As India loosens environmental regulations, a Punjab cement factory’s emissions imperil and disrupt life. The Swiss company says it follows the law, but its own former expert disagrees, as locals are denied data and information
Rupnagar (Punjab): Business at Jaswant Singh’s chemist shop in the tiny village of Daburji in north-eastern Punjab has boomed over 26 years, going from six patients to at least 15-20 every day.
Despite the steady stream of customers, Jaswant said he wanted to migrate to the city as soon as possible.
“It's because of the dust,” he said.
The dust is everywhere, grey and fine, choking the lifeblood of Daburji.
Most of Jaswant's customers complain of skin allergies, rashes, asthma because of fine dust, primarily PM10, PM2.5 particles—less than or equal to 2.5 µm in diameter or 30 times finer than a human hair—that can be inhaled deeply into the lungs and cause a variety of deadly ailments, including heart disease, asthma and decreased lung function.
“There are cancer patients too,” said Jaswant. “But they go to the city for treatment.”
The dust comes from a cement factory 10 km away in the district of Rupnagar, also called as Ropar, around 70 km northwest of state capital Chandigarh. It is run by India’s second-largest manufacturer of cement, Ambuja Cements Ltd, a subsidiary of Swiss building materials maker LafargeHolcim.
The dust accompanies the making of cement, a critical ingredient in infrastructure and construction, as India tries to reverse a record economic slowdown. The country has more than 200 large cement plants, including Ambuja’s Daburji, and the push for growth often overrides health and environmental concerns.
Cement manufacturing produces 7% of global carbon-dioxide emissions, more than that produced by all the trucks in the world. Various studies (here and here) detail how cement plants pollute air, water and soil across India, causing adverse health effects on vulnerable communities, women, children. The Central Pollution Control Board routinely warns cement plants violating air-pollution guidelines, but there is no discernible improvement.
Ambuja’s iconic brand ambassador—a giant clean-shaved man whose head is smaller than his muscular arms and strong body, holding up a building, with the tagline Giant Compressive Strength—appears around Daburji village, on walls, on shutters of the shops.
Like everything else in the village, dust coats the mascot of Ambuja Cements, obscuring the muscular man and the qualities he symbolises: determination, confidence, and caring.
The factory makes what is called “high-strength” Pozzolana Portland cement (PPC), so named because it is a blended cement made by combining fly ash—a fine powder that is a byproduct of burning pulverised coal in power plants—and slag from boilers.
India is the second-largest cement producer in the world after China. The Ambuja plant uses fly ash as a raw material in 25% of PPC production; its origins lie in the Roman empire in about the 3rd century BC, and the production of pozzolana materials, which tend to be very fine, involves much crushing and release of fine dust.
For locals, the Ambuja man is a symbol of air pollution. They see him and the plant as the reason for their deteriorating health over a quarter century. Their situation represents the failure of India’s pollution-control system, which grows more lax over the years, as the government loosens environmental controls and increasingly keeps locals out of the clearance process.
In 1994, public hearings for environment assessments nationwide were open to anyone, as Article 14 reported in August 2020. In 2006, these hearings were open only to project-affected people with a “plausible” stake. A 2020 draft notification that will further change the law makes public hearings optional.
There is little argument that the people of Daburji and at least 10 villages around it have a plausible stake in the Ambuja plant, with their lives and livelihoods deeply affected by Ambuja’s dust and an apparent absence of accountability, as Article 14 found.
Dust And Despair
“I have developed breathing and heart disease because of the pollution of the plant, and I am getting treatment in PGI (Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education & Research) Chandigarh,” said Santosh Kumari. She is in her 50s, a homemaker who has two sons. Her modest one-story home is just a few hundred meters from the Ambuja plant.
A thin layer of the fine, grey dust she inhaled covered the leaves of the guava tree in her courtyard, the dishes drying in the open and the wooden charpoy of woven rope.
“We have to clean our home three-four times, the dishes we have to wash several times, we have to dry our clothes in the washing machine, we can’t dry our clothes in sunlight,” said Kumari. “We can’t leave anything outside because it turns black by the morning.”
As we walked through the narrow lanes of small houses coloured white, blue and orange in this village of 1,100, mostly farmers, Bimala Devi appeared around a corner, carrying with a sickle and a stack of hay. She said the dust had sickened her two buffalos.
