Five (real) lessons for Chamalapura from Dahanu

The decision of the Karnataka government to pick out Chamalapura in H.D. Kote taluk off the map of Mysore for a 1,000 MW coal power plant of the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), has led to the usual suspects taking their usual positions and mouthing the usual cliches with the usual certitude.

Those saying “aye” talk of energy needs, of “infrastructure”, of development—and paint those opposed as speed bumps, litigious publicity hounds on the path to progress, who will oppose anything. Those saying “nay” drop dark hints of why the place was picked. They talk of the loss of fertile land, livelihoods and lifestyles; they warn of temperatures shooting up, of air quality going down; they talk of the displacement of 20,000 people from 12 villages.

Those are pat textbook positions to take on any plant anywhere. But, what is life really like near a coal plant? Writer, photographer and Greenpeace consultant SHAILENDRA YASHWANT, who lives in the shadow of India’s “cleanest, most modern coal plant”, owned by Anil Ambani‘s Reliance Energy Limited, in Dahanu, 140 km north of Bombay, has a story to tell. It is a story Chamalapura might like to hear.

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By SHAILENDRA YASHWANT

Those opposing the Chamalapura coal plant have put forward a variety of objections, most legitimate but jargon-heavy, some too fuzzy on science, and many clearly off on common sense. Therefore, most churumuri consumers from H.D. Kote to Cote d’lvoire, couldn’t care less about the threat the proposed plant poses to the erstwhile kingdom of the Wodeyars.

And, really, why should you even worry, going by the inadequately articulated arguments of wanna-be Captain Planets, pseudo-environmentalists, professional protestors, and assorted achanak mitra mandals who take to the streets to get their media orgasms (measured in square centimetres, micro-seconds and bytes).

After all, as the mantra of the moment goes, coal plants give electricity. Electricity is energy. Energy is development. Development means double-digit growth. Ask Swami Chidambaram or Sardar Manmohan, or your own SS Ravi Shankar of ‘breathe, beg but don’t drink poison’ fame.

I, for one, beg to differ.

I want to share with you some first-hand experiences and lessons learnt in the shadow of the tallest chimney of the cleanest coal plant in India, the ultra-modern but hugely controversial Reliance thermal power plant (previously BSES), in Dahanu, the lungs of Bombay, the erstwhile ‘food bowl’ of Maharashtra, and the heart of Warli country.

In less than 15 years of its operation, this 500 MW coal-fired power plant—half the capacity of Chamalapura’s—has irreversibly impacted five critical aspects of life of our eco-fragile taluka, namely Food, Air, Climate, Economy, and Ecology. And believe me, you cannot afford to ignore any of them, even with the iPod blasting in your ears, your nose stuck in masala dosas, and your fingers furiously texting naughty messages to your mates.

HOW INDIAS CLEANEST, ULTRA-MODERN COAL PLANT AFFECTED OUR FOOD:

The true indicator of a potential crop is the flush of colour when the buds blossom into flowers. The coming of age of tiny buds—when the mango trees are profuse with yellow, the chikoos with white, the lilies awash with pink, and the veggies in mostly yellow, tiny-tiny flowers—is the first sign of hope for a farmer and the beginning of the first desperate rush to guard against pests, bad weather, lack of water and other tangible and intangible (including God’s will) threats that do not stop the flower blossoming into a healthy fruit.

Unfortunately, the last few years we have regularly experienced quick annihilation of the flowers, of our food—of our hopes. Toxic dust in the form of black soot settles on the flowers, suffocates them, and before you can say “ayyo Rama“, your hopes are blown off the trees.

The culprit is not pests, not bad weather, but soot, invisible in the air to the human eye but all too real on the flowers to snuff the life out of them. From the only chimney in the vicinity that releases vast quantities of sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide, mercury and other deadly substances as it combusts coal to light up the lives of Mumbaikars and their ‘outsiders’.

