The residents of North India live and work in toxic air conditions with the levels of pollution in the winter months often rising to 20 times the limits considered safe by the World Health Organisation. But the government of India has decided that the financial costs of the thermal power industry adopting cleaner technologies outweighs the health costs for millions of Indians breathing toxic air.

On December 11, 2017, the Central Pollution Control Board, which reports to the environment ministry, wrote letters to more than 400 thermal power units in the country, allowing them to release pollutants in violation of the limits set by the government for upto five more years.

These limits were part of the regulations notified by the environment ministry in December 2015. The aim was to control the emissions of hazardous nitrogen and sulphur oxides and tiny particulate matter which can enter human lungs, cause respiratory diseases and bring down lifespans.

Older power stations were given two years to move to cleaner technologies, with December 7, 2017 set as the deadline for meeting the new norms. New power stations commissioned after January 1, 2017 were expected to adhere to the norms from the start.

But the thermal power industry resisted the regulations. Within a month of new norms being notified, the Association of Power Producers, an industry body representing thermal power station owners, wrote to the Central Pollution Control Board, asking it to exempt older power plants, citing technical difficulties and financial costs.

In response, the Central Pollution Control Board said in February 2016: “Improvement in environmental conditions by adopting cleaner and best available technologies cannot be linked with financial aspects.” It also pointed out that thermal power stations contribute about 90% of industrial emissions in terms of nitrogen and sulphur oxides and particulate matter.

But as the deadline for power stations to meet the new norms approached, the environment ministry buckled in, accepting a plan submitted by the power ministry for a phased adoption of new technologies by power stations. It undermined its own regulations that could have given Indians some respite from toxic air.

Environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta pointed out that the way the environment ministry has extended the deadline by five years is itself legally questionable. “Rules are notified in the official gazette of the government,” he said. “If the ministry wanted to relax the deadline, it should have amended the rules.” Such an amendment requires mandatory public consultations. Dutta said the ministry was setting a wrong precedent by letting its own rules be violated by simply issuing directions.

The environment ministry did not respond to’s queries. The Central Pollution Control Board merely said it had extended the deadline for thermal power stations on the instructions of the environment ministry.

Ashok Khurana of the Association for Power Producers repeated what the industry body had told the government. “The timelines laid in [the 2015] notification were impractical,” he said in an email. “It appears that these were prescribed without keeping in mind the ground realities.”

Rejecting this contention in February 2016, the Central Pollution Control Board had said two years was adequate time for the thermal power industry to “address all the issues related to availability of technology as well as sorting out issues related to tariff”.

A toxic cocktail

Most thermal power stations in India generate electricity by burning coal. In the process, they release oxides of sulphur and nitrogen that contribute to the formation of fine particles in the air, which can worsen the symptoms of asthma and lead to inflammation and constriction of the airways.

Around the world, countries have regulations limiting harmful emissions by thermal power stations. But till 2015, India did not have any standards for mercury emissions and the release of nitrogen and sulphur oxides. The environment ministry had laid down norms for the emission of particulate matter in 1986 but these regulations were lax compared to other countries.

In December 2015, the environment ministry issued a notification which introduced standards for the release of nitrogen and sulphur oxides as well as water consumption. It also made existing emission norms stricter. By December 2017, all thermal power plants in India were expected to cut particulate matter emissions by about 40%, sulphur and nitrogen oxides by about 48%, and water consumption by nearly a third.

Graphic: Anand Katakam

To meet the new norms, thermal power stations needed to have:

  • An electrostatic precipitator that filters particulate matters from the gas coming out of the plant by electrostatic charge.  
  • A device for flue-gas desulfurisation which helps remove sulphur dioxide from exhaust gases.  
  • Selective Catalytic Reduction technology that through chemical reactions reduces the amount of nitrogen oxides.  
  •   Cooling tower technology, in which the same water can be used in cycles in the plant to reduce water consumption.  

Industry opposes

The new rules were framed after the environment ministry held consultations with the power ministry in March 2015 and October 2015. It also made the draft available on its website for public review. But the consultations did not ensure acceptance of the new rules.

The thermal power industry objected to the new norms, a review of the correspondence between the Association of Power Producers and the Central Pollution Control Board shows.