“We have to clean the fodder before feeding it to our animals, but they are often sick and we have to take them to the veterinary doctors,” said Devi, who said her cattle bills had risen three fold because of illness. “It has become routine now.”
Complaints about the Ambuja dust are not limited to Daburji. Two km away in the village of Lohgarh Fidhe, they struggle with the dust and discuss the lack of accountability.
The Absence Of Accountability
For the last seven years, businessman and activist Rajinder Singh and others from seven villages (Ghanauli, Lohgarh Fidhe, Daburji, Ranjitpura, Chak Dera, Guno Majra, Lodi Majra, Mado Majra, Rawal Majra) have complained about the Ambuja plant and filed right-to-information Act (RTI) applications with at least six state and central government departments in an attempt to pin accountability.
Clad in a red turban and grey suit, Rajinder met this reporter in the verandah of the Lohgarh Fidhe village’s gurudwara, about 2 km from the Ambuja cement plant. The iron gate, the boundary walls, the jamun leaves and the white marble dome of the gurdwara were covered with dust that had turned from grey to black.
The gurudwara is situated by the side of a road that connects the Ambuja plant to national highway 21 and is used almost 20 hours every day by hundreds of trucks and dump trucks that ferry fly ash, clinkers, coal and other materials.
Before sitting, Rajinder Singh dusted the floor with a white handkerchief that he used to cover his face. He placed a bag containing hundreds of A4 sheets of complaint letters, RTI replies, newspaper clippings and press releases on the dust-covered floor of the gurdwara verandah, which is cleaned by village women twice every day.
Rajinder said Ambuja had promised locals a 10-metre-wide green belt around the plant, street-cleaning machines, install street lights, deliver clean transport and limit fly ash according to environmental law.
“They promised they would install air-quality monitoring stations, but we don’t have any of that data,” said Rajinder. Ambuja’s transportation and handling of fly ash also violates local standards, said a government official, and LafargeHolcim’s own policy, said a former company expert.
In ‘Full Compliance’: Company. No, Says Former Company Expert
LafargeHolcim insisted it complied with local laws.
“When it comes to our operations in Ropar, Punjab we are operating in full compliance with the local law and environmental standards,” the company said in an email to Article 14.
Does the transportation, excavation or treatment of fly ash follow LafargeHolcim standards? Article 14 put that question to Josef Waltsiberg, formerly a LafargeHolcim energy and environment expert for 30 years and currently an independent consultant in Switzerland.
“From the information I have, absolutely not,” said Waltsiberg, who was involved in preparing the company’s environmental policy. He said the company’s internal environmental regulations were not new and had been in existence for two decades.
“The principles of environmentally friendly production were already defined around 2000 in the EMR (Emission Monitoring and Reporting) program,” said Waltsiberg. “They apply to all activities and have been published in guidelines.”
Unkept Promises, Opaque Clearances
Ambuja commissioned a cement grinding unit in 1995 in Daburji with the production capacity of 0.6 million tonnes per annum (MTPA). Eighteen years later, in 2012, the company applied to the ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEF&CC) for environmental clearance to increase capacity, from 2.5 MTPA to 3.4 MTPA.
“According to the process, they (Ambuja Cement) organised a public hearing in 2015 and 99% of the people raised their hands against the extension of the plant,” said Rajinder, the activist from Ghanauli.
Despite the opposition, Ambuja Cement received environmental clearance in 2016 for the increased capacity. Disappointed, Rajinder and others filed a plea against the environmental clearance with the National Green Tribunal (NGT).
“The (NGT) team visited the sites twice for the inspection, they prepared a report about the pollution but there are no results,” said Rajinder. “It’s disappointing.”
The villagers said their main problems now were dust clouds from fly ash transported half a km from ash dykes to the plant by hundreds of trucks and an ash-drying unit installed in 2020. Worked over by backhoe excavators, the toxic ash is easily blown away.
The no-objection certificate (NOC) that the company said it had received from the Punjab Pollution Control Board for the ash-drying unit has not been shared with the villagers. The company did not share it with Article 14, and it is not present on the PPCB website.
PPCB spokesperson Anuradha Sharma said the NOC was available on the Board’s website, but neither Article 14 nor the village activists could find it.
LafargeHolcim claimed “regular sweeping of roads and sprinkling of water” to prevent air pollution. “Fly ash transportation is carried out either by sealed bulkers or by trucks well-covered by tarpaulin to avoid dust emission,” the company said in its email response to us.
