A version of this blog was first published on Times of India


Finding Kuruvimedu isn’t easy. It is not on Google Maps. People on the main road didn’t seem to be aware of such a village. Tucked behind NTPC’s coal-based thermal power plant in Vallur, the village is out of anyone’s purview.The last house in Kuruvimedu shares a border with an ash pond where sludge (flyash mixed with water) is dumped. The water eventually dries up and the flyash rises up and goes wherever the wind takes it.

Sludge pond in Kuruvimedu

We came to Kuruvimedu to document life in it. And as we entered it, people were quick to gather around us. The big cameras had caught their attention. They wanted their voices to be heard. They soon realized why we were there and out came the horror stories. Each one of them led us into their homes to show how dust can be an omnipotent disaster. The dust from the ash pond is everywhere -- in their water tanks, on their food, under their mattresses, and in the crevices of their furniture. There is no spot that is left clean.

Coal dust and fly ash settle on a photograph as shown by a resident in Kuruvimedu

“I clean my house twice a day. Yet there is no escaping. I leave home after locking all the windows and door. But when I return I am always welcomed by a layer of dust on every thing I own,” said Kalpana, a mother of two who works at the NTPC.

With around 50 families and a population of less than 300, the village faces the brunt of weak enforcement of environmental laws, scant regard for human lives and ambitious development agendas.Just 30 km from Fort St George, Tamil Nadu’s Secretariat, the village has still managed to stay out of the bureaucracy’s map.

“The doctors did not believe that I do not smoke. Why would they? Because scans showed coal settled in my lungs,” said Shankar; whose job was to put out fires that would start  on their own at the coal stocking yards. He says he spent Rs 1.5 lakh for his treatment and was willing to pull out his medical records. “I was given masks but it didn’t look like it had served any purpose,” he added.

Every house has a story to tell. Kala took us inside her house to show her favorite plants. There were tomatoes and brinjals. But all them had a black layer of dust on them. “I don’t know if it is because of the dust but they never seem to grow to their full height,” she said. Immediately quipping in, Kalpana standing next to her said: “Even our children are like that. No one would believe if we said they are 13 years old. They are too short for their age,” said Kalpana.

Chidren in Vallur

The village writes to Delhi

We decided to come back the next day. But this time, armed with pens and blank paper. The villagers had agreed to write their own petition and collect signatures from everyone in Kuruvimedu. When we arrived, on a Sunday, the elders were already waiting for us. We had wrongly assumed their demands from the government would take some time to deliberate and brainstorm. But it was very clear. “We want to be relocated and be given alternate jobs,” they said, almost in chorus. “We don’t believe the government can do anything to contain this monster,” said Seetha from the village. “They worry more about their plants than about our health. They will not close down the power plant as they have invested so much money in it,” she added.

Villagers gather together to draft a petition

The men sat in a huddle and began to write a draft copy. The petition explained their health issues, how much they spend on hospitals and how they do not have access to basic civic amenities like drainage systems  and drinking water. “Our village is not fit for anyone to live,” the petition read. “We demand that we be relocated to a safer place and be given proper employment,” the petition continued. It also highlighted the steps they had taken earlier and the deafening silence from the state government.
We have promised the villagers that their petition – written on their letterhead – will be delivered to the Central and State Pollution Control Boards, the Ministry of Power and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC).

The villagers are quite hopeful, and even excited about their voices reaching Delhi. It is up to the Central Government to live up to their expectations.

Karthikeyan Hemalatha is a Communications Campaigner with Greenpeace India