In the central Indian district of Singrauli, huge lorries lumber along local roads, carrying coal to Adani’s Bandhaura power plant. Local villages, forests and fields have been blanketed in coal dust. An important local stream is being diverted by a concrete canal to make way for another huge coal mine to be operated by Adani. Vendors at a crowded local marketplace have their businesses constantly disrupted by the passing coal trucks which deposit a layer of filth everywhere they go. These impacts and the land’s loss of productivity bring hardship to the local residents. Government authorities have turned a blind eye to Adani’s failure to implement environmental-protection measures.
Singrauli (Madhya Pradesh): It is mid-morning when we stop by a group of people selling tendu (persimmon) fruits alongside a stretch of road that winds its way through forests in the Singrauli coalfields of central India. The summer day is extremely hot, and the road is desolate. The bituminous surface of the road emits fumes from the unbearable heat of the sun. A blast of sultry air sweeps across our faces when we disembark from the air-conditioned confines of the car in which we are travelling.
Biflal Khairwar, the middle-aged man who identifies himself as the leader of the group of tendu-sellers, lives with his family in a hamlet deep inside the forests flanking the road. He and many other fellow villagers trudge up the hill every morning to this particular roadside in order to peddle whatever forest produce they can lay their hands upon. The tendu fruits they have collected this morning are mottled.
At regular intervals, fleets of coal-laden dumpers speed past on the road belching thick black smoke. The small pyramids of tendu fruits, heaped upon sheets of plastic laid on the bare earth on the road’s shoulder, get coated with coal dust falling off the sides of the tightly packed dumpers. Occasionally, a privately-driven car or a motorcyclist stops to buy the fruit that Biflal and his friends offer to sell at very modest price of Rs 20 – equivalent to less than half an Australian dollar – per kilogram.
‘The bounty of these forests sustained our forefathers’ families for generations, but just look at the quality of fruits the forests produce these days,’ says Biflal pointing at a dead tree across the road. ‘Most trees have been rendered barren even though our forests are several miles away from the coal-power plants and coal mines of Singrauli’.
His dark skin caked with dirt, Biflal, 45, appears much older than his age. He belongs to a socio-economically disadvantaged community that has been officially designated as a Scheduled Tribe by the government of India. We ask him about the rich history of the Khairwar community, which not only traces its mythical origins from the sun but was also part of a movement in the late 19th century against the excesses of British rule in India. His weather-beaten face fails to hide a wince when he answers our questions.
‘Our community has been reduced to a life of poverty,’ he says. ‘In the past fifty years, there has been massive infrastructure development in the Singrauli area. But none of the benefits of economic development have trickled down to us. On the contrary, we are forced to bear the brunt of this lop-sided development that has nothing in it for indigenous communities like ours, even though we have nurtured and protected the natural resources of Singrauli since time immemorial. These industries have not only polluted the air but also the natural water sources upon which we are dependent.’
Another tribal man from the group, Naresh (41), interrupts Biflal.
‘Wild mushrooms from these forests used to be very popular and fetched us a decent income,’ says Naresh. ‘Those mushrooms have stopped appearing.
‘This summer we could not even collect adequate quantities of mahua [flowers of a tropical tree that are dried and fermented to brew an alcoholic liquor] for selling in the market. The density of bamboo trees has diminished. The ceaseless movement of coal-laden vehicles through these forests has taken its toll on the vegetation’.
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Large numbers of dumpers travel along this road virtually every day. They take coal from the Adani-operated Suliyari mine in the district’s Sarai tehsil (an administrative unit) to an Adani-owned thermal power plant 35 km away. The empty dumpers return to Suliyari via the same route to bring back more coal to the thermal power plant.
The power plant is in Bandhaura village. Adani’s acquisition of the 2 X 600 MW Bandhaura power plant from another business conglomerate, the Essar Group, roughly coincided with the commencement of commercial extraction of coal from the Suliyari coal mine. Suliyari block is owned by the Andhra Pradesh Mineral Development Corporation (APMDC), a firm belonging to the federal government of the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The Adani Group operates the mining project as its Mine Developer and Operator (MDO), which in simple terms means ‘contractor’.
On 16 March 2022, the Adani Group disclosed through a regulatory filing with the Indian government that it had completed the acquisition of the 1200 MW thermal power plant at a cost of Rs 4250 crore (US $500 million) through its subsidiary company Mahan Energen Limited. This information was divulged soon after APMDC announced that it had begun commercial operations at the Suliyari mine with effect from 10 March 2022. Officials of APMDC said that the 5 million tons per annum (MTPA) extraction capacity of the project could be expanded by another 2 MTPAs in the future.
On 12 May 2023, the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC), a panel under the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (‘the ministry’) that reviews potential environmental impacts of industrial projects, recommended final environmental clearance for an expansion of 1600 MW in the capacity of Bandhaura thermal power plant by addition of two new stations of 800 MW each. This expansion is subject to conditions imposed upon the Adani Group regarding protection of wildlife in the vicinity of the project site, effective management of additional fly ash to be generated from burning coal, and the safeguarding of aquatic life. The final nod was provided by the ministry even as the Adani Group planned the extraction of more coal from Singrauli.
