A coal power plant in Singrauli spewing toxic fumesA coal power plant in Singrauli spewing toxic fumes.

The skeletons keep piling up/tumbling out of King Coal's closet. 80,000 to 115,000 of them last year alone. That's no joke – it's the estimate of premature deaths that a first-of-its-kind study has attributed to emissions from coal power plants in India. The study, conducted by Dr. Sarath Guttikunda and Puja Jawahar of Urban Emissions and commissioned by Conservation Action Trust, Mumbai, also attributed millions of cases of asthma and heart disease to emissions from coal power plants.

There are a few things that make this study remarkable. First, this is the first time that anyone has tried to quantify the death and disease burden from coal power plants in India. Second, the figures themselves – 80,000 premature deaths, including 10,000 children under the age of 5, and millions of cases of asthma and chest discomfort – are enough to make one stop and think – even in a country as seemingly inured to the loss of human life as ours.

Table 1: Estimated annual health impacts and health costs due to PM pollution from coal-fired power plants in India, 2011-12


Health impacts

Health costs

(crores of Rupees) a

Health costs
(million USD) b

Total premature mortality

80,000 to 115,000



Child mortality (under 5)




Respiratory symptoms

625 million



Chronic bronchitis




Chest discomforts

8.4 million



Asthma attacks

20.9 million



Emergency room visits




Restricted activity days

160 million



a – one crore = 10 million

b – using conversion rate of 1 USD = 50 Rupees

Then there’s the estimated cost – 16-23,000 crores – a huge amount in a country where hundreds of millions survive on less than a hundred rupees a day. Compare this with the Rs. 1,435 crores allotted in 2011-12 for the government’s flagship Total Sanitation Campaign, to provide sanitation facilities in rural areas. Or the 500 crores the WHO says India spent in 2010 to tackle malaria, one of our biggest killers.

Bhagwat Saw, 69, in hospital after he was diagnosed with pneumoconiosis. He has been working as a coal loader for over 40 years. Bhagwat Saw, 69, in hospital after he was diagnosed with pneumoconiosis. He has been working as a coal loader for over 40 years. © Peter Caton / Greenpeace.

But perhaps the most shocking fact to be brought to light is that India lags far, far behind most large economies when it comes to regulating pollutants from coal power plants. India’s standards (see table below) for particulate matter (150-350 µg/m3) are much weaker than even China’s (20-50 µg/m3), whose coal binge led to record pollution levels and public outrage this past winter. For sulphur, nitrogen dioxides and mercury, India has NO standards in place. None. Contrast this with China, the US, EU and Australia, all of which either have standards in place, or, in the case of mercury, are in the process of formulating them. Does the Indian government place less value on Indian lives than the Chinese government places on their citizens?

Table 2: Summary of emission standards for coal-fired power plants







350mg/Nm3 for <210MW

150mg/Nm3 for >210MW






30mg/Nm3 (proposed all)

20mg/Nm3 for key regions

100mg/Nm3 for new

200mg/Nm3 for old

50mg/Nm3 for key regions




100mg/Nm3 for 1997-2005

50mg/Nm3 after 2005


800mg/Nm3 for 1997-2005

500mg/Nm3 after 2005

In discussion, based on USA standards

European Union


100mg/Nm3 for <500MW

50mg/Nm3 for >500MW Post 2003

50mg/Nm3 for <100MW

30mg/Nm3 for >100MW


Scaled for <500MW

400mg/Nm3 for >500MW Post 2003

850mg/Nm3 for <100MW

200mg/Nm3 for >100MW


600mg/Nm3 for <500MW

500mg/Nm3 for >500MW Post 2003

400mg/Nm3 for <100MW

200mg/Nm3 for >100MW

In discussion


37 mg/Nm3 for new

6 mg/Nm3 for old

245 mg/Nm3 for new

50 mg/Nm3 for old

61 mg/Nm3 for new

42 mg/Nm3 for old



6.4 gm/GJ

640 gm/MWh

450 gm/MWh for new

720 gm/MWh for old

0.08 gm/MWh for lignite

0.01 gm/MWh for IGCC

The Urban Emissions study also looked at clusters, since power plants often tend to be bunched up. The Delhi-Haryana cluster and the Kolkata-West Bengal cluster recorded the highest number of deaths due to coal power emissions, followed by the Singrauli-Korba-Talcher cluster in Central India. Another key finding was that emissions from power plants travel many hundreds of kilometers from the point of emission, exposing all who live in that track, something that is not currently accounted for in health and environmental assessments. Check out http://www.urbanemissions.info/india-power-plants for some interesting maps showing the movement of pollution from power plant clusters. The perils of the cluster approach are important, given that there are plans for more coal power plant clusters in Vidarbha, eastern Andhra Pradesh and western Maharashtra, among others.

India’s love affair with coal must come to an end. Coal is destroying our forests and wildlife, ravaging forest and farming communities, killing thousands of Indians through pollution, failing to deliver energy security and, to top it all, wrecking our climate.

Contrast this report with other news out a few days ago – Deutsche Bank has confirmed what other analysts like KPMG and PwC have been saying – that solar power in India will soon be as cheap as power from new coal. Taken together, solar and wind power have the potential to meet India’s energy needs several times over. And the power they provide does not need to be dug out from under our last remaining forests, does not rely on displacing communities and wildlife, does not need to be transported hundreds of kilometers to be burnt, only to emit poisons that will be absorbed into our bodies.

So when clean, viable alternatives exist, why is Prime Minister Singh insisting that we build more coal plants?

 Ashish Fernandes is a Senior Campaigner with Greenpeace. Follow him on twitter @ashishfernandes.