In 2018, India diluted environmental safeguards when it ‘standardised’ or made simpler permissions for industry by expert panels. Now, as the government pushes the use of dirtier domestic coal by power plants, further dilution is underway, increasing health risks and imperilling the environment
New Delhi: Standardised conditions will be “monitorable”.
They will bring “uniformity”.
They will help in “expediting the process of environmental clearance without compromising environmental norms”.
These are claims the ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC) has been making since 2018, when it “standardised” or made simpler environmental clearance conditions for industrial and infrastructure sectors.
However, except for speeding environmental clearance, none of these claims hold true, an Article 14 analysis of the standardised conditions granted to coal and thermal projects has revealed.
The “standardisation” exercise is replacing clearly stated safeguards with loose and ambiguous conditions, documentation is replacing action, and monitoring of key environmental impacts is no longer a part of environmental permissions.
Most industrial, extractive and infrastructure projects require an environmental clearance before beginning operations.
Under the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification 2006, a sector-specific expert appraisal panel at the Centre or a generic state-level panel evaluates environmental and social impacts of a proposed project. Based on its evaluation, proposals are recommended or rejected. If recommended, the panel suggests safeguards in the form of environmental conditions to mitigate impacts.
It is these conditions that are being watered down or made toothless at a time when they appear to be most needed because of government policies likely to greatly increase pollution from coal-fired power plants, 65% of which are already unlikely to meet environmental standards by the deadline of 2022.
Even the standardised conditions appear to be malleable.
In August 2020, the central expert panel on thermal power plants discussed a revision of standardised conditions. In line with recent changes to allow coal-fired power plants to use domestic coal with high ash content, the panel recommended:
Removal of the condition limiting ash content to 34%.
Deleting the requirement of a report on “baseline health status” of the area in question.
Replacing the requirement of ensuring minimum flow in a river, if the plant drew water from one, to maintaining a record of water withdrawal and river flow.
Article 14 sought comment on the purpose and impact of standardised conditions from Sharath Kumar Pallerla, member secretary of the expert panel on coal projects in 2019 and the government scientist whose signature appears on circulars laying down the standardised conditions.
In his emailed reply, Pallerla said: “Standard conditions are developed by the Coal Mining Sector” and asked us to contact the member secretary of the coal mining division of the environment ministry.
On 9 February, we sought comment from member secretaries of the central expert panels on coal mining and thermal power. We will update this story when they respond.
Dirty Indian Coal Made Dirtier
In 2019, India produced 729 million tonnes of coal, the majority used in thermal power plants.
The ash content of Indian coal ranges between 30 and 50%—which means that power plants burning domestic coal, as compared to imported coal with an average ash content of 10 to 20%—have to burn more coal to produce power.
So, power plants using domestic coal generate more ash and carbon dioxide, although washing, crushing, segregation and blending techniques used in such coal can lower ash content and increase its efficiency.
Since 2014, and till recently, if captive thermal power plants of and above 100 megawatts (MW) and stand-alone thermal plants of any capacity received coal from mines 500 km away or more, they had to use coal with ash content under 34%. Washing was mandatory for such coal-fired plants using Indian coal, so that emissions were cleaner.
To increase annual coal production to 1,000 million tonnes, the government opened the hitherto state-controlled sector to private companies and auctioned dozens of coal mines. On 11 January 2021, home minister Amit Shah launched a “Single Window Clearance Portal” to hasten coal-mining clearances.
That speed comes with environmental, health and livelihood costs.
Rising Impacts, Looser Safeguards
Most coal deposits in India lie below biodiverse forests and river basins that are home to myriad wildlife and tribal populations.
These are regions already plagued with long-standing issues of compensation and rehabilitation of those displaced, poor environmental compliance by coal mines and washeries and recurrent breaches of fly ash ponds maintained by coal-fired power plants.
Yet, over the two years to 2021, the conditions under which environmental clearances are granted have only become more ambiguous, loose and flexible.
A comparison of environmental clearance letters granted before and after the coming of standardised conditions and minutes of appraisal meetings by expert panels evaluating coal and thermal projects reveal a dismantling of environmental safeguards and low and vague new standards.
Expert panels are authorised to alter these conditions, but they hardly ever do, our analysis shows.
Instead, the expert panels are considering further dilutions, shows our analysis.
An Expanding List
In August 2018, the MoEFCC published standardised environmental conditions for 25 sectors, including coal mining and coal washeries.
Since then, the ministry expanded the list to include, in November 2018, thermal power plants, claiming these standardised conditions would bring “uniformity on stipulated terms and conditions” and serve as a “general guidance” for expert panels and project owners.