Efforts are underway to open up the massive Dhirauli coal block, which is spread over an area of 26.72 square kilometers of forests, hills, agricultural land and houses. The Madhya Pradesh state government has issued the final list of project-affected families who will be uprooted from their homes across five villages of the district in order to make way for the Dhirauli coal mine. Environmental approval for the destruction of forests to make way for the mine is reportedly imminent. There is speculation that work on the approval is proceeding with some urgency so that the hunger of the soon-to-be-expanded Bandhaura coal-power station can be satiated with Dhirauli coal.
‘Today, nearly 70% of coal produced at the Suliyari mine is being procured by the Adani Group for consumption in its own coal-power projects,’ a senior government official told me at the district headquarters of Waidhan.
This statement contradicts the claims of the Andhra Pradesh government which has been pushing the state government of Madhya Pradesh to fast-track the Suliyari project, ostensibly for feeding its own coal-power plants. In October 2021, the Andhra Pradesh chief secretary, the most senior bureaucrat in the state, had written to his counterpart in Madhya Pradesh saying that early operationalization of the Suliyari coal mine ‘will secure critical fuel for Andhra Pradesh’s power projects at a reasonable cost’, which in turn will contribute to resolving electricity shortages in India.
The Suliyari block was allotted to APMDC by the Modi government under an Act – the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Act, 2015 – passed by the Parliament of India. The provisions of this Act allow APMDC to use the coal produced from Suliyari either for its own consumption or for sale in the open market.
The rapid industrialization of Singrauli, as the tribal group told me earlier, has taken its toll on the area’s environment. This becomes obvious as we approach the Suliyari coal mine.
One of the local people accompanying me pointed at work underway to construct a concrete canal to the Hurdul Nalla rivulet away from the Suliyari mine. In December 2022, the EAC hastily approved Adani’s proposal for this diversion in order to enable extraction of larger quantities of coal from the Suliyari block. The Hurdul Nalla is a significant source of potable water for local communities.
The Hurdul Nalla will be diverted again, through another artificial canal, to make way for the Dhirauli mine. The diversion proposal has again been approved. My source, who chose to remain anonymous, pointed to a culvert across the Hurdul Nalla along a road leading to the main market of Jhalari village. The water level was shallow but this is not always the case. A cement plaque placed by local authorities near the culvert warned motorists not to drive through floodwaters.
‘This plaque is testament to the fact that the Hurdul Nalla is a live and powerful rivulet,’ said my local source. ‘It floods during the monsoon months. Local people still use water from this rivulet for daily needs such as bathing cattle. Swamps along the rivulet’s banks provide rich fodder for livestock. It is one of the last surviving water bodies of the region. It is important in maintaining the hydrological balance of the area.’
The brunt of environmental pollution caused by large-scale transportation of coal from Suliyari to the Bandhaura thermal plant is borne by a densely populated marketplace called Garakhand Bazaar. At the crossroads around which this market has developed, we witnessed numerous heavily laden dumpers, devoid of registration plates, ferrying coal to the Bandhaura power plant. After unloading, these anonymous vehicles returned to the Suliyari mine via the same crossroad, without any hindrance. There were no traffic police to be seen.
The shops in the marketplace cater to the daily needs of more than half a dozen villages, including Bandhaura. On any given day, hundreds of dumpers slow down at the marketplace where the road curves sharply towards Adani’s power plant. Dozens of vegetable sellers, fruit sellers and food carts vie with each other to occupy the limited space on the congested roadside. Traffic frequently comes to a stop when dumpers moving in both directions occupy the entire road.
‘We have been setting up our makeshift shops in this manner for the past several decades. But with trucking of coal, this marketplace has not only become polluted but has also become dangerous for us,’ said Kalawati (60), a woman selling vegetables. ‘A speeding dumper could run over a hawker at any moment. Nevertheless, we have to take this risk in order to feed our families. This road was never constructed for transportation of coal. It’s not wide enough to allow two dumpers to pass at once.’
The road is potholed due to the heavy traffic. Many of these potholes are filled with thick, black liquid stinking with refuse and flies. Local stall holders inform me that water is sprinkled by tankers in order to keep the dust down; this water accumulates in the potholes, creating a hazard for other road users such as motorcyclists.
About nine months ago, 19-year-old Ramesh Kumar Sah decided to ply a food cart in Garakhand Bazaar. He was disillusioned by the absence of available jobs despite promises of widespread employment by the interests industrializing Singrauli. But the impact of coal mining and thermal plants is inescapable. Every afternoon, Ramesh is forced to park his handcart in thick black sludge and attempt to sell jhalmuri (spiced puffed rice) to market goers.
‘There are no rains during this season,’ he said. ‘Coal dust from the dumpers forms a sludge with the water that is sprinkled to control air pollution. My small business has suffered because no one wants to have food on this filthy roadside.’
