Nightmare in Jharsuguda

Another of the field visits Ranjan and I had planned was into “coal country.” After lunch with the family as the day was beginning to cool toward late afternoon, we drove to a town about an hour away from Sambalpur called Jharsuguda, in the heart of Odisha’s—and India’s—coal, steel and aluminum industries.

Our first stop was a small hotel where a local lawyer was waiting to meet me at Ranjan’s request. He said he specialized in criminal law. The case he has taken on during the past six months has to do with criminality of another sort: corporate.

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Ranjan and lawyer

Three farmers were also there to meet me. With Ranjan translating I heard their story. Last August an enormous fly ash pond at the Vedanta aluminum plant breached, sending four and a quarter million tons of ash slurry over several hundred acres. The paddy fields were green and full, the rice near harvest. The entire crop was lost to these and other struggling farmers. Their fields, several hundred acres worth, are now covered several feet deep in coal ash. They are unrecoverable.

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Farmers from Kartikela village

The men said that now they are doing day labor work to survive, so much of their livelihood having been lost. Immediately after the catastrophe villagers held demonstrations, and the Orissa pollution control board ordered the company to shut down a good part of the coal power plant that supports the aluminum factory, called a “captive power plant.” The company resisted, and from what I heard nothing changed, though an official with the pollution board said they did comply, shutting down one smokestack, and were now taking better care of the coal ash. But Ranjan and others strongly disagree.

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Ash “pond,” smokestacks in distance

After we talked to the lawyer and farmers, another man showed up. Ranjan asked “do you want to go see?” Silly question. Of course I did. The man who showed up had a Toyota all terrain vehicle fortunately, otherwise we could not have made the trip to the village and beyond.

(Short aside: the man was a maniacal driver. Even mild mannered Ranjan called him crazy—after it was all over. He had an enormous potbelly and spent much of the time yelling into his phone while speeding over potholes and weaving through cows, dogs and kids in the village. But we needed him, and fortunately he was there. He seemed to care about what was happening to the farmers. Later he said business should be ethical. He was in commercial real estate—perhaps among other endeavors. When we got back to his office later I saw a photo of him with his father and brother. They kind of looked like mafia to me.)

A short drive beyond the village of Kartikela, the home of the three farmers we met at the restaurant, is the nightmare I mentioned in the previous post. Tons of coal ash were flowing into a stream that eventually finds its way to the Mahanadi river and the reservoir behind the dam. I heard from fishermen that when the monsoon comes, the pollutants from the upstream industries all wash down and kill off the fish—among those pollutants most likely is the ash from the breach. That is just one of the reasons they are having trouble finding enough fish to support themselves.

On the way to the village we saw many trucks speeding away from the plant, apparently filled with ash to be dumped somewhere, as the ash ponds on the Vedanta property are full. Ironically the name on the gate of plant from which the ash came is “Vedanta Meadows.”

The farmers want compensation. What they would like most is for their entire village to be relocated en masse, as is theoretically done when dams are going to inundate a river valley. Given that the children’s school is cheek by jowl with a smokestake and hundreds of acres are covered in toxic ash, that would seem like the best solution. Relocations are not accomplished very successfully in the case of dams, from what I’ve heard, and the chances it will happen for Kartikela are slim.

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Ranjan told me the farmers may have gotten some unofficial compensation to keep them quiet. And such payments could in essence amount to an illegal purchase of the land which would leave the farmers with less power to legally claim the whole village should be relocated.

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Piles of coal ash right at edge of stream

Had the breach happened at a different spot it might have inundated Kartikela and killed villagers. That might have gotten more attention, and more action. But maybe not.

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Coal ash slurry pouring down a stream

The lawyer is planning to submit the case—which he has been documenting in the months since the breach occurred—to the National Green Tribunal in late March.

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