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Up to 115,000 Indians killed by coal in 2012

by Ashish Fernandes

March 11, 2013

Local people in Aina village and toxic fumes rising from the ground caused by burning coal at the nearby Jharia coal mine. Jharia is one of the most important coal mines in India and one of the largest in Asia. Once a treasure trove of high-quality coking coal, uncontrollable fires have turned the mine and the surroundings into a slow-burning inferno. Before coal was unearthed in this area, Jharia was a belt of dense forests inhabited by tribes.

© Greenpeace / Peter Caton

Bhagwat Saw, 69, in the emergency section at Life Line Hospital. Bhagwat has been working as a coal loader for over 40 years and was discovered to be suffering from pneumoconiosis.

The skeletons keep piling up and tumbling out of King Coals closet. A new study attributes between 80,000 to 115,000 premature deaths in India due to emissions from coal power plants in India. The study, conducted by Dr. Sarath Guttikunda and Puja Jawahar of Urban Emissions, also attributed millions of cases of asthma and heart disease to emissions from coal power plants in India.

Local people in Aina village and toxic fumes rising from the ground caused by burning coal at the nearby Jharia coal mine.

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 at least 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.

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

Effect Health impacts Health costs

(million USD)

Total premature mortality 80,000 to 115,000 3300-4600
Child mortality (under 5) 10,000 420
Respiratory symptoms 625 million 1200
Chronic bronchitis 170,000 170
Chest discomforts 8.4 million 35
Asthma attacks 20.9 million 420
Emergency room visits 900,000 60
Restricted activity days 160 million 1600
Using conversion rate of 1 USD = 50 Rupees

Then theres the estimated cost 3.3 to 4.6 billion USD a huge amount in a country where hundreds of millions survive on less than two dollars a day.

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. Indias standards (see table below) for particulate matter (150-350 g/m3) are much weaker than even Chinas (20-50 g/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 United States, EU and Australia, all of which either have standards in place, or, in the case of mercury, are in the process of formulating them.

Indias love affair with coal is coming to an end. The countrys reliance on coal was predicated on a promise of affordable power to all. Coal has failed on both fronts, as electricity tariffs rise and hundreds of millions remain unconnected to the grid and reliant on the countrys growing renewable power sector. Instead of cheap, affordable power, coal is destroying our forests and wildlife, ravaging forest and farming communities, killing thousands through pollution, failing to deliver energy security and, to top it all, wrecking our climate.

Contrast the stats on death and disease caused by coal 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 Indias 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. The Indian Finance Ministrys opposition to pooling the prices of expensive imported coal with cheaper domestic coal is another signal that more coal cannot really solve Indias power woes. The international coal industry had hoped this move would lead to an increase in Indian thermal coal demand. Those hopes now look misplaced.

So when clean, viable alternatives exist, why would anyone bet on Indias reliance on coal continuing to grow?

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