The reality appeared substantially different.
Toxic Dust In The Wind
The sweeping machines used by the company appear ill-equipped to clean the amount of toxic dust—fly ash contains numerous heavy metals injurious human health, including boron, lead, arsenic and mercury, which can, among other things damage organs and cause cancer—that the trucks transport.
A similar observation was also made in a PPCB report (available with Article 14) by an officer who visited the site in May 2020.
“The industry has deployed road side sweeping machines for cleaning of road dust,” said the report. “However, the size of these machines is very small and it is highly doubtful that such small machines can handle the quantum of dust present along the roadside.”
Environment ministry rules say that fly ash should be transported in “tankers/railway wagons/ bulkers or mechanically designed covered trucks”.
When Article 14 visited, there were very few sealed bulkers (special covered trucks), and almost all trucks transporting fly ash were covered with tarpaulin sheets, spewing clouds of dust. No water was sprinkled on the ash before it was moved from pond to truck, as it should be to keep it moist, so it does not get airborne.
“Action should be taken here,” said Waltisberg, the former LaFargeHolcim expert, after seeing photos and videos of trucks transporting fly ash. “Factories that employ transport companies should pay attention to such problems and intervene if necessary.”
Trucks transport fly ash to the Ambuja cement plant from an ash pond that holds ash disposed of by the Guru Gobind Singh Super Thermal Power Plant (GGSSTPP). The 840-megawatt plant is close to the pollution-plagued villages but does not operate for most of the year.
As with Ambuja, the handling of fly ash defies environmental regulations across India.
India’s Fly Ash Problem
In 2018-19, 217 million-tons of fly ash was generated from 195 thermal power stations nationwide. The use of fly ash has increased 2300% over about two decades, from 7 million tons in 1996-97 to 168 million tons in 2018-19.
Despite several rules and regulations, the management of fly ash in India is formidable. In a 2019 case of Anul Haq Ansari vs State of Jharkhand, the NGT ordered proper water spraying and tree plantation on ash heaps and ash ponds.
More fly ash is produced than is utilised by various industries, which include, apart from cement, bricks industry, road embankment and mine filling. This means fly ash must be disposed of, potentially a source of air and water pollution if not handled properly.
The fly ash dumped by GGSSTPP has polluted nearby groundwater with heavy metals, according to a 2013 study by the Thapar University’s School of Energy and Environment (Patiala), which found a variety of toxic metals—such as iron, zinc, lead, chromium, uranium—in groundwater used by villages in the vicinity.
To check whether the dust could be responsible for the skin rashes among villagers, the reporter collected dust from the close vicinity of the Ambuja plant and had it tested at Chandigarh for pH, which measures how acidic or alkaline a solution is.
pH is a measure of the acidity or basicity (alkaline) of a solution. The scale goes from 0 (very acidic) to 14 (more alkaline), with 7 being neutral. On a scale of 14, the pH value of the dust I collected was 12, in distilled water or nearly three times higher than human skin can tolerate. Ideal skin-surface pH is, on average, 4.7.
National Fly Ash Accidents And Local Concerns
Locals in villages around Ambuja’s Rupnagar factory alleged that shoddy storage and illegal excavation and transportation of about a million tonnes of ash dumped by GGSSTPP could cause accidents of the kind witnessed in Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh (MP) in 2020.
Six people, including three children, died in the village of Sasan in Singrauli, a hub of power plants, when a fly ash dyke of Reliance Power’s Ultra Mega Power Project collapsed and a flood of fly ash slurry washed away homes. It was the third such incident in less than one year in Singrauli.
The government has admitted that faulty transportation of fly ash is indeed an issue in Rupnagar.
“There are concerns of overloading, which is why over the past three months (to November 2020) there are more than 120 challans (notices) from the traffic police,” said Sonal Giri, district commissioner (DC) of Rupnagar. “But yes, I would say that has not been able to contain the whole issue of overloading as such.”
According to an agreement signed between Ambuja Cements and the Punjab State Power Corporation Limited (PSPCL), the plant is allowed to lift fly ash from ash dykes of GGSSTP spread over 900 acres. Ambuja lifts about 400,000 tonnes of pond ash every year for its five integrated cement manufacturing plants and eight cement grinding units, including the one in Daburji.
