Sunday, November 22, 2020

Ministry Removes Environmental Safeguards For Change in Coal Source for Power Plants: Move Aimed at Helping Private Coal Miners?


On 11 Nov 2020, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) brought out an Office Memorandum (OM) that allows thermal power plants to change the source of their coal without having to get their Environment Clearance (EC) amended. It is a highly retrograde dilution of environmental safeguards, and seems especially brought in to enable ease of marketing for the private players who have put in winning bids for coal mines in the recently concluded commercial coal mining auctions.

A coal stockpile at a coal mine. Representative picture. Photo by: Author

Coal Quality Influences Environmental Impacts

The environmental impacts of a thermal power plant (TPP) depend significantly on the quality of coal used. Hence, when a TPP is accorded environmental clearance (EC), safeguard measures prescribed have to consider the characteristic parameters of the coal to be used. These parameters include the ash content (which can influence ash re-use and disposal, particulate matter emissions, water use), sulphur content (impacting SO2 and particulate emissions), mercury content etc. This is the reason why environmental regulations till now prescribed that the source of coal had to be specified during the environment impact assessment (EIA), and in case the source of coal was changed after the EC was granted, the project needed to seek an amendment to the EC and its conditions (safeguards) in case it was deemed necessary.

Naturally, this involves time and effort, but is necessary for ensuring environmental safety. But project prompters have found this bothersome, as they do with anything that is deemed important to protect the environment.

The OM of the MOEFCC now removes this requirement. And MoEFCC has not been shy of stating the reason upfront.

Untenable Rationale

The OM says:

“The Ministry has been receiving several proposals regarding change in coal sources…the linkage period granted through short-term linkage and e-auctions vary from 3 months to 1 years, making Project Proponents to approach the Ministry for granting amendment in EC each time…”

The OM adds that the Ministry of Power has also issued an advisory to TPPs using imported coal to shift to domestic coal under the Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative. Further, the OM describes the process of getting the EC amended in case of coal source change, and says that “The whole process would approximately take about 2-3 months.”

Looking at all these difficulties, the OM says,

“In order to simply the procedure for change in coal source and encourage thermal power plants to use domestic coal, the Ministry has decided the following procedure…All thermal power plants…can change the coal source…without seeking amendment in the EC…”

This raises some very important questions. For one, a 2-3 months’ time frame for getting the EC amended is hardly such a long time. The plant can well make the application a few months in advance so that when time comes to make the shift to a new coal source, the EC amendment is in hand. After all, a new source would be under discussion / negotiation well before the time of availability of the earlier one ends.

Second, consider the argument that the coal linkages are given for shorter periods and hence project proponents are made to approach the Ministry every now and then. This is a problem with the management and regulation of the coal sector, and the solutions to that must be found in reforms and changes in the coal sector. One cannot address a deficiency in the coal sector by amending and doing away with environmental safeguards.

Last but not the least, the reason that this is also being done to “encourage thermal power plants to use domestic coal” is totally untenable.  For a plant to shift from an imported coal source to domestic is a onetime process, so the EC amendment would be needed only once.  It’s likely that the process of just making this shift – identifying the source, the negotiations etc. - would itself take several months. So getting the EC amended can just be included as one more part of making this shift. It shows utter disregard for the environment and skewed priorities of this Government that an initiative to promote self-reliance needs to come at the cost of removing environmental safeguards. Or maybe the atmanirbhar Bharat initiative is deliberately being used as a cover to remove environmental safeguards.

Indeed, the entire amendment OM is justified on the basis of the problems of the coal sector and the inconveniences caused to the project power plants. The easy solution is to “simplify”, or remove, the environmental regulation.

Specious Justification

The Ministry must have realised that this change would come under criticism so has tried to provide some justification for the amendment. The OM states that:

“The various environmental impacts due to change in coal source viz. increased ash quantity and its management, increased emissions, and impacts of transportation have already been addressed and adequate mitigation measure have been stipulated by the Ministry vide Notifications dated 7.12.2015, 28.6.2018 and 21.5.2020.”

That the impacts of change in coal source have already been addressed by the said notifications is an utterly laughable assertion. Virtually none of these provisions have been implemented.

Take the case of the notification dated 7.12.2015. It mandates limits on emissions on SO2, NOx, PM and Mercury. It also puts limits on the water consumption, mandates zero waste water discharge for all new plants, and requires all inland plants to switch to circulating cooling. The deadline for all this was Dec 2017.

