As a result of the dogged pursuit of local activists and residents for several years, the National Green Tribunal, in January 2022, passed an order penalising a thermal power station (TPS) in central India to the tune of ₹5 crore for failing to meet air pollution norms.

The order, later stayed by the Supreme Court, gave three months to the operator to take necessary steps to curb pollution in the region, failing which there would be a further penalty of ₹5 crore per month of non-compliance till six months, with provisions of further increased fine and prosecution if steps were not taken within six months.

The nature of the judgment reflects the power station’s impact on the location population. By refusing to install flue-gas desulphurisation (FGD) devices, the 2,920 MW power station has been reportedly responsible for considerable loss of life, and incidence of ill-health, in recent times, according to a study by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

FGDs can reduce sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions by 70 per cent in older units and by 92 per cent in newer TPSs. Yet, despite compelling evidence, the plant operators have not responded convincingly.

This, however, is not a one-off case of a TPS ignoring the social, economic, environmental and health impacts of coal-fired thermal power plants. Despite mandating FGDs in 2015 and several extensions to the deadline, a mere 3 per cent of power generated comes from FGD installed units.

Several amendments

The 2015 emission standard notification by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), which mandated the installation of FGDs by 2017, has been amended several times to extend the deadline. Six months ahead of the latest deadline for Category A power plants (plants that are within a 10 km radius from cities with a million+ population), the Ministry of Power had written to MoEFCC to further the extension by two years and a soft push for 20 years — to 2035.

The deadline is meaningless as most of India’s power plants would have reached the end of their lifespan by then. The letter raises questions about the Power Ministry’s seriousness in meeting its responsibility towards cleaner power and public health.

The Power Ministry, while appearing indifferent to the installation of FGDs, was, by all accounts, not proactive when the emission norms were first mandated. In a 2018 affidavit to the Supreme Court, it wrote: “Ministry of Power has no role in either grant of environment clearance required to set up a plant or in permission for consent to operate. MoEFCC issued revised norms for PM, SO2 and NOx. Implementation/advancement of targets is to be taken by MoEFCC directly with the plant, as is being done by Central Pollution Control Board.”

The letter continues to say that while the CEA (Central Electricity Authority) has prepared a phasing plan, the responsibility for implementation lies with the generating companies.

SO2 and NOx norms were introduced in India for the first time in December 2015. In a 2021 review of the new norms, the Ministry argued for doing away with the need to control SO2 emissions.

Emission norms were eventually relaxed in favour of thermal power plants. In 2018, water usage norms were diluted, and later in May 2019, NOx norms were relaxed for units installed between 2004 and 2016.

The Economic Survey of 2016-17 (chapter 5, volume 2) says: “The annual number of deaths linked to coal based power plants pollution is estimated to be around 115,000 and the total monetary cost is around US$ 4.6 billion.”

The Ministry should pull up power plant operators which have been lackadaisical in their efforts to install FGDs.

The writers work with the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air