Although pressure on the NTPC had been rising to shut down the plant that had powered the Capital for years, it does not appear to have undertaken any serious planning to deal with its employees, especially contract workers
On October 15, 2018, the state-owned thermal power plant at Badarpur, barely a kilometre from the Delhi-Haryana border, was shut down. Once buzzing with activity, today the BTPS (Badarpur Thermal Power Station) campus, spread over more than 500 hectares, wears a deserted look with a lone watchman guarding the imposing entry gate. A former contract employee, who worked as a peon at the plant, now sells bananas on a push cart just outside the main gate. Beyond the gate as one enters the campus, on the right side are dilapidated flats that at one time housed senior staff of the plant. No one lives there any more, and they are running into disrepair. Next to the residential quarters is a hospital, which has closed down. Further down the road are the iron gates of the plant proper that have been already demolished. A couple of guards bar entry into the area.
The only functioning establishments are an NTPC training institute, a Transco office and two schools. Still surviving in one corner are the temporary dwellings erected for workers who built the complex. That is the only place where people still live and their children play cricket just outside.
The Delhi government shut down the power plant, it was announced, as part of measures to control alarming levels of air pollution in the Capital—an environmental issue all right, but with no direct connection to the efforts to bring down carbon emissions.
Nevertheless, the experience gained during the process of shutting down the plant can certainly prove to be a handbook of some dos and mostly don’ts while planning the retirement of several coal-based power plants that have to be closed over the next couple of decades to achieve net-zero targets.
Such a long journey
The first unit of the plant was set up in November, 1973 on the outskirts of an expanding Capital and was situated on the Grand Trunk Road on the right bank of the Yamuna. The first unit had a capacity of just 95 megawatts (MW). Within the next couple of years, two more 95 MW units were added and followed up in 1980 and 1982 with two more units, each of 210 MW. By 1982, BTPS was generating a total of 705 MW, all of which supplied the growing needs for power in the Capital.
According to the Global Energy Monitor, between 2000 and 2023, a total of 15,651 MW capacity of coal-fired power plants have been shut down in India, while 235,853 MW are still in operation. Annually, these plants generate 1,107 million tonnes of carbon. The Badarpur Station owned by the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), of course no longer emits carbon. Estimates by non-profit iFOREST (International Forum for Environment, Sustainability & Technology) show that if 51.4 GW capacity of coal-powered thermal power plants in India were closed to achieve 2030 targets, then 192,028 formal and informal (contract) workers would lose employment, while another 650,000 more would be added to this number to meet the 2040 climate targets set by India in line with the Paris Agreement. The problem before India, therefore, lies in the coming two to three decades for which the power sector is yet to work out a well-thought-out plan.
Before it was retired, the chimneys of the Badarpur plant released, like thermal power plants do, high amounts of particulate matter in the shape of fly ash, a byproduct of burning coal. As the air quality in Delhi deteriorated during the past decade, experts and officials identified two NTPC coal-powered thermal power plants—Badarpur and Rajghat, both along the banks of the Yamuna—as among the chief contributors to the Capital’s air pollution. Nudged by the courts that called for urgent action, the government decided to retire them both with a combined capacity of 840 MW.
The retirement of the Badarpur plant came a year after the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA), a body created following a Supreme Court order of 1998, had identified it as one of the biggest contributors to pollution in Delhi and recommended its closure. That recommendation, in turn, was based on a 2016 report prepared by professors from IIT Kanpur, who had been appointed to study pollution in Delhi. The plant had, in any case, already exceeded its life of 25 years.
Management vs workers: Choosing confrontation over conciliation
Whether particulate pollution was reduced as result is debatable, but one question that can be posed is whether when shutting down the plant the principles of ‘just transition’ were at all taken into consideration. Dr Raghunath A Mashelkar, former head of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), rightly observed that for India with a coal history of 250 years, it will not be easy to wean itself away from this mineral that has served as the backbone of industrial growth and, of course energy security. Coal not only feeds power plants but has also become part of the cultural life of mining areas where the lives and livelihoods of people have been shaped by it.
Clearly, doing away with coal, and power plants fired by it, will be disruptive for a large number of people, which is where the concept of ‘just transition’ kicks in to ensure that it should not be a trade-off between the environment and the economy and workers’ rights. This concept in relation to climate change was included in the preamble to the COP27 Paris Declaration of 2015. The first component of a ‘just transition’ formulated by environment non-profit iForest is that a timeframe for the transition must be defined and an inclusive transition planning mechanism put in place. It includes providing alternative employment opportunities for workers, both formal and informal, who will lose their jobs due to the closure. The second facet of decommissioning, particularly in the case of thermal power plants, was the ‘remediation’ or environmental restoration of the area where it functioned to free it from hazardous chemicals and fly ash.
