India Coal
Pollution, disease and falling incomes: 97% oppose expansion of Adani's coal-power station at Udupi
Jul 21, 2022
Plagued by pollution, diseases and failing crops, the people around Adani's coal-power plant at Udupi are overwhelmingly opposed to the company's planned expansion.

A survey of families living around Adani’s coal-power plant at Udupi in southern India found a majority of people had been adversely affected by the project. Impacts included loss of farmland, degradation of crops, water pollution, and diseases affecting the skin and respiratory tract. A whopping 97.4% were opposed to Adani’s proposed expansion of the controversial power plant.

Nearly a year after Kariya Shetty died fighting a protracted battle to save his farmlands from the onslaught of a thermal power plant, his bereaved family is yet to come to terms with the loss. His widow Varija, who is around 70 years old, has decided to stay in the family’s ancestral home to take care of the farm.

The late Kariya Shetty suffered diseases attributed to his farm's proximity to Adani's Udupi power plant in southern India. He died in September 2021.

The family’s ancestral house is set amidst lush farmlands just outside the perimeter of the Udupi coal-power plant run by the Adani-owned Udupi Power Corporation Limited (UPCL). The chimney stack and boiler units of the 2X600 Mega Watts (MW) power plant loom menacingly over the dilapidated Shetty family house in the village of Yelluru in the south-western coastal state of Karnataka in India.

Kariya Shetty died at the age of about 75 on 12 September 2021. His 28-year-old son Nidheesh told AdaniWatch that Kariya Shetty, who was a farmer by profession, suffered from a range of illnesses, including skin diseases, for several years before his death.

‘It was around the year 2010 that he first developed the skin diseases. Doctors attributed the diseases to the fact that he lived in close proximity to a highly polluting thermal power plant. Our farmlands are in the vicinity of the coal-power project. He used to work in the fields exposing his body to toxic chemicals that were continuously being released by the power plant into the air and water,’ said Nidheesh.

Aerial image of Adani's coal-power plant at Udupi. Image Google

Nidheesh, like many young men in the area, left his family’s ancestral farm to work in the city. A graduate in commerce, Nidheesh has been living in Mumbai, the financial capital of India, where he works as a tax consultant.

‘My father and other men and women of his generation never agreed to leave their farms, despite the falling output,’ Nidheesh went on. ‘We remember the massive bounty provided by our fertile farms when we were young. But the pollution that resulted from the coal-power project gradually reduced the productivity of our farm. Most water sources, including our well, turned saline. It became difficult to earn a decent livelihood from farming alone, forcing young men like me to migrate. Nevertheless, my father put all his strength into tilling the lands right up to his death, despite the fact that pollution had reduced the fertility of the soil’.

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A large majority of the families of the Udupi region, traditionally part of a larger area known commonly as Tulu Nadu (or land belonging to the Tulu ethnic group), belong to the Bunt community, which forms the landed gentry and the agrarian class. Most families here share the common surname Shetty, with several people from this community having made their mark in India and overseas in fields ranging from business and entertainment to politics and medicine.

Madhav Shetty, a childhood friend of Kariya Shetty, remembers one of his last meetings with the latter.

‘A few months before his death, when Kariya was already bed-ridden in his house, I noticed sepsis on the lower portions of both his legs. I asked him the reason behind this condition, to which he replied: I still make my living out of farming. I need to enter my pond barefoot, and also into the mud of my agricultural fields. The soil is so contaminated that it has left my legs with these infections,’ Madhav Shetty said.

 Pollution from the Udupi coal-power plant smokestack.

Around two hectares of land belonging to the family of Kariya Shetty were taken over for the power plant in the late nineties. Back then, the project belonged to the Nagarjuna Power Company. (This private company was a subsidiary of the multi-billion Nagarjuna Group – specializing mainly in manufacture of fertilizers and farming equipment – which is headquartered in Hyderabad. Ironically, the owner of Nagarjuna Group, known as KVK Raju, has taken pride in tracing his roots to an agricultural family).

