The Chhattisgarh state government has taken cognisance of a State Health Resource Centre (SHRC) report released last week that linked coal operations in Korba with compromised respiratory health that increased residents’ vulnerability to the novel Coronavirus COVID-19. Following the release of the report, state government has asked local authorities to enforce a halt on all operations during the battle against COVID. The state government has also proposed health assessments on the line of environmental impact assessments for all new coal projects.
The SHRC report released last week revealed the grim reality that residents of Korba, which is also home to the world’s second-largest open cast mines and 10 coal-fired power plants, are suffering from a significantly elevated prevalence of asthma symptoms and bronchitis. This study also proves how vulnerable this group is to COVID-19, which attacks the respiratory system.
The power plants are not the only toxic source for residents of the area. They are also breathing the pollution caused by the dumping of fly ash and ash slurry, the outflow of coolant water into river is impacting the flora and fauna, and ground water is getting contaminated from coal storage yards and ash ponds. Farmers have suffered crop damage and many have abandoned their farms because of reduced productivity. Laxmi Chauhan, a Korba-based environmental activist said, “The findings of the report vindicate our claims of serious impacts on health of the people in the region due to air pollution from the power plants. We have been complaining about health problems, severe air pollution, and contamination of groundwater and soil in the region for several years now.”
Korba also ranked 5th out of 88 industrial clusters in Central Pollution Control Board’s (CPCB) ‘critically polluted areas’ index of 2009.
Complaints related to skin and lung infections are common in Korba, and the study found evidence to back these claims. It observed two sets of samples – some were taken from the exposed populations living within a 10-km radius of the power plants in Korba and a second set was taken from Katghora, a village 20km away from Korba. The results showed that prevalence of respiratory diseases such as asthma and bronchitis was higher- 11.79% and 2.96% respectively – among the exposed group as compared to the Katghora residents who showed prevalence among 5.46% and 0.99% of the population respectively.
Dr Prabir Chatterjee, executive director of SHRC, said, “Studies like this help us identify clusters of vulnerable populations. They help us design services that are most needed for them. Not just during normal circumstances, but also during pandemics like COVID-19.”
But just how vulnerable is a group like this to the pandemic? Dr Yogesh Jain from the Jan Swasthya Sahyog, Bilaspur, said, “COVID-19 is likely to hit harder in air pollution-impacted communities. It is because exposure to air pollution in the long term reduces the capacity of the organs to function fully and makes it more vulnerable to infections and diseases.”
So what should the next step be? According to the SHRC, the need of the hour is the setting up of specialised healthcare infrastructure by the state health departments at polluters’ cost, under the ‘polluter pays principle’. “For Korba, we need a process of continuous monitoring of health. And we need a robust health system dedicated to mitigation of the air pollution related problems among the residents,” Chatterjee said. Another recommendation is that the state government should conduct a health impact study of its own in order to formulate an effective mitigation plan.
“It is encouraging to see that the Honourable Minister for Disaster and Relief has taken notice of the report. We too would encourage other Cabinet Ministers to take up this cause and begin Health Impact Assessments in the interest of the common man, displaced and tribal communities whom they represent,” said Chatterjee following the issue of the state government notice on the matter.
Shailendra Kumar Shukla, chairman of the Chhattisgarh State Power Distribution Company, had declared last year that the state will not build new coal plants. No legislation regarding this declaration has come to light so far. This study is a reminder that the state needs to act soon.