Although pressure on the NTPC had been rising for several years to shut down the Badarpur plant, it does not appear to have undertaken any serious planning to deal with the human problems that were sure to crop up in shutting down the plant, especially with regard to its contract workers. They were left to fend for themselves when the plant was abruptly closed in October 2018. Although regular workers were redeployed at other NTPC establishments, the management did not acknowledge any responsibility for the future of the contract workers who constituted at least a quarter of the total work force. Many of the contract workers were technically qualified and included engineering diploma holders deployed in boiler handling, operations, control and instrumentation, turbine maintenance and rail track maintenance.
As many as 339 contract workers who lost their jobs wrote to the management of BTPS demanding alternative employment as well as adequate retrenchment benefits. There was some justification in their demand as more than half of them had worked at the power station for more than a decade with some having worked for as long as 36 years. The BTPS management, however, chose the path of confrontation rather than conciliation and filed a civil suit to restrain the workers from carrying out any agitation to press their demands. Efforts aimed at conciliation by the labour commissioner, too, failed.
In 2020, the dispute was referred by the labour ministry to a tribunal, which last heard the case in August last year, and has fixed the next hearing for March 2024. The dispute lingers on with few signs of a resolution in sight, hardly the kind of transition planning that is envisaged in just transition. Exasperated by the delays, most of the workers have left the area in search of other avenues of employment. This is hardly an ideal example of ‘just transition.’
Om Prakash Gupta, a mechanical engineer who worked at the Badarpur power plant some years back, now helps out the contract workers in their efforts to get their dues. He feels that the plant was needlessly shut down and dismisses as baseless the grounds for its closure —excessive air pollution. “Has the air pollution situation improved after the plant was shut down,” he asks.
Gupta’s doubt on this score cannot be dismissed because air quality index (AQI) data maintained by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) shows that there has indeed, till date, been little change in levels of particulate matter (PM) concentrations in the Capital’s atmosphere during October to December period since 2017. On October 13, 2018, just two days before the plant stopped functioning, the average concentration of PM2.5 microns (one millionth of a metre) was measured at the Okhla Station (closest to the Badarpur Plant) at 131 while PM 10 levels were 266. By October 17, instead of dipping, levels of particulate matter actually increased—PM2.5 to 159 and PM10 to 384. On the last day of October that year, the level had spiked further (PM2.5 to 214 and PM10 to 397). Since then, the levels of particulate matter have consistently remained four to five times the safe limits of 60 micrograms per cubic metre for PM2.5 and 100 micrograms per cubic metre for PM10.
Overall, it shows how little efforts were made by the BTPS management to take the workers into confidence either with respect to measures to control pollution or on planning a roadmap for closure that would include retrenchment benefits even for contract workers. The case of BTPS is not unlike that of another NTPC thermal power plant at Talcher (Odisha) where contract workers received similar treatment. But in the case of Talcher, workers unions were more successful with the legal route and succeeded in securing benefits for more than a thousand of the total of 1,479 contract workers. But despite these cases, the NTPC or the government is yet to work out a transition planning mechanism.
The other issue that is going to become important is that of remediation of the plant sites that essentially involves restoring the environment. In the case of BTPS, it consists of the huge area used by it for disposal of fly ash—an area of roughly 800 hectares on the banks of the Yamuna. Fly ash of course is the product of burning coal. But since coal contains trace levels of toxic elements such as arsenic, barium, cadmium, nickel and lead, among others, fly ash can cause significant groundwater pollution. There are also exposure concerns around crystalline silica and lime that can be present in fly ash. If inhaled, crystalline silica can cause silicosis and is listed by the IARC as a known human carcinogen.
Soon after the Badarpur plant was shut, NTPC announced that the entire ash dyke of BTPS would be turned into a mega eco park by planting thousands of trees and creating water bodies. The 884-acre park would be bigger than New York City’s well-known Central Park. The project was scheduled to open in 2022 but is yet to be completed. The brief announcement on the NTPC website says nothing about how the grounds will be detoxified.
Of course, NTPC gets rid of the fly ash produced at its thermal plants by supplying it to manufacturers of bricks. In fact, government regulation has made it mandatory for builders to use fly ash bricks up to a radius of 300 km from a thermal power plant. Of the 89 million tonnes of fly ash generated by NTPC coal-fired plants in 2022-23, 74 million tonnes are put to uses such as manufacture of cement, concrete, road embankments and mine-filling works.
Although more than five years have passed since the closing of BTPS and the chances of its revival are dim, the experience is nevertheless invaluable, especially to ensure a smooth transition to a zero-carbon future.