The self-same ones, who relish our sweet chikoos, our juicy mangoes, our fragrant lilies, and survive on our vegetables, all of which was not costly and delicious and fresh, because of the short-distance it had to travel. Really, Dahanu was Bombay’s backyard vegetable patch and fishing grounds.

Yeah, fish-kills too. The thermal plant has to release hot water from its cooling tower, dump excessive fly ash, and other assorted waste every now and then, which it does, straight into the Dahanu creek, where until a few years ago, you would find fishermen, wading with their nets for a lazy catch that would make finger-licking curry.

I don’t want to scare you with the mercury content in the fish, because it’s not worth the trouble; you are going to apply face whitening cream while you sip your Coke any way, right?

Anyway, now the Mumbaikars complain about the prices, not realizing that the longer the food travels, the more expensive it gets and, of course, less fresh. Freeze it as much as you want, but they are truly squeezed for good, and so are we, and the adivasis, and the fishermen and all those unwashed masses that they don’t want invading their city.

In other words, a coal plant impacts the livelihood of not just thousands of farmers, fishermen and traders but also you, yes you! Simply put, if this bunch doesn’t deliver to your fancy new air-conditioned grocery mega-store. Sorry no ingredients available for your akki rotti and bonda-sambar, bisi bele baath and fish curry rice.

Either it is Maharani K.M. Shaw‘s biotech pills or Maharaja V. Mallya‘s beer.

HOW INDIAS CLEANEST, ULTRA-MODERN COAL PLANT AFFECTED OUR AIR

Breathe in, breathe out. Take a deep breath. Focus on it, smell it, feel it traveling up your nose, down your lungs, to your stomach, in your guts. After the exhausting urban assault on my respiratory apparatus, the fresh air of Dahanu is like non-stop pranayama.

Until, of course, the winds change direction, which it does pretty regularly along our coast, and during the period when we are downwind from the thermal plant, it feels like K.R. Circle at rush hour. Really, I wheeze and cough as if twenty autoroaches (the ugly yellow top three-wheelers of our cities) just farted in my face together. Only the sound is missing. Okay, I am exaggerating, more like ten autoroaches.

Our family doctor has dispensed more medicine for respiratory diseases in the last five years in Dahanu than condoms stolen from the automatic-dispensers of Kamathipura.

The rise in assorted ailments and diseases amongst the people of Dahanu caused from the noxious emission from the coal plant is worrying everyone (and you don’t need to test emission samples to confirm this, the Central Pollution Control Board [CPCB] norms /limits are a joke and the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board [MPCB] testing machines that are supposed to test them, a bad joke, very bad joke) so much that those who can afford to, are looking to relocate to places with cleaner air.

This, from a place where Mumbaikars are dreaming of moving to, to escape the urban air pollution.

Just for a moment, imagine that you are a butterfly from the biodiversity hotpsot of Nagarahole or Bandipur, with its gorgeous but short life span. Imagine that you alight on an exhaust pipe of your Nano running in idle. What do you think you will feel? Nothing, because if you were really a butterfly, you would be a dead butterfly. Don’t get it! Go sit on top of a coal plant chimney.

Breathing in noxious fumes , however dissipated from the chimneys of our industrial landscape are slowly, insidiously, destroying the health of downwind communities, of down stream villages, and anyway down-the-shit-hole masses that comprise our rural population.

There is no ‘swalpa adjust maadi‘ with the air quality that you breathe and like love and fresh air, you cannot live on micro-chips and software alone.

You can ask that yourself to Swami Narayana Murthy.

HOW INDIAS CLEANEST, ULTRA-MODERN COAL PLANT AFFECTED OUR CLIMATE

The more that is said, written and presented about the impending climate crisis does not make its impacts any lesser. I am neither like Al Gore privy to huge physical evidence of climate change nor R.K. Pachauri with his access to the world’s best scientists working together with one purpose to get to the bottom (or top) of the biggest environmental disaster in making, dismissed by Michael Crichton in his almost-real State of Fear.

