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Korba’s coal communities suffer from twice the normal respiratory diseases in times of COVID19: SHRC

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New Delhi, Apr 03: In a new study released by the State health Resource Centre (SHRC), Chattisgarh, it is stated that communities in Korba living near coal-fired thermal power plants have greater exposure to particulate matter resulting in higher respiratory illnesses than the general population.

At a time when the country is in a lockdown due to the coronavirus threat which attacks the respiratory system, the SHRC study establishes the vulnerability of this group to threats like COVID-19.

Korba’s coal communities suffer from twice the normal respiratory diseases in times of COVID19: SHRC

This cross-sectional study compares samples from exposed populations living within a 10 km radius of the power plants in Korba. The second group of samples is taken from Katghora, a village 20 kms away from Korba. The findings show significantly elevated prevalence of respiratory diseases like asthma symptoms and bronchitis, which were 11.79 pre cent and 2.96 per cent among the exposed group respectively. Both diseases were at 5.46 per cent and 0.99 per cent in the unexposed group, thereby establishing the higher disease burden in communities residing around the thermal power plants.

Korba, which has the world's second largest open cast mines Gevra and 10 power plants in its vicinity which produce 6000MW of electricity is particularly affected by emissions from thermal power plants, dumping of fly ash and ash slurry in the air and outflow of coolant water into the river impacting the flora, fauna and fish resources, groundwater contamination from coal storage yards and ash ponds.

Dr Yogesh Jain, 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 organs to function fully and makes it more vulnerable to infections and diseases. In the context of the current COVID-19 pandemic, such individuals are likely to face higher complications, including serious ones."

Based on these findings, SHRC Chhattisgarh makes urgent health recommendations to set up a specialised health care infrastructure operated by the State health departments at polluters' cost, under the 'polluter pays principle', to cater to health issues of residents in the region. SHRC also recommends that the State Government should conduct a cumulative health impact study of various industries on the health of residents in the area to formulate a necessary health mitigation plan for the region.

Dr Prabir Chatterjee, Executive Director of SHRC said, "this study is important as it documents the health burden of the population due to the operations of the power plants.

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. 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."

Korba is one of the 3 cities listed from Chhattisgarh under the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) which aims to reduce 20-30% PM2.5 and PM10 concentration by 2024, taking 2017 levels as the base year. The city also ranked 5th out of 88 industrial clusters in Central Pollution Control Board's (CPCB) 'critically polluted areas' index of 2009. The study claims that there have been anecdotal reports from the villagers about increased prevalence of skin problems, lung problems and asthma in the region. Local Farmers report crop damages due to toxic fly ash and breaches in the fly ash ponds from the power plants. The irrigation water is also contaminated with fly ash which affects the paddy fields. Many farmers have been reportedly abandoning their lands due to reduced crop productivity.

Laxmi Chauhan, 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, contamination of groundwater and soil in the region for several years now. We welcome the findings of the report and now urge the state administration to ensure that these recommendations are implemented in a time-bound manner to ensure that there is no further damage from power plants on our health and environment. We also urge the government to ensure that no further expansion or new plants are started in the region until all these health impacts are mitigated and reversed."

Projected coal plants and stranded capacity in Korba:

In March 2018, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Energy identified 34 power plants as non- performing assets. Korba West was one of those with a total stranded value of Rs 4,929 crore of which Rs 3,099 crore was debt and Rs 1,830 crore equity. With the power plant being declared a non- performing asset, the plant's expansion plans appear shelved. Despite being declared fully commissioned in March 2014, a report by the Central Electricity Authority stated the plant was not yet stabilised, meaning commercial operations had yet to commence.

In September 2019, Shailendra Kumar Shukla, chairman of Chhattisgarh State Power Distribution Company, a state-owned utility, made a bold statement that Chhattisgarh State will not build new coal plants. This decision, though, has not been followed by any legislation so far.

You can read the full report here:

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