Singrauli, Uttar Pradesh: In India's coal pollution map, Singrauli, a 2,200 sqkm region shared between Uttar Pradesh's Sonbhadra district and Madhya Pradesh, is the darkest spot. The Uttar Pradesh side is just 200 kilometres from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Lok Sabha constituency Varanasi, where rising pollution is a major concern.
India's thermal power hub, Singrauli, is set to miss the 2018 deadline to cut dangerous emissions from its coal-based power plants. In Singrauli, twice the size of Delhi, more than two-and-a-half lakh tonnes of coal is burnt every day. 10 coal-based power plants here have a generation capacity of over 21,000 MW, the largest for one region.
These plants have made Singrauli the second most critically polluted industrial zone in the country (air pollution wise) after Ghaziabad, also in Uttar Pradesh.
According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), 0.06 million tonne total particulate matter including the dangerous PM10, 0.8 million tonne of SO2, 0.9 million tonne of NOx and about 8.4 tonne of mercury are emitted from the thermal power plants annually.
In 2015, the government of India said thermal power plants across the country would have to start cutting down on emissions of poisonous oxides of sulphur and nitrogen, and mercury by 2018.
In Singrauli, this process is running behind schedule. At the National Thermal Power Corporation Limited (NTPC) in Singrauli for instance, Rs 350 crore is being spent to retrofit seven power generating units. Work on retrofitting of two units is yet to start.
But are emissions from these power plants growing in contrast to the government's claims at international forums to cut emissions? There is lack of transparency when it comes to emission numbers. A 2011 Office Memo from the ministry of environment demands results from pollution monitoring stations at thermal power plants to be put up online. But the data is unavailable for research or scrutiny.
Sources at Sonbhadra's regional pollution office told NDTV, the data is available on the Central Pollution Control Board website, but it is password protected and accessible only to top officials. The website for a UP government undertaking that runs power plants in the area has a link for online emission details but it hasn't added plants from Singrauli to the link.
The only way to check real-time pollution levels is through boards outside these remote and inaccessible power plants. A random check of two power plants in Singrauli suggested emissions were under control. But activists in the area say the data isn't independently verified.
"In many instances, it seems the data and emissions don't correspond. If you stand there for a while you'll notice the scary levels of emissions and yet the data shows everything is normal," says Shubha Prem, a social activist in the area.
Every three months, during a meeting chaired by the district magistrate with representatives of all power plants, all measures being taken to curb pollution are reviewed. The last meeting was held a few days ago, but sources say the progress of retrofitting the power plants, the most important step to curb pollution, was not even discussed. The district magistrate was also not present.
In Chilka Daad, a village outside the NTPC's Singrauli plant, people for years have suffered mysterious sores and other illnesses. "There is a problem with smoke and dust. But the authorities are doing nothing. They have promised help but nothing has been done," says Nand Lal Sahu, a villager.
"The number of patients coming in for air pollution related problems such as tuberculosis has increased in the last five to six years. More and more patients are coming from rural areas, which is worrying," says Dr Lavkush Prajapati, a senior doctor in the area.