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The Quest For Clean Air

Air pollution is costing lives. Too many of us are breathing dirty, toxic air and facing its direct consequences.

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Thermal power plants are one of the major causes of air pollution in the country, especially in the Indo Gangetic Plain region (IGP). In December 2015, the Indian Government came out with a strict emission notification to control emissions from thermal power plants. According to the rules, all power plants are required to install emission control equipments by the end of 2017. Reports indicate that, most power plants are yet to take the basic steps towards complying with the new rules even after 15 months since the notification was issued.

The most recent negotiations within the government body is one that’s intending to dilute the very rules that were put in place for the protection of public health.

Power plant emitting toxic fumes
Power plant showing the release of toxic emissions

According to the CPCB (Central Pollution Control Board), almost four-fifth of the nitrogen dioxide and 95% of the sulphur dioxide in Delhi’s air originates from power plants (especially the Badarpur power plant as it is thelargest source within the boundaries of Delhi) and industries. Despite recognising this, the MoEFCC (Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change) the highest authority, has failed to enforce emission standards.

While on the one hand, the government has acknowledged the grave pollution that thermal power plants are causing, there is reluctance in implementing its own rules (emission standards) for all coal based power plants across India. Is this a show of mere tokenism by the government to its own emission standards, by shutting down just one thermal power plant when more than a hundred of the remaining power plants continue to pollute our air?

A Greenpeace analysis of NASA’s satellite data found out that coal-based thermal power plants were the largest source of SO2 and NOx emissions in North India (including Delhi) in 2016. These particles have the ability to get transformed into microscopic particles once emitted into the atmosphere and hence stands to reason why they are the main culprits.

The Indo-Gangetic plain has thus far had the largest number of human beings exposed to severe air pollution episodes due to the highly polluting thermal power plants in the region- causing some of the worst health impacts than anywhere else.

According to the data obtained by Greenpeace India through RTIs, the Badarpur power plant has been significantly exceeding the emission standards notified for new thermal power plants.

The Badarpur plant’s emission rates would not be legal in any other major economy, and it is a fact. Take for instance China, all operating power plants, no matter how old, had to cut their emissions about three to four times as much as Badarpur’s emission rates, by July 2014. In another case, the European Union passed a requirement for all operating power plants to cut their particle emissions to one sixth of Badarpur’s rates by early last year.

But it’s not just Badarpur either, according to our mapping, there are a total of 15 large coal-based power plants within 300 km of Delhi with a total capacity of almost 18,000 MW (close to 50 times Badarpur’s operating capacity). None of these power plants have still been equipped with the modern emission control systems that many other major economies have made a routine requirement for.

Name of coal based power plant

Capacity (MW)

1

Suratgarh Super Thermal Power Station

1500

2

National Capital Dadri Thermal Power Plant

1820

3

Indira Gandhi Super Thermal Power Project

1500

4

Rajpura Thermal Power Project

1400

5

Panipat power station

1360

6

Jhajjar power station

1320

7

Ropar power station

1260

8

Rosa Thermal Power Plant

1200

9

Rajiv Gandhi Thermal Power Project

1200

10

Guru Hargobind Lehra Mohabbat Power Station

920

11

Badarpur power station

705

12

Harduaganj power station

615

13

Deenbandhu Chhotu Ram power station

600

14

Guru Nanak Dev power station

450

15

Faridabad power station

165

16

Talwandi Sabo Power Project

1980

Total

17995

What is obvious from the recent setbacks is that the government seems to be interested in concerns raised by polluting industries more than ordinary citizens suffering in smog.
The justification behind the delay in the implementation of emission standards, according to Mr.Piyush Goyal, the power minister, is the high tariff cost involved with importing emission control equipments. Despite an estimated  3% loss of India’s GDP due to air pollution every year, it’s quite unfortunate that this issue is seen through the narrow lense of economics and not in the context of protecting public health.

If the government balks at requiring a few hundred power plants to install rudimentary emission controls, how can thousands of farms or crores of motorists be expected to  accept new regulations? And how can the nation’s power industry get fixing, if addressing an issue at one power plant in the nation’s capital proves too much?

Delhi cop covered in mask stands against a hazy India Gate background
A Delhi cop stands against a hazy background of India Gate

It is not too late to have a plan and a deadline for implementing the new standards. It is up to everyone who breathes, to convince the government that we need implementation and not dilution of emission standards.

Nandikesh Sivalingam is a Senior Climate and Energy Campaigner at Greenpeace India