Iconic skylines are a trademark of cities around the world – a row of skyscrapers in New York, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the London Eye in London. But imagine a city with a skyline of thermal power plant chimneys spewing smoke? Welcome to Korba.

In Korba, no matter which direction one looks, a thermal power plant adorns the skyline. And their all-round impact is visible everywhere – blackened trees and leaves, piles of ash on the roadside and black smoke hitting the face.

Popularly known as the power hub/power capital of Chhattisgarh, Korba is a major mining, power and industrial centre and is less than 250 km away from the state’s capital city, Raipur. But as one approaches Korba, the road for the last 50 km comprises of only potholes.

Chhattisgarh is bestowed with all kinds of minerals, such as gold, iron ore, tin, bauxite, diamond and coal. It has around 18% of India’s total coal deposits, 20% of India’s iron ore and 35% of tin ore. But that has not translated into fortune for locals who are either displaced from their lands, fighting for proper rehabilitation and resettlement or forced to live with extreme air and water pollution.

It has been estimated that there is around 44,483 million tonnes of coal in 12 coalfields in Chhattisgarh, in Raigarh, Surguja, Koriya and Korba districts. It ranks second among states in India’s coal production. Most of the coal deposits are of power grade.

As Mongabay-India journeyed across the state, the resulting impact on the environment and health of residents is clearly visible. With elections coming up in the state this month, will the plight of people from Korba and other parts of Chhattisgarh be an influencing factor?

Coal mines just a few minutes away from Korba city. Photo credit: Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India

Mining, power plants take a toll

Coal is the major mineral in Korba and its abundance has led to mining and power industry leaders setting up shop in the area. Korba is home to South Eastern Coalfields Limited, NTPC, Bharat Aluminium Company Limited, Aryan Coal Benefications Private Limited among others.

However, according to activists, unchecked and unregulated mining in the area is not only harming the environment but having a disastrous effect on agriculture, air quality and people’s health.

In Korba, transportation of coal in open trucks is common and so is the poor quality of air and water. The majority of two-wheeler riders are forced to wrap cloth over their faces to avoid inhaling the black smoke. The case of huge quantities of dust settling over vehicles within hours of being cleaned is a common scene and an everyday affair.

There are multiple ongoing cases against the industry for not rehabilitating those displaced by projects or mines dismissing the argument that industry brought development to the area.

“There is complete lawlessness and violation of all rules possible. The conditions on which mines and power plant projects got clearance are being violated. There are so many cases that are going on against them either in the Bilaspur High Court or the National Green Tribunal,” Laxmi Chauhan, an activist in Korba, told Mongabay-India.

“There are so many instances where coal mines have got clearance for expansion but as they were unable to secure land adjacent to mines for expansion, they started digging deeper at the present sites, which is a clear violation of the rules,” Chauhan added.

Scores of mines and power plants in the area also resulted in hundreds of villagers being displaced from their lands. Sadly, their rehabilitation and resettlement is in a poor state of affairs.

Narendra Prakash of the Urjadhani Bhuvisthapit Kalyan Samiti, a group of villagers from 41 villages who have lost their land to different projects, explained that his mother lost her land to a South Eastern Coalfields Limited mine in 1986 but is yet to get a job that she was promised in lieu of it.

“I was not born at the time our land was taken away and today I am 28 years old but the job that was promised to us is yet to be given. I am not alone. There are hundreds like me,” he said.

Even those who were resettled are victims of unkept promises.

Gopal Singh, who was displaced by a South Eastern Coalfields Limited coal mine in 1986, was resettled in Chainpur village but a few years ago, another power plant came up in the vicinity.

“There is no land for farming and I end up growing crops near the riverside, which is nearly dead due to pollution. I am able to just grow a little for sustaining the family but for everything else I have to depend on MGNREGA work. There are no doctors for us and schools for children are there only until Class 8. In winter, all trees in the area are burdened with ash. It is a pathetic life for us,” said Singh.

There are unknown consequences as well.

Black dust over trees and on the roadside is an everyday affair. Photo credit: Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India

For instance, in Suwabhode village, there are cracks in nearly all the houses due to blasting activity at the nearby Dipka mines.

“People of this village have already lost their land for expansion of Dipka mines. There is a huge spurt in cases of blood pressure and blood sugar among people here due to mining and pollution from that. But they are not ready to move from here because the promises for proper rehabilitation and jobs for villagers have not been fulfilled,” said Narendra Prakash.

