An Adani company that runs a huge coal-power plant in southern India has just been fined over US $6 million for environmental breaches. India’s premier environmental court says the Udupi power plant has polluted local fields and villages with emissions, coal dust, fly ash and wastewater. Inhabitants have suffered respiratory diseases and impacts on their livelihoods due to loss of agricultural productivity. Will the Adani company pay the fine or will it launch a protracted set of appeals? Meanwhile, a survey indicates that over 90% of the local population oppose Adani's planned expansion of the coal-power plant.
On 31 May 2022, India’s premier environmental court, the National Green Tribunal, imposed a hefty penalty of over Rs 52 crore (US $6.7 million) on an Adani-owned power plant in the Udupi district in the southern state of Karnataka for violating environmental rules. The coal-fired power plant, which the Adani Group is keen to expand, is located in an industrial estate plonked between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats – a mountain range partially inscribed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The relevant Adani company is the Udupi Power Corporation Limited (UPCL).
The tribunal found that Adani’s Udupi power plant had polluted the surrounding air, water and soils, thereby reducing the productivity of the surrounding rich agricultural lands and damaging the livelihoods of surrounding communities. Local people reported an increase in respiratory illnesses which they blamed on the power plant’s emissions. Sources of contamination of the local environment included leakages of wastewater and poor disposal of fly ash. Petitioners to the tribunal also alleged that the Udupi plant had damaged the coastal ecology through discharge of hot wastewater into the sea. According to a government report arising from the hearings, over 90% of the local inhabitants opposed Adani’s proposed expansion of the power plant.
The tribunal ordered the formation of an expert panel to conduct a detailed study of the impacts of the project on agricultural lands within a 10-kilometre radius of the plant. The penalty imposed on the Adani Group could increase if it is found that livelihoods of farmers in the region have been adversely impacted by the power plant.
‘ … if they come to the conclusion that there is any possibility of damage being caused to the agricultural produce resulting in loss of agricultural income to the individual farmers, then they are directed to assess the compensation and recover the amount from M/s. UPCL and disburse the same to the affected farmers in proportion to the loss sustained by them,’ the three-judge bench has directed in its order.
According to Adani, the bulk of the power generated by Udupi (90%) is sold to Karnataka while the remaining 10 per cent is sold to the north Indian state of Punjab. The Adani Group purchased the 2X600 Mega Watt (MW) power plant in April 2015 from the Indian business conglomerate Lanco Infratech which had been the largest private electricity supplier in the country. The purchase was completed at a cost of Rs 6300 crore (US $808 million). In July 2015, the Adani Group sought an expansion of the project’s capacity to 2X800 MW, a proposal whose approval is still pending.
Based upon its finding that the Adani Group’s environmental management of Udupi has been inadequate, the tribunal has directed India’s Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MoEF&CC) to conduct a more stringent impact assessment before approving the project’s expansion.
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The expert panel constituted to ascertain loss of income for farmers, which will be headed by the District Magistrate of Udupi (or his nominee), will also act as a ‘Grievance Redress Committee’ for local communities affected by pollution from the power plant.
‘The Grievance Redress Committee also should include a representative from M/s. UPCL and the President/Chairman of the respective local body in that area, so that the public grievance can be properly addressed and a permanent redress mechanism can be provided to meet the situation,’ the tribunal ordered.
Adani’s Udupi coal-power plant is located in the midst of fertile agricultural lands that provide livelihood to thousands of families.
The petitioner, Janajagriti Samithi, a local community group, alleged that pollution from the project has affected a core zone comprising 14 villages and one urban area (Mulki, a town located on the Sambhavi River). Allegedly, as many as 71 villages and many more urban areas falling within the power plant’s buffer zone have also been affected.
‘This region is ecologically very rich. With an annual rainfall of about 4400 mm, the agricultural lands yield two crops annually and sometimes even three crops. Apart from rice, cash crops including cashew, coconuts, mango and areca nut are yielded throughout the year in this region. Fishing is the only other source of income for local communities apart from agriculture. The area is rain-fed and there is no dependency at all on facilities from the government’s irrigation department,’ Balakrishna Shetty, the Executive President of Janajagruti Samithi, told this correspondent.
Most of the forest patches in the region are considered to be sacred groves and the abode of local deities such as Devarakadu (considered as forests of the Gods) or Nagbans (considered as forests of the serpents). These forests are protected religiously by local communities. The power plant’s vicinity, nevertheless, has been declared an industrial area by the Karnataka Industrial Area Development Board, through notifications issued in January 1995 and May 1998.
Shetty narrated an anecdote from 1989 when the plan of a public-sector corporation to install a coal-power plant had been shelved due to the rich ecological value of the area following a visit of central-government officials to the proposed project site.
‘Nevertheless, this project was set up right in the foothills of the Western Ghats,’ he said. ‘Exhaust fumes from the chimney of the existing plant, which is in operation now, are blocked by incoming sea breezes from the western side and the hills of the Western Ghats on the eastern side. It has resulted in unprecedented pollution in the region.’
On 14 March 2019, the Principal Bench of the tribunal in New Delhi, where the case was being heard, had directed the project proponent to pay a penalty of Rs 5 crore (US $640,000) on account of the environmental damages it had caused. In arriving at this conclusion, the principal bench had relied on a study conducted by a research group from the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru, the state capital. The study titled Environmental Profile and People’s Livelihood Aspects in the Vicinity of Coal Based Thermal Power Plant at Yellur Panchayat, Udupi District had been published by the Energy & Wetland Research Group, Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science (IIS) in April 2012.
