In May 2022, India’s environment court imposed a US $6.7 million fine on an Adani company for serious environmental breaches at its Udupi coal-power plant in India. Now, Adani says it will appeal this verdict. Local groups are undeterred in their opposition to Adani’s planned expansion of the power plant. This controversy occurs against a backdrop of polluted waterways and agricultural lands.
The order imposed upon Adani Group to pay up Rs 52 crore (US $6.7 million) as penalty for environmental violations at its Udupi coal-power plant in the Indian state of Karnataka was a boost for local communities fighting to protect their environment from the project’s pollution. However, the Adani Group has decided to challenge the order in India's Supreme Court.
India’s premier environmental court, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), imposed the hefty penalty on the 1200 MW coal-power plant on 31 May 2022. On 26 August the Adani Group challenged the judgment of the tribunal, just before the 90-day deadline for an appeal. Citing defects in the appeal, however, the registrar of the Supreme Court has asked the Adani Group to file a revised petition within another 90 days.
Critics of Adani’s power plant have argued that this course of action by the Adani Group is aimed at buying more time and delaying payment of the penalty. The appeal in the Supreme Court has automatically put the penalty payment on hold. As of early October, the petitioners to the tribunal had not been served notice of the appeal so had not been appraised of Adani’s arguments. The contents of the Adani Group’s petition in the Supreme Court are therefore unknown.
Adani plans to expand the Udupi coal-power plant to 1600 MW. Government approval has been pending since 2015. However, local communities including Janajagriti Samithi, a civil society group which was the petitioner in the tribunal, are relentless in their opposition to the proposed expansion.
‘The project proponent operated the coal-power plant with gross disregard for environmental rules, causing irreparable damage to the ecology of the region and loss of livelihoods within local communities. Further, the project is mired in numerous illegalities as has already been held by the National Green Tribunal,’ said Balakrishna Shetty, the Executive President of Janajagriti Samithi.
The tribunal arrived at its decision after finding that all Environmental Clearances granted for the project were unlawful and invalid. The central government of India first granted environmental approval for a 1000 MW coal-power plant in the Udupi region on 20 March 1997. The project then belonged to a subsidiary of the Indian conglomerate Nagarjuna Group that is headquartered in Hyderabad, the capital city of the neighboring south Indian state of Telangana.
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The tribunal held that permission granted on 25 January 1999 for enhancement of the project’s capacity from 1000 MW to 1015 MW was unlawful and invalid because environmental assessment and public hearings had not been held. Permission to further expand the project to 1200 MW was also held to be invalid by the tribunal.
The tribunal imposed a hefty penalty so that the money could be used for restitution of the local environment. The tribunal decided against shutting down the plant altogether. In its order dated 14 March 2019, the principal bench of the tribunal noted:
‘Considering the facts and circumstances, the lapse of time and the fait accompli situation that has arisen, we are of the view that the interest of public will not be served in passing such order [to remove the plant]. The need of the hour is to explore such measures and steps that would mitigate the harm already caused, in addition to ensuring that the plant operates strictly within the environmental norms.’
Local people affected by the project are confident of victory, given the extent of illegalities in the project, despite being up against the corporate might of Adani. However, those who spoke to this correspondent also expressed a sense of foreboding, owing to a freak road accident on 19 May 2022 that left Jayanth Kumar Bhat, an activist at the forefront of the struggle against the thermal power project, seriously injured.
The accident took place while the green tribunal was reserving its final judgment in the case before pronouncing it on 31 May. The driver of the car that caused the accident was apprehended by police. Investigations do not indicate any evidence of foul play.
Bhat, the Secretary of Janajagriti Samithi, is locally well-known. Locals helped transport him and his daughter to the nearest hospital after the accident. Bhat sustained grievous injuries even though he had been wearing a helmet.
At the Kasturba Hospital in the town of Manipal, doctors diagnosed Bhat with a spinal-cord injury suffered on account of fracture and dislocation of vertebrae in his backbone. He remained in hospital for several weeks before being discharged in the second week of July. Bhat’s associates told this correspondent that he is slowly recovering from the injury and trauma. Even three months after the accident, he was not fit to go back to work.
‘Our resistance against the thermal power project over past few decades has been peaceful. There have been protests and demonstrations. There were instances when it seemed that law and order in the area would break down because of the high-handedness of local government authorities. But there has been no actual incidence of violence so far,’ said Gananath Shetty, another activist, who is now based in Mumbai, the capital of the western Indian state of Maharashtra.
The activists recall that the area was on the cusp of violence on at least two occasions in the past – once when locals entered into a face-off with policemen, and another when Balakrishna Shetty, the executive president of Janajagriti Samithi, had been briefly detained by police. However, the situation was brought under control on both occasions by the intervention of the leaders at the forefront of the resistance.
Over the years, the resistance movement has found support from different quarters, including a number of local politicians. The scale of environment pollution caused by the power plant and the consequent agitations of local communities even led to the intervention of a highly revered Hindu religious figure of the area, Sri Vishwesha Theertha Swami, who was the then Pontiff of the Pejavar Mutt of Udupi and had been a vocal critic of the polluting power plant till his death in 2019.
(Sri Vishwesha Theertha Swami was the 32nd seer of one of the eight Mutts (monasteries) – in the Dvaita School of Philosophy in the Hindu religion. Such was the reverence of the Pontiff that in the past, several leaders belonging to the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party paid visits to his monastery. The association of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the late Pontiff is fairly well documented. Modi also travelled to Udupi in July 2019 where he paid a personal visit to the Pontiff. Former Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, also belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party, was known to have met the Pontiff at least six times.)