I only happened to be trying to make a living on an organic farm run by my wife, during the last ten years, which we now know were the hottest ever ten years recorded in the century of Dahanu.

In the beginning, the bewilderment of our old Warli workers and older Irani farmers did not make sense, until I realized that I no more needed sweater, jackets and gloves on winter mornings, a must when I used to go drop my son off to the school bus on a bike when I first moved to Dahanu.

The summers were always hot, but every year since the last five years, they have been unbearably hot. I am neither naive nor stupid to blame it on our friendly neighborhood coal plant alone.

Tens of billions of tons of carbon a year pass between land and the atmosphere, liberated from natural fires, and living things as they breathe and decay. Trees, crops, phytoplankton… all absorb CO2 to grow.

It’s an elegant and essential mechanism, except that the human race is messing up the works.

The smooth meshing of the carbon cycle’s many parts depends on large quantities of carbon being withdrawn from the atmosphere and stored in forests, oceans, and underground deposits of coal, natural gas and petroleum. Humans have disrupted this intrinsic cycle, releasing carbon prematurely from the reservoirs, beginning with the burning of forests.

Only half of the billions of metric tonnes of carbon dioxide released since the industrial revolution has found its way back to forests, grasslands and the waters of the oceans; the other half remains in the atmosphere, warming the planet. The molecular structure of CO2 traps heat that would otherwise radiate back out to space. It’s like an invisible blanket in the atmosphere or the panes of a green house.

In Dahanu, in the last five years, we have had the misfortune of already suffering the predicated impacts of climate change—scorching summers, flash floods, altered rainfall patterns, fierce storms, all of them have touched our lives with devastating effects.

We know that our thermal power plant is a mere blip on the global emissions charts, but it is doing its bit, for sure.

HOW INDIAS CLEANEST, ULTRA-MODERN COAL PLANT AFFECTED OUR ECONOMY

All right, you don’t have to be Amartya Sen to see how all of the above is making a dangerous dent into the much-hyped economy, skewing confident projections of over-confident vote seekers.

The drop in production of food crops in a country that was until recently driven by its economic growth from its agricultural sector, was responsible for the ouster of the BJP-led NDA despite the fact that ‘India Shining’ was truly what it showed on the market charts, following the surge in industrial production and the services sector.

Now, the planners are already despairing that the saturation point has been reached, the stock markets have acknowledged this with more regularity than ever, and those who keep tabs on the manufacturing sector are concerned, really concerned, about the lack of trained future man-power, the one that usually comes from rural India.

Again, simply put, all of your parents could afford your education, despite their humble mostly agrarian background, so that you could grow up to become desperate consumers to keep the economy booming. But if our crops fail regularly, as it does in Dahanu, then the first thing the farmer does is to pull his/her children out of schools and employ them in some unskilled sector (the deadly spoon-buffing units or balloon factories of Dahanu, but that is another story).

One of the deadliest secrets of our forced addiction to coal-fired electricity, is the huge amounts of subsidy borne by tax-payers and the state exchequer from the mines to chimneys. These economic advisors, have never even bothered to include the external costs including damage to health and environment. Year after ‘growth-driven’ budgets may have fired up an industrial sector in spurts, but the hidden costs and liabilities will clearly not be able to sustain the economy.

The blossoms on our trees are the prana of the economy, its very breath; miss one and it is bound to get a stroke, eventually.

Together with the increased burden of costs of health impacts, of compensating and re-compensating the unemployed with schemes and sops and waivers for farmers, of importing food, of everything else that is supposed to keep the economy ticking, all of it is threatened.

In a very microscopic way, the economy of Dahanu and all similar agricultural horticultural centres of the country, are really the prana of the Indian economy.

And you don’t have to consult your many swamis to confirm this.

HOW INDIAS CLEANEST, ULTRA-MODERN COAL PLANT AFFECTED OUR ECOLOGY

Look it up, You are involved!