‘It has been observed that mismanagement of the environment was evident from the contamination of the water (surface and ground), soil and air apart from the impaired functional aspects of the biotic elements. This was deduced from the reduced productivity of grains, jasmine flower and horticultural produce, reproductive ability of livestock, poultry animals, etc. There was dust on the leaves during the dry seasons which induced phyto-toxicity, leading to poor pollination and hence reduced productivity.
‘There was reduction in the population of pollinators,’ the report went on. ‘Stunted growth of saplings and enhanced respiratory diseases, etc. were noticed caused by release of saline mist from the cooling towers of the plant which is locally dispersed by the wind even up to 2 km.’
The Principal Bench had ordered the MoEF&CC to consider approving the project’s expansion to 2X800 MW only after the proponent had complied with the bench’s directions. The Principal Bench also constituted an expert panel for assessing damages caused by the project proponent to the ecology of the region and directed the state government of Karnataka to conduct a Carrying Capacity Study to determine the maximum load of pollution that can be sustained by the region.
Subsequently, the matter was transferred to the southern bench of the green tribunal. In its 2022 judgment, the southern bench again referred to the 2012 IIS report:
‘The study reveals that there was gross environmental mismanagement which, in our considered opinion, can be reasonably attributed to the casual manner in which the project had been cleared and barely monitored. There is no reason to doubt that this is a case of serial violations where the violator has been given a free run.’
The study also focused on how the disposal of fly ash (generated by the burning of coal) had resulted in the dispersal of particulate matter and fugitive dust, thereby lowering agricultural yields. Intermittent release of wastewater from the pond (used to stock fly ash) had contaminated ground waters. A socio-economic survey conducted by the study group within a 6-km radius of the project site revealed that the livelihoods of local communities had been adversely impacted by reduced crop productivity, increased instances of problems for the health of people and livestock, and damage to infrastructure following contamination of water, air and soil.
The petitioner alleged that there had been several instances of leakage from pipelines discharging wastewater from the boiler of the coal-power plant. The expert committee appointed by the tribunal, which submitted its report in July 2019, visited an area where a pipeline leakage had allegedly resulted in discharge of wastewater into the Arabian Sea. However, the panel observed that there were no signs of damages to geomorphological and vegetational features at the leakage site.
The tribunal said in its 2022 judgment: ‘But they [expert panel members] have not noted as to what was the damage happened at the time when the leak had occurred. It cannot be said that there will not be any possibility of any impact on account of the same… No study was conducted in respect of damage caused to the marine ecology immediately after the leak was detected and no separate study was also conducted in this regard by the Pollution Control Board, when they came to know about the same.’
The expert committee nevertheless reported that there was an increase in health problems (those related to respiratory diseases) on the basis of a survey that was conducted by it in the region.
‘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 percent expressed that people suffered from respiratory problems. People were of the opinion that environmental pollution occurred with respect to air, water and soil,’ the survey report stated.
According to the committee’s report, 97.4% of the respondents expressed their opposition to any expansion of UPCL and 93.4% expressed opposition to setting up of any new industry in the region.
A questionnaire was emailed by this correspondent to the Adani Group, asking whether the livelihoods of local farmers had indeed been adversely affected by the project, and what mitigative measures, if any, had been taken by UPCL in this regard. No response had been received at the time of publication of this article.
Further, while the expert panel found certain deficiencies in handling the dyke of the fly ash pond of the thermal power plant, no records related to ash disposal were provided by the project proponent. No evidence was found either of instances where the accumulated fly ash had been put into productive use by the proponent despite the fact that Indian government has a detailed set of guidelines in place for disposing of fly ash in a specific manner over a certain period.
‘The team could not find the reuse of fly ash and bottom ash and its records. The present dyke ponds are not being properly maintained and the depth of the dyke ponds is low and no overflow water collection facilities were evidenced during heavy rainy period. In view of this, there is a possibility of overflow of water from the dyke pond into the nearby villages and agricultural farms,’ the panel’s report stated.
The report also described how airborne dust particles were settling on nearby agricultural fields due to improper handling of coal by the project proponent.
‘Water sprinkling is not being carried out at each and every stage of handling due to which there is lot of fugitive coal dust and emission into the atmosphere,’ said the report.
The Carrying Capacity Study ordered by the tribunal was conducted on behalf of the Karnataka government by the state-owned Environmental Management Policy Research Institute in Bengaluru. The institute’s report, titled Environmental Monitoring and Analysis and Source Dispersion Modelling Study, also provided details of deficiencies in environmental management and pollution control at the project site. The report cited the deleterious impacts of hot-water discharge into the sea through the broken pipeline, including damage to marine ecology. The team that conducted the site visit for the study reported the sighting of cuttlebones and dolphin carcasses on the beach. This report, too, described pollution of the air, water and soil caused by the coal-power plant, including damage to nearby farmlands.
The tribunal has directed the MoEF&CC to take the Carrying Capacity Study into account while considering the application for approval of the project’s expansion by issuing additional terms of reference for the environmental impact assessment study. It said the terms of reference should include an assessment of the proposed expansion’s impacts on socio-economic conditions, taking into account past violations and pollution of agricultural land. It called for the precautionary principle to be applied by those bodies considering the approval.