‘Sri Vishwesha Theertha Swami had always been against the setting up of a polluting thermal power plant in the Udupi region till his death in December 2019. He even sat on a day-long hunger strike when large-scale agitations broke out following the pollution that was being caused by the power plant,’ a local activist, Vijaya Hegde (67), told this correspondent.
The hunger strike, on 9 January 2011, was prompted by contaminated drinking water, poor crop yield, bad road conditions, and the unceremonious removal of two experts from a committee set up by the district administration to examine the issues. The Pontiff’s intervention immediately came to the attention of senior BJP leader and the then Chief Minister of Karnataka, BS Yeddyurappa.
According to a government report on the issue, the chief minister persuaded the pontiff to end the fast on the understanding that the two experts (dropped from the committee) would submit their independent reports to government and that, in the meantime, ‘the second phase (600 MW) will not be given the sanction for operation’.
Around six months after acquiring the coal-power project, in a deal valued at approximately Rs 6300 crore (USD 790 million), the chair of the Adani Group, Gautam Adani, paid a visit to the Pontiff, apparently to seek his blessings. Adani met the Pontiff on 11 October 2015. Despite the fact that during this visit Gautam Adani reportedly donated Rs 50 lakh (USD 63,000 approximately) to the monastery for construction of a community hall, the Pontiff was subsequently reported as remaining firm on his decision to oppose any further expansion of the thermal power plant.
‘Capacity enhancement in renewable energy is the only solution to meet local power requirements in the Udupi region. Ensuring net zero carbon emissions, henceforth, is the only road ahead to restitute the ecology of this region which has been devastated by the thermal power plant,’ added Vijay Hegde, who is also a researcher on renewable energy.
It has been alleged that the environment of the region has continued to suffer despite assurances by the project’s various owners over the years.
‘The only respite (for local communities and the environment) is that the thermal power plant has not been operating at its full capacity at present at all times. Had this been the case, the environment of the region would already have turned much worse and the villages surrounding the project site would have become uninhabitable,’ said Vidya Dinker, a legal advisor of Janajagriti Samithi.
The degradation of the ecology of Udupi area by the coal-power plant has been documented in the Carrying Capacity Study which was conducted by the Karnataka government, upon the directions of the green tribunal, to ascertain if the region can withstand the pressures of further industrial development. In fact, this study, which was finalized in December 2021, ruled out any further expansion of the Udupi power plant until appropriate mitigative measures are taken to reduce pollution that has already damaged the local ecology, air and water.
‘Expansion of the capacity of the power plant is likely to have adverse implications from air pollution including dust, marine ecology, and groundwater and soil contamination from heavy metals. Inadequate/non-functional environmental management practices/facilities followed/established by UPCL [Udupi Power Corporation Limited] need corrective actions before expansion plan is considered. It is felt that additional studies, for example on the effect of coal dust on agricultural crops; dust fall and its impacts; implications of the violation of CRZ [Coastal Regulation Zone] notification rules for marine biodiversity; and impacts of air pollution and water contamination on the health of villagers; would be useful for better socio-ecological and economic outcomes,’ the report said.
The study, prepared by an autonomous body under the Karnataka state government, the Environmental Management & Policy Research Institute (EMPRI), found many more illegalities in the operation of the plant other than the fact that the project had been functioning despite unlawful and invalid Environment Clearances. The study said the levels of oxides of sulphur and nitrogen were found to exceed permissible limits. Huge amounts of these oxides were being emitted by the power plant. Air-quality monitoring stations set up by the project to analyse pollutants were found to be defective during the study. Samples of groundwater analysed during the course of the study found excessive quantities of metals such as aluminum and lead. Other toxic chemicals such as sulphates and ammoniacal nitrogen also exceeded standard limits in surface water samples collected from Yelluru village near the plant. Soil samples collected from the vicinity of the power plant revealed the presence of high amounts of metals including iron, manganese, zinc, chromium, copper, nickel, arsenic, molybdenum and lead.
The report stated UPCL did not have a management system for fly ash, a toxic waste product generated after the combustion of coal. Dyke ponds for storing fly ash were neither of adequate depth nor properly maintained. The study team found that there existed a possibility of flooding in nearby low-lying areas, including villages inhabited by local communities, in case of overflow of fly-ash slurry from the dyke plant’s pond. But there existed no facility to stop overflow in the event of a possible dyke breach. Though generation of fly ash is expected double if the power plant is expanded, there was no evidence of productive use of the fly ash that was being generated at the time the study was conducted.
Moreover, the study group also found violations of rules pertaining to conservation of the coastal ecosystem and marine biodiversity of India, despite the fact that the project site has been plonked in an ecologically fragile region that supports unique flora and fauna.
‘A serious lapse is observed during the study in not replacing the broken outfall pipeline, which has resulted in the release of the effluent near the shore itself instead of 670 m into the sea, and it was not buried to a safe depth. Local fishermen also complained about its interference in the fishing operations in the intertidal and sub-tidal areas … EMPRI team and even fishermen community have observed the dead cuttlefish bones (internal part of cuttlefish, Sepiella inermis), dolphins (calves) and turtles on the seashore. It needs to be investigated for understanding the impact of UPCL operations on the lives of these threatened animals,’ states the report.