Tuesday, 27 Feb 2001

RANCHI, India

I wake up a bit early today because I have to catch a morning flight to Ranchi. At the last minute, I take stock of all the things I have to take to the conference, and I rush to the airport.

It’s 11:00 a.m., and I am comfortably seated in the airplane, looking at the snow-clad Himalayan peaks protruding out of white, puffy clouds. It is the first time I have seen these amazing peaks glittering like diamonds under the early morning sun.

By noon, I reach the hotel where the conference is being held, and after lunch we all leave for a field visit to a thermal power station 60 km from Ranchi. This area also has coal mines to supplement the power from the thermal plant, so it is marred by the effects of both coal mining and coal-fired power plant operation.

We can see smoke coming out of the underground coal mines, and the whole area is covered with black dust. The first village we visit is very close to the mining area. It will be displaced in a year or two, as the company begins to access its coal reserves underneath. Our presence has raised curiosity among the villagers, and the children are very excited to get themselves photographed by international visitors. The villagers complain of groundwater contamination and tell us that at times they get hot water in their wells and pumps. Most of them suffer from skin problems and gastric ailments.

We also visit another village, which is next to a fly ash dyke of the Bokaro thermal power plant, and we see how all the norms for fly ash disposal are being flouted by this company. Villagers tell us that during the summer, it becomes very difficult for them to breathe because of ash blowing in the wind, and that during heavy rains last year, the fly ash slurry gushed into their village. The power plant dumps fly ash, grease, and oil in Damodar River, which flows close to the plant, and we can clearly see black muck on its bank. This river serves as a source of drinking water for many villages situated on its banks. In the absence of any safe drinking water facility, the villagers dig a small hole away from the river and collect water from it for drinking and other household purposes. Though the villagers consider this water to be clean and filtered, it actually contains many toxic heavy metals, which can have adverse health effects.

I just feel that the ignorance of the people is the greatest bliss for these industries. If these people were told about the presence of toxic metals like mercury, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, and lead, would they still consider this water safe?

In India, 70 percent of the nation’s power is generated by coal-fired power stations, and coal found here in India has high ash content and many other impurities. Consid
ering the immensity of the problem, Toxics Link India has done a comprehensive research paper on the problems of fly ash. Our study found that 10 percent of the fly ash generated by thermal power plants is released from the chimney, increasing suspended particulate matter in the air. Inhalation of the metals present in the fly ash is said to be more harmful than ingestion — the health effects range from permanent respiratory disorders to lung cancer.

I have brought this research paper with me and after watching all of this, I plan to give it to a local activist so that salient points can be translated and given to the affected community.

It’s almost 6:00 p.m., and everybody seems both mentally and physically exhausted after seeing the pathetic conditions of these people. By now I have acquainted myself with the other participants, and on our way back we share views on today’s trip.