The famous slogan of Greenpeace is a delightful eye-opener, if you ever bothered to look it up. I did, in Dahanu, and was flabbergasted to discover that despite the relentless assault for thousands of years by generations of the human species, swathes of it still remain intact in its entirety.

Slivers of forest covers across the landscape of India even now sustain exotic mega-fauna and thousands of undiscovered species of living things. Starting from the heart of Bombay, the fantastic Borivali National Park, there is an intricate network of forest tracts and wildlife corridors that extend into the Dahanu and Shahpur
forests. These are the foot hills of the Western Ghats, the beginning of the Sahayadri range that culminates gloriously, weaving its way through the magnificent Nilgiris into the biodiversity hotspot of Wynad-Mudumalai-Annamalai-Bandipur forests.

Six degrees of separation, anyone?

Ask Maharani K.M. Shaw and she will vouch for the fact that there are undiscovered secrets in these forests that may well be the panacea for all that ails humankind.

That is why, after constant pleas from a hyper-active housewife and farmer, Nergis Irani—my wife’s mother and my proverbial ‘mother-in-law’—the Supreme Court of India, notified Dahanu as one of the first three eco-fragile areas in the country.

Stringent norms that allowed only green category industries, strict conditions for operations of the coal power plant including installing flue-gas desulphurisation units, and a monitoring authority headed by an astute man, a rare commodity like the great alphonso mango, former judge Chandrashekhar Dharmadhikari, to execute its orders and stop further degradation of this eco-fragile taluka.

With the industrial belt of Thane-Belapur nudging from the south and the deadly chemical belt of Vapi-Vadodra destroying the ground water aquifers at its north, Dahanu was a natural choice, in more ways than one, to qualify for this special status.

With its large, heavily degraded but reserved forests, the sacred groves of the warlis, its orchards and vegetable farms, the presence of a large adivasi population, that seemed to survive better than their cousins in the neighboring Jahawhar-Mokhada talukas (infamous for annual malnutrition mortalities), the rich but fragile coast line protected under CRZ-1 and the fact that taluka has an important role in the larger scheme of things i.e. ecology.

Sometimes, my mother-in-law practices what she preaches. And the best example of that is the forest that she regenerated to cover about 20 per cent of the family’s land bordering the heavily degraded revenue forest land of the government. The farm and the forest patch at its north east, is known as Forest hills, both after the intention and due to its topography.

Effectively, Forest Hills is a tiny sanctuary that connects to the network of forests, connected by the slim-corridors, which allow passage of creatures across the six-lane highways of death that until recently had Swami Vajpayee waving at you from every toll booth.

My family and I have had the rare pleasure of encountering, boars (wild boars not the self-important drones on TV), hyenas (no, I am not talking about ambulance chasing reporters), wild-hares and wild cats (and I really don’t mean the folks escaping police raids at rave parties outside Bombay), all of whom have darted into the Forest Hills, for refuge, for sanctuary, for a breather.

That these endangered creatures have actually survived and not made to the cooking pots of adivasis or fallen to the shot-guns of Irani farmers, in itself has been an important lesson for me. A humbling one!

Fifteen years of personal observation to confirm the first sutra of ecology—the natural world on this blessed earth is an inter-woven magic spell, too intricate to unravel, for survival of all life. In the last fifteen years I have seen Forest Hills, grow into a bio-diversity hotspot from a barren piece of patchy grass land.

Here I have seen how earth heals itself when allowed to and I have witnessed how it nurtures not only us but many other creatures that have survived centuries. I bet you cannot trace your family tree to 500 years ago.

Therefore, the three dots that form the pyramid, like in the Suzlon adverts, my dear residents of Tipu Sultan land, look it up, Ecology, it involves you, ignore it and your progeny will suffer the worst of the Warli curse, ‘May your children eat coal!’

Also read: SAVE MYSORE FROM CHAMALAPURA PROJECT

When the fence starts grazing the crop of life