Environmental impact

According to the Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index of the Central Pollution Control Board, Korba is among the most critically polluted areas of the country.

Scrutiny of authorities and action plans to improve the air quality of the area have not yielded any results. The air quality for most part of the year is in the poor or very poor category.

But that is not the only issue. The ash from the plants leads to contamination of water in wells and villagers have started covering them throughout the year to prevent that.

The residents of Kosaipali village, located next to a thermal power plant, said the water nullah that was their primary source of water is useless today.

“For us, the only source of water today is some remaining wells. The water in the nullah is completely black due to industrial effluents discharged from the plant. Even the rice grown by us is now black in colour due to the water from the plant,” said Uttara Bai, a resident.

Cracks in homes as a result of blasting activity at nearby mines are a common feature in Korba. Photo credit: Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India

Shanti Bai, another villager, said the effluent from the plant has impacted the quality and quantity of the rice yield in her fields. “Compared to the yield that I used to get 10 years ago, yield of my rice fields are just half today,” she said.

Laxmi Chauhan emphasised that thermal power plants in the area are supposed to carry out proper disposal of fly ash but that has not happened. “There is no study to assess the impact of the pollution till date. To benefit industry, people are made to live in hell. If pollution and its impact on people are ascertained, I am sure many of the industries in the area will face strict action,” said Chauhan.

Kanchi Kohli, legal research director at the Centre for Policy Research-Namati Environmental Justice Programme, said that “over the years Korba has seen acute air pollution, water contamination and land encroachments” and these are a “result of poor impact assessments and absolute disregard to legally mandated safeguards”.

“Mines operate without mandatory safety zones, transportation of coal in open trucks carries coal dust across kilometres, excessive coal ash is indiscriminately dumped on farmlands. When complaints are filed, action and remediation measures are hard to come by,” she said.

“When areas like Korba are declared coal blocks, no other relationships or priorities for the region matter for governments. Everything else whether human lives and livelihood, protection of elephant corridors or basic infrastructure like roads, schools are only waiting for an evacuation notice. Korba is symptomatic of what has been allowed to go wrong with India’s coal geographies. Several public sector, private sector companies operating in the region as well as the governments are complicit in it,” she added.

In some cases, whatever protection has been ensured for villagers is a result of the relentless fight of the local community. For instance, community paralegals working with Janabhivyakti, a people’s non-governmental organisation working in Chhattisgarh, ensured some of the pollution issues are addressed by making sure that conditions related to environmental clearances and pollution consents are followed. In one such case, Kohli said, a safety wall was built in the area almost 30 years after the mine started operations.

Such is the apathy towards environment that there is no information about green cover in Korba city. According to the Municipal Corporation of Korba’s Vision, Strategy and Action Plan for Korba – An inclusive Green Growth approach, there is a “dearth of information about tree cover in urban areas especially for our city and urban agglomerations, as this work has not be attempted in a systematic manner by the ULB [urban local body], government departments. academic organisations or NGOs”.

An election issue?

Owing to systematic exploitation of the area over decades, many residents are disenchanted with the elections and promises made by the two traditional political parties – the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has ruled the state for the last 15 years, and the Indian National Congress.

There are four Assembly seats in the Korba region – Pali and Tanakhar, Rampur, Korba, and Katghora. Of the four, three are currently with the Congress and one with the BJP. Chhattisgarh goes to polls in two phases on November 12 and November 20.

Polluted groundwater and rice blackened with pollution from a field near a power plant. Photo credit: Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India

Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh, who is seeking a record fourth term, was dismissive of environmental issues plaguing his state.

“We are the biggest protectors of the environment. We have 46% of [total land of the state] under forests. Raipur’s pollution levels [air quality] are among the best in the country. Here you are getting oxygen for free,” said Singh replying to a query from Mongabay-India about pollution issues in the state.

The chief minister may not believe that there are pollution problems but the ground reality tells a different story. People are losing patience.

For instance, in Korba, Laxmi Chauhan said they have sought written assurances from the political candidates that once elected, they will solve the problems of people affected by mines and power plants. “Whosoever will give a written assurance will get the support of the people. This is our only demand,” said Chauhan.

One of the many thermal power plants that dot Korba. Photo credit: Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay-India

This article first appeared on Mongabay.