The DC estimated that up to 350 trucks—mostly with open tops and overloaded—from different companies carry fly ash to different locations every day,
Inspector Lists Violation of laws
In his May 2020 report, the PPCB inspector previously quoted said “there is no adherence” to CPCB guidelines on sprinkling water on fly ash and planting trees to “capture the fugitive emission”; fly ash was carried by open-top trucks instead of closed bodied; there was “lots of dust spreading in the ambient air” that the company had “failed to contain” and it had “failed to put in place a proper mechanism for collection/transportation/utilization of the pond ash”.
In his recommendations, the inspector suggested a “show cause notice” under section 31-A of the Air (Prevention & Control of Pollution) Act, 1981, “for revocation of consent granted to the industry”.
“They (PPCB) are saying there is pollution, they are accepting it, but even after that they are not taking any action against Ambuja Cement,” said Rajinder, the activist.
On the other side of the world, Waltsiberg the former LafargeHolcim expert sounded disappointed with his former company’s violation of environmental laws.
“Good advice is expensive, says a German proverb,” said Waltsiberg. “I think we have to take the LafargeHolcim Group at their word, take their promises in the papers (company guidelines) and measure them against them.”
Lockdown Relief From The Ash Drier
One of the contentious issues at the Ambuja plant is a pond-ash drier unit, installed in 2019. This unit, said villagers, had added to the pollution by emitting clouds of smoke in the process of drying the pond ash.
RTIs filed by former Lohgarh Fidhe sarpanch Tajinder Singh with the PPCB in August 2019 and the CPCB in June 2020 returned the same answer: there was no information about an ash-drier.
Is the Ambuja cement’s fly ash drier plant operating illegally without a valid permit?
LafargeHolcim said the company did indeed have permissions—from the PPCB and the environment ministry DC Giri confirmed an NOC for the ash-drier plant, a fact she conveyed to those who had complained, she said.
But that NOC, as we said earlier, has not been made public, as it should be.
“If they have NOC of the plant why don’t they share it with us?” said Rajinder. “Neither the DC’s office nor the Punjab Pollution Control Board is sharing the NOC. We would like to know the government’s guidelines for running the drier plant.”
One recent afternoon, Ranjit Singh, a newlywed groom from Daburji, scrolled through pictures on his smartphone that he had taken in April 2020 during the nationwide lockdown to stem the Covid-19 pandemic.
One photo shows a clear, blue sky, something that’s hard to imagine these days. From his bedroom today, the ash drier’s plume of smoke is hard to miss. His wedding photos frames, hanging on the wall, were dusted in the morning, but they were covered in a fine layer of dust.
“During the lockdown we felt like we were living in the 1990s,” said Ranjit. “Since this drier plant has been running, the dust comes right into our home.”
According to the LafargeHolcim, the plant hosts a variety of emission-monitoring systems, the data of which are shared with the government. As we said, the company did not respond to Article 14’s request to share that data, and neither did the PPCB.
What Our Air-Pollution Checks Revealed
To check the air quality index (AQI) of Daburji village independently, this reporter used an air quality monitor called Atmos, developed by Mumbai’s Respirer Living Sciences. It measures particulate matter (PM 1, PM 2.5 and PM10), temperature, humidity in real time.
Atmos was placed on a terrace, in a home some 500 m from the Ambuja cement plant for three days in Daburji.
The monitor reported PM2.5 peaks at 5.30 pm on three consecutive days (10, 11 and 12 November) of 343, 364 and 370 ug/m3, said Shweta Narayan, an advisor at Community Environmental Monitoring at the Other Media said after analysing the data. That is about six times above recommended limits, as prescribed by the CPCB.
A second peak (285, 314, 367 ug/m3) followed the first one on those three days between 7 and 7.30 pm. Asked if the pollution could be attributed to the Ambuja plant, Narayan said both the Atmos monitor and a CPCB monitor at Ropar registered similar spikes, meaning the pollution was “a local event” not regional. Other CPCB monitors, one 50 km away at Khanna and another 75 km away at Ludhiana, did not record similar spikes.
The only running factory in the vicinity of Daburji is the Ambuja plant, and that, the monitors indicate, is where the fine-dust pollution comes from.
Back in Daburji, Santosh Kumari the homemaker is worried about the younger generation breathing the polluted air. “We are old and don’t have much time,” said Santosh. “But why should our children suffer because of this factory?”
(Aaquib Khan is an independent journalist based in Bombay.)