-sector thermal power plant in the country. Because of the locational advantages, the electricity boards of Bihar and West Bengal also installed thermal power plants in the valley. The ash generated by all the power stations seriously affects the ecology of the area. To make matters worse, most of DVC"s 14 units are outdated (three were set up in the early 1950s and seven in the 1960s). And, the less said about the state electricity board plants, the better. Former energy minister of Bihar Jagadanand Singh admits, "The state is barely able to run some of them, with the generation often being only a fraction of their installed capacity."

The plants consume between 3,000 and 8,000 tonnes of coal a day and as much as 50 per cent of the total solids generated is in the form of flyash. Yet, there is little effort to manage the waste. This is obvious from the fact that very few DVC units -- even though they are better managed than those run by the state electricity boards -- have electrostatic precipitators (ESPs). Of the six units of the DVC"s Chandrapura Thermal Power Plant in Giridih district, only one has an ESP, while the others make do with old mechanical dust collectors. As these plants are located on the banks of the river, the flyash eventually finds its way into the water.

Disposing of the solid waste, or what is known as bottom ash, from boilers seems to degrade the river even more. The bottom ash is supposed to be mixed with water to form slurry which is then drained into ash ponds. However, most of the ponds are full and in several cases, the drainage pipes are choked. So the slurry is directly discharged into the river.

At Chandrapura, for instance, only two of the six units are functioning and the slurry discharge pipe of one of the units has broken down. S P Guha, chief engineer of the plant, admits they "were temporarily forced to dispose of the ash slurry directly into the river". According to T Singh, senior divisional engineer, once the generation in a unit trips, the slurry gets deposited in the disposal pipes and chokes them. Until the pipes are cleaned, "there is no choice but to directly discharge the ash into the river". He, however, concedes choked pipes are common because of poor maintenance.

Sources point out the breakdown of disposal pipes is so big a problem the DVC has been forced to award expensive maintenance contracts. Even BHEL"s pollution control research unit found the TSS levels in the discharge at all the power plants it surveyed higher than prescribed limits -- in one of the drains of the Chandrapura plant, the TSS was as high as 22,629 mg/l, while at Jamadoba it was above 7,000 mg/l. It also found several overflowing ash ponds.

The most disturbing consequence of the Damodar pollution is its effect on the people who live in its vicinity. The river and its tributaries are the largest sources of drinking water for the huge population that lives in the valley. When the Bokaro spill occurred, the water from the river that the people drank was clearly unfit for human consumption, with oil levels 40-80 times higher than the maximum permissible value of 0.03 mg/l. "They had no choice in the matter, since the groundwater levels in the area are very low," says Gurdeep Singh. An official of the Jamadoba Water Works, which supplies water to nearly two million people in the coal-mine area, points out, "We have to give water to the people and this is the only water we have. We couldn"t have let the people die of thirst saying the water was polluted."

A majority of even the urban population of more than 3 million in Bihar and West Bengal is supplied this water after it is treated with lime and chlorine. Needless to say, a large population of the people in the rural areas don"t have the luxury of treated water.

Urban dwellers outside the industrial townships are bereft of clean water. Municipal water supply is practically non-existent in most areas and the only source of water for human and cattle consumption is that of the Damodar and its tributaries, regardless of their quality. In Gomia, people living just outside the pampered Indian Explosives Limited (IEL) township depend on water from the Konar, a tributary of the Damodar. According to a worker of the Asha Seva


Grass violations of effluent dischage limits
Effluents TSS Oil and Grease BOD COD Cyanide
  100 10 30 250 0.2
STANDARDS* (mg/l) (mg/l) (mg/l) (mg/l) (mg/l)
Lodna coke oven plant 165.0 16.3 41.0 212.0 0.54
Bhowra coke oven plant 7018.0 24.3 44.0 112.0 0.19
Chandrapura thermal power plant(drain 4) 22629 1.6 16.6 6480  
Bokaro steel plant(Drain 1) 665 18.1 30.6 83 0.09
Sudamdih coal washery 3950 4.0 22.0 34.0  
*Bureau of Indian Standards tolerance limits for industrial effluents discharging into surface waters.
TSS: Total suspended solids
BOD: Biological Oxygen Demand
COD: Chemical Oxygen Demand
Source: Pollution Control Research Institute

Kendra, a missionary hospital on the outskirts of Gomia, even patients and their attendants often use the river water. Little wonder then that many of the patients -- mainly TB sufferers -- fall ill again very rapidly.

Villagers say the river water often "suddenly becomes more dirty". Tenughat superintending engineer Jha admits also he frequently gets complaints from farmers about the dam water degrading their land and leaving a film of coal dust and oil on their fields when it is used for irrigation. He says, "The protest is not very strong as we irrigate only about 1,200 ha from the small canal, but it is a fact that our repeated requests to the coal and other unit authorities have elicited only one response: that the pollutants come from further upstream." With unfailing regularity, every few kilometres along the Damodar and its tributaries, there is an industry discharging pollutants. Apportioning blame for polluting the river is difficult because industries downstream insist they "received water polluted by the industries upstream" and that "they had to treat it to make it usable".