Ram Janam Sah (50), a retailer of readymade garments, leads us into his shop to show how fugitive coal dust from the dumpers has affected the business he has been running since March 2000. A thick coat of black dust covers the racks and the counter of his store. Coal dust has settled upon the plastic wrappers in which garments are sealed.
‘We complained to the local government authorities to no avail,’ said Sah. ‘These dumpers operate around the clock. It is difficult for us even to cross the road. Things were never so bad when I started up. The only option left seems to be to shut down the shop and move away.’
In a letter dated 22 October 2019, the Madhya Pradesh government ruled out transportation of coal via road from the Suliyari mine. The Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board told the project proponent that coal evacuated from Suliyari should be transported only by rail (See Serial No. 5 in Paragraph 56.1.2). The proponent then pleaded with the ministry for permission to use the road for an initial period of five years, using ‘mechanised covered trucks’ to the nearest railway siding in Gajra-Bahra, 12 km from the project site. The project proponent made the undertaking that, after a period of five years, coal would be transported to Gajra-Bahra through a new railway siding that it promised to construct in the mining-lease area. A detailed timeline for construction of a new railway siding, over a period of five years, was submitted to the ministry by the project proponent.
The local source who accompanied me to the spot from where coal-laden trucks were being dispatched from the lease area to various destinations said that coal was being transferred solely using the road network. Most of these stretches of road have been constructed from public funds under a scheme of the central government – the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana – to ensure road connectivity in rural areas.
‘No work whatsoever has begun on building the new railway siding,’ he said. ‘All we have heard is that a contract has been awarded to a private entity for the railway-siding project.’
When it approved the Suliyari mines, the EAC recommended periodic assessment of air quality (See Section (viii) of Paragraph 56.1.4). Locals told us that it was not known whether the pollution control board had ever conducted an air-quality assessment in the region since the Suliyari project began.
Similarly, the draft Environment Impact Assessment report for expansion of the Bandhaura coal-power plant, on the basis of which public consultations were held with local communities in January 2023, stated that coal would be transported to the project entirely using mechanised systems.
'MEL [Mahan Energen Limited] has signed commercial triparty agreement between Adani Group companies M/s. Mahan Fuel Management Limited and M/s. Stratatech Mineral Resources Private Limited [the Adani Group subsidiary that owns Dhirauli coal block] for the supply of Coal through Pipe Conveyor System from Dhirauli Coal Mine (Merchant) to Mahan Energen Limited. Coal from WCL (subsidiary of Coal India Limited) will be transported through rail up to Gajra-Bahra railway siding from Gajra-Bahra railway siding to Dhirauli CHP to plant premises through long belt conveyor(LBC)/ pipe conveyor system,' stated the report (See third paragraph of Section 1.2).
However, when the EAC cleared the proposal to expand the project’s capacity in a meeting on 12 May 2023, it allowed the Adani Group three years of leeway in which it could procure coal for the power plant by using the road network.
‘No coal shall be transported through the villages and no coal shall be transported through road beyond 2026 and no extension shall be granted in this regard,’ the EAC recommended (See Section (iv) of Paragraph 41.2.4).
In the terms of reference for an environmental impact assessment for the Dhirauli mine, the EAC ruled out road transportation of coal from the outset (See sub-section (xiv) in Paragraph 15.3.4). It remains to be seen whether any leeway is permitted in the final approval.
Singrauli is one of the 43 industrial clusters of India that were designated as “critically polluted areas” by the country’s central government in 2009. The ministry placed a moratorium on granting of environmental approvals to new industrial units in these areas. In the environmental approval granted for the Suliyari coal mine, therefore, the ministry had recommended that guidelines issued in the past for setting up industries in ‘critically polluted areas’ be strictly followed (See section (xxviii) of Paragraph 56.1.4).
These additional safeguards in the operation of the mines have yet to be implemented. An expert panel constituted by India’s premier environmental court, the National Green Tribunal, which conducted a site visit in July 2022, said in its report that the project site was well outside the boundaries of the ‘critically polluted area’.
‘The mine is not situated in the designated Critically Polluted Area of Singrauli, the road distance is approximately 65-70 km while the aerial distance is approximately 30 km,’ stated the panel in its report (See Section 2.1 of Paragraph 2.0).
In the application that that has been filed for obtaining environmental approval for the proposed Dhirauli coal mine, the Adani Group has claimed that this project site does not fall in the area designated as critically polluted. Local people are worried that the government is not bothered to conduct a cumulative assessment of the environmental impacts of Adani’s multiple coal mines in Singrauli. While thousands of people stand to be displaced for these coal mines, there will be several thousands more who will have to stay put in the midst of the resulting pollution.
‘The potential health impacts of the pollution for the people that live here are frightening to say the least,’ said my anonymous source. ‘Air movement does not respect imaginary boundaries conceived by officials. The day is not far off when Singrauli’s water will turn poisonous and its air unbreathable.’