One of the contentions of the industry body was that older power stations did not have the space for installing new technologies. In its response, the Central Pollution Control Board pointed out that the environmental clearance to thermal power stations commissioned after 2004 had been given on the condition that they would keep space for such devices. Smaller power stations established before 2003, which did not have the space, should be replaced with new stations since they were inefficient, it added.

The industry body said the new norms were more stringent than World Bank norms. The pollution board responded to say they were comparable to the standards not just in United States and European Union but also China.

Graphic: Anand Katakam

The main contention of the thermal industry, however, was that retrofitting power stations with new technologies was costly. To this, the pollution board took the view that the benefits of cleaner technologies far outweighed the financial costs.

Power ministry backs industry

The thermal power industry enlisted the power ministry to advocate its cause. Government records show the power ministry held four meetings with the environment ministry over 2016 and 2017 to push for the industry’s demands. It argued that since retrofitting new technologies in a power station would require shutting it down for a few weeks, and not all plants could be shut together, the new emission rules should be enforced in a phased manner.

In June 2017, the power ministry submitted a plan to the environment ministry, which allowed thermal power plants time up to 2024 to retrofit new technologies to reduce emissions. In October 2017, the plan was revised to give time up to 2022.

Graphic: Anand Katakam

To defend the ministry’s stance, power minister RK Singh told the Lok Sabha on January 2 that retrofitting thermal power stations would cost between Rs 88 lakh to Rs 1.28 crore per megawatt of electricity. This, the minister said would lead to a tariff increase of 62 paise to 93 paise per unit of electricity in the first year of the power stations being retrofitted.

As a practice, the Central Electricity Authority allows the increase in the cost of operation of power stations to be passed through to consumers by increasing power tariffs. But the recovery of the cost of equipment is distributed over the lifespan of a thermal power station. It is not clear from the minister’s statement whether the calculation of tariff increase has taken this into account. Regardless, the authorities knew at the time of drafting the 2015 notification that cleaner technologies could lead to an increase in the cost of electricity, documents show.

The silence of the environment ministry

In the letters sent to power stations in December 2017, the Central Pollution Control Board said the environment minister chaired a meeting in June 2016 in which it was decided that a phased plan giving power plants time up to 2022 to adopt the new technologies would be prepared in consultation with power and coal ministries.

But the environment ministry did not reveal in Parliament that the new rules were being diluted. “No proposal to dilute the notification regarding emission standards for thermal power plants issued by the Ministry on December, 2015 is under consideration,” said late Anil Madhav Dave, the environment minister at that time in a written response in Lok Sabha on April 3, 2017.

However, he admitted that the environment ministry was not monitoring whether the thermal power stations that had come into operation since January were adhering to the new norms. “As assessment in respect of level of compliance shall be made after these standards come into effect [on December 7, 2017],” he said.

The thermal power industry had argued that the cost of retrofitting older power stations was high, but as reported in October, even the 16 new power stations that became operational in 2017 had failed to install clean technologies. Ashok Khurana of the Association of Power Producers said given the limited number of vendors and the time required for placement of orders and execution, the ministry should have prescribed 2019 as the year for new power stations to meet the 2015 norms.

The environment ministry did not take any action against the new power stations violating the 2015 norms. Instead, it formally diluted the water consumption limits mandated by the 2015 notification by passing an amendment on October 17. By allowing new thermal power stations to consume more water, the ministry gave up the opportunity to save at least 175 million cubic metres of water – enough to irrigate 35,000 hectares of land – every year by 2022.

For diluting the emission norms, however, the environment ministry tried to fire from the Supreme Court’s shoulder, as reported in December. Instead of amending the rules itself, for which it would have faced criticism from the public, the ministry asked the court to pass “appropriate orders” giving thermal power stations another five years to meet the new norms.

The court heard the matter on December 13. By then, the Central Pollution Control Board had already sent letters to the thermal power stations, extending the deadline. But the environment ministry did not disclose this to the court. It also did not mention before the court that it was facing a case in the National Green Tribunal for not implementing the new rules. The Central Pollution Control Board did not respond to’s question on why the environment ministry had not disclosed in the Supreme Court or the National Green Tribunal that it was diluting the 2015 norms.

On January 17, the National Green Tribunal ordered that no new thermal power plant would be given an environment clearance unless it complies with the new pollution norms. But, unless the Supreme Court or the National Green Tribunal intervene, pollution from existing thermal stations looks set to continue for another five years.