Kariya Shetty’s family received compensation of Rs 20 lakh (US $25,000) against the land acquired, at a rate of Rs 10 lakh (US $12,500) per hectare. However, when the amount of compensation was equally divided amongst all the co-owners of the family’s property, the share of Kariya Shetty came to a meagre Rs 3.25 lakhs (US $4000). At present, the family is left with a parcel of land measuring a little more than one hectare, which includes coconut trees, rice fields and the ancestral house. The family is no longer able to cultivate rice fields because the water sources, as well as the soil, have been completely spoiled by pollution.

Nevertheless, Kariya Shetty’s widow, Varija, has refused to leave a house still filled with happy family memories. One of her married daughters, Sowmya, has been living with Varija for the past few months in order to care for her.

The family of Kariya Shetty has not been alone in this struggle. A large number of families living in and around Yelluru have had their lives fall apart as operations of the coal-fired power plant have intensified. They are staunchly opposed to any expansion of the power plant, which they believe will make the area completely unfit for human habitation.

An orchardist whose trees are in close proximity to Adani's coal-power plant at Udupi indicates a mango that is dying. It used to provide a bountiful crop.

Since July 2015, the Adani Group has been seeking to expand the production capacity of the power plant to 2X800 MW. But India’s premier environmental court, the National Green Tribunal, put a brake on these plans in May this year. The tribunal ordered the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MoEF&CC) to take account of the results of a study to ascertain the capacity of the area to handle any further pollution before approving any expansion of the power plant.

Upon the directions of the tribunal, the state government of Karnataka conducted a survey around the coal-power plant to ascertain prevalent environmental conditions and people’s perceptions to further industrial expansion in the area.

The survey, finalised in December 2021, had a sample size of 387 families from 36 villages within a 10-kilometre radius of the thermal power plant. A whopping 97.4 per cent of the families surveyed were of the opinion that there should be no expansion of UPCL’s thermal power plant. More than 93.4 per cent of the families were against establishing any new industry in the region.

The report made the following points concerning the socio-economic survey:

  • ‘A large number of respondents who are primarily agriculturists have lost their agricultural land due to setting up of UPCL plant. People have also lost their houses and land.
  • ‘A majority of the respondents are of the opinion that there are no benefits from the UPCL plant and there is no improvement in the infrastructure (for local people) also.
  • ‘Health conditions of the residents of the area were adversely affected by the UPCL plant. Many people (54.25%) are of the opinion that people are suffering from multiple health problems and 39% expressed that people suffered from respiratory problems.’

The survey found that the majority of the population was either engaged in agriculture (69.25%) or in fisheries (10.6%) as their main occupation. 84.75% of the respondents said that they had suffered loss of their agricultural land while 9.56% said that they had lost homes along with land. The power plant had been promoted on the grounds that it would result in generation of employment and growth of infrastructure in the area. But 93.5% of the respondents of the survey said that there was no benefit whatsoever from the UPCL plant. Only a very negligible section of the respondents (0.77%) said that there had been improvement in infrastructure.

On the other hand, 54.26% of the respondents complained of multiple health problems owing to the operation of UPCL. 39.3% had respiratory problems while 13.5% suffered from cough, fever and headache. Again, a whopping 68.2% of the respondents said that rampant unemployment was prevalent in the area despite its industrialization.

The Udupi power plant of Adani has been blamed for respiratory diseases and skin complaints suffered by residents of the local area.

‘The situation was different earlier. We had been living in a very fertile area for generations. There is more than adequate rainfall every year in this region. The area used to be rich in vegetation. Farming was a self-sufficient economic activity. Now agricultural output has declined, and land holdings have been fragmented by takeovers for the power plant. Consequently, many young men have migrated to cities such as Mumbai, Bengaluru or even Dubai for earning their livelihoods,’ said Madhav Shetty.

Madhav Shetty and his brothers own more than 16 hectares of land in the area where they grow rice and a number of cash crops but yields from their farms have been falling over recent years.