For instance, the industries around Bokaro add to the Damodar"s pollution, but are constantly passing the buck. S R Shahchowdhary, general manager (technical) of Dugdha Coal Washery, claims the water they receive has alarmingly high levels of suspended solids from the Chandrapura power plant and hence they have to treat it before using it. Chandrapura authorities, on the other hand, say they hardly add to the pollution of the river, which is caused by the washeries and coal mines upstream.

Scientific agencies and pollution control bodies are also not above suspicion. DVC and CIL officials question almost every report on the state of pollution in the area except the ones they have commissioned. A well-known scientist involved with the Damodar pollution complained scientists and researchers were often under pressure to alter their findings to give offenders a clean chit. "We are threatened with not getting the contract for studying pollution unless we clear the company paying for the study," he said. He also alleged collected samples were fraudulently changed at times, and there were also instances of intimidation.

What"s worse, the Bihar and West Bengal pollution control boards invite nothing but ridicule. Says a senior BCCL official, "The state pollution control board officials come for an inspection only when they need money or a favour. If you make them happy, you can get a clean chit." Clearly, the two state pollution control boards have shown little concern for the diseased Damodar. There seems to be little documentation on the state of the river, even though the Bihar state pollution control board has no less than 14 monitoring stations. Board officials, including its chairman R C Sinha, say "current data is not available and it will take time to get them." The condition of the West Bengal board seems to be no better.

Political turbulence in the Chhotanagpur area, which is part of the proposed Jharkhand state, is another problem. The increasingly militant Jharkhand leadership, has chosen to remain silent rather than adopt a tough stand on the problem. If anything, most local leaders want more industries with more jobs and lucrative contracts for the people.

The absence of a clear Jharkhand policy on this issue has made it easier for lumpen elements in the area to run riot. For a long time, local thugs ruled the roost, demanding a role in almost all industrial activity in the area. Thus, on the one hand, there are those who genuinely want to do something to clean the river and, on the other, those who prefer to collude with the local politicians and thugs and do nothing about the problem.

A case in point, alleges Raj, is the explosives factory at Gomia owned by IEL, a subsidiary of the multinational ICI. While IEL officials say the plant does not pollute the environment, a brief visit to the factory reveals otherwise. Its effluent drain is broken and the factory"s discharge finds its way through agricultural lands into the river. An overpowering stench pervades the area. A local farmer, Nakul Prasad Sao, says the land outside the plant and in villages such as Khamhara has been terribly degraded by the highly acidic effluents. Another resident of Gomia, Kunj Behary Prasad, showed the large chunks of fallow land around the area where the effluent from the broken drains of the IEL factory had spilled over, a sharp contrast to the flourishing paddy fields around it.

Another serious problem in tackling the pollution in the Damodar valley seems to be the poor condition of most of the industries. This area was the frontier of India"s industrialisation in the 1950s. Until the 1960s, the various units in the Damodar valley were regarded with obvious pride as a model of industrialisation by leaders from both Bihar and Bengal.

Moving on
But today, having consumed a large part of the resources of the region, Indian industry has moved on, leaving the entire Chhotanagpur plateau, particularly the Damodar valley, desolate and ravaged in a situation similar to that of eastern Europe today. Hardly any major industry has come up in the area since the 1970s and the industries and dams once described as the temples of modern India are sick. The thermal power plants are never all operational at any given time and the fertiliser factory at Sindri is often closed. Given their current financial health, expenditure on pollution control is a low priority. As Aloke Mukerjee, managing director of Flakt India, a pollution control equipment manufacturer that is setting up ESPs in some thermal power plants in the area, says, "Many of these industries were set up without taking pollution control facilities into consideration. For instance, installing ESPs in thermal power plants is a problem in some cases because of space and ash disposal constraints."

The only option seems to be to draw up a master plan for the whole area and get the industrial units in the area to bear the costs on the basis of their capacity to pay. But this is easier said than done. Points out Ghosh of CIL, "Ours is not a private company. So if the government wants us to spend more on pollution control, we will do it. But then the cost of coal will go up and this will have an impact on all the activities in the country that require coal. Can we afford it?"

The Union government seems to think the cost of cleaning up the Damodar is worthwhile and the second phase of the Ganga Action Plan plans to do just that. Sources in the Ganga Project Directorate in New Delhi say the state governments have agreed to bear their share of the cleaning-up expenses, which are expected to total about Rs 40 crore. But there are doubts about whether the contributions will actually come in and whether the scheme will have any impact at all. Akhileshwar Singh, deputy advisor in the environment department of Bihar, says, "Chemical and bacteriological pollution are not insurmountable problems and I think we will be able to check it in the future. But the TSS level in the river will continue to be high because of land degradation and mining-related economic activity in the area."

Singh"s observation cannot be dismissed as mere cynicism. The Damodar action plan, an end-of-the-pipe pollution treatment scheme, seeks to tackle effluents while allowing the industry to continue polluting the region. And, as Chakravarty says, the kind of policing and recurring costs involved will be difficult to provide. If anything, it will lead to more corruption, says Gurdeep Singh. The viable option, most experts agree, is to switch over to less polluting industries and cleaner technology. But who is interested in that?

Suraj Mandal, Lok Sabha member and a very vocal Jharkhand leader, echoes the problem, "The Centre and the various industrial lobbies are interested only in exploiting the region"s resources. Once they have exhausted Jharkhand"s resources, they will find some other area to exploit."

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