The circular said expert panels could “modify, delete and add” conditions. In June 2020, the ministry decided that the standardised conditions would be “monitorable”.
In certain cases, the standardised conditions prescribe some safeguards, such as using only sewage water instead of fresh water if a coal-fired power plant is situated within 50 km of a sewage-treatment plant.
In 2020, a controversial draft of a new EIA notification which, if finalised, would supersede the 2006 version, also proposed upfront permission of standardised terms and conditions to projects, followed by additional conditions if the expert panels deem it necessary. The draft is yet to be finalised.
How Vague New Standards Are Set
A comparison of the conditions stipulated in environmental-clearance letters to coal mines, coal washeries and thermal power plants before the standardisation process reveals how lower standards were set and lives are affected.
For instance, environmental clearance for the expansion of the Amadand open-cast coal mine in Madhya Pradesh and the Dipka open-cast mine in Chhattisgarh, issued in 2015 and 2016, respectively, require “garland drains”—which prevent pollution of water channels from coal-dump silt and sediment—to be capacious enough to hold water 50% above the peak sudden rainfall.
Standardised conditions now recommend garland drains of “appropriate” size.
In line with the new conditions, in July 2019, environmental clearance granted to the Parsa open-cast mine in Chhattisgarh suggested the construction of garland drains of “appropriate size”.
That safeguards would be watered down became evident in February 2018, when a clearance letter issued to the Gevra open-cast mine in Chhattisgarh for its expansion had asked for garland drains of “appropriate size”—a few months before the standardisation circular was published.
The Real-Life Impacts Of Lowered Safeguards
The real-life impacts of dismantled safeguards were revealed when water bodies and ground water in Sundargarh Odisha, were contaminated by mine waste from Mahandi Coalfield Limited (MCL), a subsidiary of India’s largest coal company, the state-owned Coal India Limited. The state-owned company’s slipshod environmental performance was criticised by the Comptroller and Auditor General, the government auditor, in 2019.
“Our paddy is discoloured,” said Rajendra Naik, a resident of Sundargarh and a member of the Adivasi Ekta Manch, a local advocacy group focussed on the effects of mine waste. “Vegetables irrigated by water full of mine waste and coal dust have black spots on them. Markets reject our produce.”
Manthan Adhyan Kendra, a research organisation working on water and energy policies, noted in its November 2018 analysis of the standardised conditions for thermal power plants that these conditions do not list certain safeguards to handle fly ash, while several previous environmental clearances had conditions that did.
The dismantling of safeguards came despite the environment ministry's own expert panel’s 2011 observation that radioactive content and heavy metals ‘increase manifold’ due to weathering when fly ash is left in the open.
Since then, almost all clearance letters to thermal power plants prohibited fly ash disposal in low-lying areas (see here and here). Safeguards for fly ash disposal included monitoring of radioactivity and heavy metals in fly ash.
Not only the standardised conditions lack these safeguards, the 2019 guidelines allow the disposal of fly ash in low-lying areas, and do not provide for monitoring of heavy metals and recommend “suitable” measures to prevent pollution.
Similarly, older environmental-clearance letters required companies to leave unaffected the natural drainage of the area around their power plants. This safeguard, too, is missing from the standardised conditions, noted the Manthan analysis.
Key Impacts Are Now Not Monitored
The standardised conditions allow the use of ground water with permission. The condition reads: “No ground water shall be permitted for coal washing unless otherwise permitted by competent authority (Central Ground Water Authority) or MoEFCC.”
The environmental-clearance letter of 2019 to the Basundhara washery in Odisha reproduces the same conditions and allows groundwater to be pumped with permission from the Central Ground Water Authority.
“Certain conditions allow higher emissions/discharge and impacts, several others eliminate the requirement of monitoring impacts,” said Shripad Dharmadhikary of the Manthan Adhyan Kendra. “This way, crucial impacts are kept outside the monitoring regime.”
Although the environment ministry authorises expert panels to modify safeguards or add to these, based on their “due diligence”—meaning their discretion while studying each request for clearance—experts said the optional nature of specific conditions discourage such committees.
In its submission to the MoEFCC, Manthan suggested: “It would have been better if these conditions were given as the basic minimum, with powers to EAC to add others”, with expert panels allowed to only strengthen, not omit or modify them. All the environmental-clearance letters analysed by Article 14 show that the expert panels hardly ever altered standardised conditions.
“We were able to use these conditions to demand better compliance from the company and government authorities, said Naik referring to the environmental clearance issued to the Basundhara coal mine near Sundargarh before standardisation. “If in future, these papers don’t uphold our right to clean water and air, we will be left empty handed”.
(Meenakshi Kapoor is an independent researcher in environmental policy, based in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh.)