‘Cultivation of jasmine (locally called as Mallige) used to be the mainstay for a number of Christian families in this area,’ said Madhav Shetty. ‘There is high demand for jasmine, particularly because Udupi is a temple town where the flowers are offered to the deities. But jasmine output declined very sharply following the establishment of the coal-power plant. Most families that were dependent on the cultivation of jasmine as a source of livelihood have given it up. These families have vanished. No one knows where they went.’

The socio-economic survey – carried out through the Karnataka government-owned Environmental Management and Policy Research Institute that is located in Karnataka’s capital city Bengaluru – also found that, while a large majority (89.7%) of the respondent families obtained drinking water from open wells, around 14.25% said their water was polluted and unfit for drinking.

‘The villagers were concerned about their health, reduction in the agricultural, horticultural, fishing and dairy farming activities, which have reduced drastically after the setting up of the thermal power plant,’ the report further stated.

The project proponent, however, pleaded with the Green Tribunal that it was unfair to blame UPCL alone for the sad state of the environment or for the poor health of people because there were many other polluting industries in the neighborhood. Through separate notifications issued in the years 1995 and 1998, respectively, the Karnataka government declared the area where UPCL is now located as an industrial estate.

Locals claim that efforts were made in the mid-1980s by Karnataka Power Corporation Limited, a state-owned electricity company, to establish a coal-power power plant in the Udupi region. But the idea was shelved after locals protested against the siting of a polluting industry in the midst of fertile agricultural lands. Subsequently, a proposal for a coal-power power project was mooted by the central government-owned company National Thermal Power Corporation. This project, too, was shelved following a site visit by officials from the central government.

In response to these proposals, locals joined hands to form a committee, the Janajagruthi Samithi, to resist establishment of polluting industries in the area. Janajagruthi Samithi was the successful petitioner to the National Green Tribunal in which the Adani Group was penalized with a hefty penalty in May this year for environmental violations

In the mid-90s, notice was issued that a consortium led by the privately-owned US-based power generation firm, Cogentrix Energy Power Management, had been finalised to establish a 1000 MW power plant in the area. The firm built an office space in the Padubidri township, less than 10 km from the present project site.

Adani's coal-power plant at Udupi looms over an area once fertile and productive.

Locals fondly remember an incident when noted American businessman Ronald Stuart Somers – known popularly as Ron Somers, who at that time was heading Cogentrix as its Managing Director – agreed to take part in a religious ceremony that was held to re-establish a traditional community temple in Yelluru.

‘It was on 31 May 1995 that the ceremony was held. Ron Somers arrived at the village temple accompanied by a coterie of officials and a retinue of cars. A huge crowd turned out to catch a glimpse of the famous American businessman. We raised our concerns about the establishment of a coal-power plant amidst lush farmlands. Somers took cognizance of our concerns and assured the gathering that he would do the needful to convey the message to his bosses in the US when he returned,’ said Balakrishna Shetty, Executive President of Janajagruthi Samiti.

‘The Americans understood our plight – but our own people did not.’

A few months thereafter, Cogentrix Energy Power Management backed out of the thermal power project. (In 2017, Somers would visit the thermal power plant at the invitation of the Adani Group.)

It was only when the Hyderabad-headquartered Nagarjuna Power Corporation Limited (NPCL) was appointed to establish the project, following the exit of Cogentrix Energy Power Management, that large-scale land acquisitions from farmers took place. It was also during this phase that massive protests against the thermal power plant, backed by several political parties, took place on the streets. In 2006, the Indian conglomerate Lanco Group, headquartered in New Delhi, acquired a 74% stake in the US-$540 million project. A consortium of 14 banks and financial institutional pledged additional funds for the project. Further land acquisitions took place even as Lanco Infratech expanded the project.

The Adani Group purchased the project from Lanco Infratech in April 2015 in a deal that was valued at Rs 6300 crore (US $790 million), following which it has sought expansion of the power plant’s capacity.