After virtually no effort at implementation, the industry, with the support of Ministry of Power, pushed MoEFCC into postponing the deadline for achieving SO2 norms to 2022. Even here, only a handful of TPPs are on track for meeting the deadline. Now, the Ministry of Power has brought in a new proposal that will exempt many plants from the norms, and require meeting of the norms in 10-15 years. The mandated norms for NOx emissions were also not implemented. In fact, the industry has successfully pushed for their dilution in 2020. Similar dilution of the water use norms was done in 2018. There is no centralised system of monitoring the compliance of these norms (except for SO2 limits, in the form of Flue Gas Desulphurisation or FGD installation). Information obtained by Manthan Adhyayan Kendra (of which this author is a member) in 2019 revealed significant non-compliance of water use norms.

Regulations have always required  (since 1999, but especially since 2009) for TPPs to achieve 100% utilisation of the fly ash they generate. These norms have been consistently, blatantly and extensively violated. The Central Electricity Authority (CEA) which brings out ash utilisation reports every six months notes this with monotonous regularity (See page 19 of the latest available 2018-19 report). Due to this, ash has emerged as one of the most serious source of pollution in areas around TPPs, contaminating air, water, land and soil, impacting people’s health, agriculture and other livelihoods. 

Interestingly, imported coal mostly has much less ash content than Indian coal; which means that shifting to domestic coal will result in much higher ash generation. Managing this will be an additional load and to expect that TPPs which are not able to manage even existing ash generation will take care of the additional load, requires a stretch of imagination. Knowing this fully, the OM creates a loop hole – while it prescribes that “additional ash pond  is not allowed due to increase in the ash content in the raw coal”, but then immediately also says that “in case of exceptional circumstances, project proponents may approach the Ministry for seeking permission to use an emergency ash pond…”.

Fly ash dumped in open fields near water source. Representative picture. Photo by: Author

Creating Ease of Business at Cost of Environment

Looking at all the above, it is clear that the sole aim of the OM is to remove “inconveniences” for thermal power plants, and for the private miners who will for the first time enter the coal sector in India as independent market suppliers of coal. This OM is in fact a part of several relaxations in environmental regulations that have been brought in the recent months, which are aimed at ease of sale, transport, use and marketing of coal at the expense of environmental protection. On 21 May 2020, the Ministry withdrew the requirement that supply, use or transport of coal beyond a certain distance from the mine could only be done with ash content of below a certain percentage (34%). The May 21, 2020 notification now permits “Use of coal by Thermal Power Plants, without stipulations as regards ash content or distance”.  

On 20 Oct 2020, the MOEFCC  issued a clarification which effectively means that TPPs/ coal mines can continue to use trucks to transport coal almost indefinitely, without any limit. In theory the MoEFCC requires coal transport to be done by rail and/or conveyors as road transport can be highly polluting as well as a safety risk for local communities.

Given all this, it is clear that the recent OM is one more link in the continuing saga of MoEFCC’s blatant abdication of its responsibility of protecting the environment.


Thursday, November 5, 2020

Thermal Power Plants Continue Flouting Environmental Regulations: The Case of Shifting to Closed Cycle Cooling Systems

Official documents[1] show that as of Nov 2019, four years after the standards were notified as legally binding and two years after the deadline to implement them had passed, 13 thermal power plants continued to be in clear violation of the standards requiring all non-coastal power plants to shift to closed cycle cooling. And that they had little intention of complying.


Regulations in 2015 Bring Hope

In Dec 2015, the MoEFCC notified regulations which for the first time placed limits on the emissions of SO2, NOx and Mercury from thermal power plants (TPP), as well as on the amount of water they could use. The standards for emission of particulate matter were made more stringent. These regulations also required new TPPs (installed after  1 Jan 2017)  to maintain zero waste water discharge and required all TPPs who used open cycle cooling, also called once through cooling, to shift to a closed cycle, cooling tower based cooling system.

These regulations, though they did not fully address the pollution problems from TPPs, were an important step in the right direction and were welcomed with great hope. The Notification required all power plants to meet the norms by Dec 2017.

Violations Galore

Unfortunately, almost none of the norms have been followed. Not only that, power plants have tried to evade implementation of these norms with all kinds of excuses, have tried to delay, dilute and simply ignore the norms. The Ministry of Power (MoP) has often stood by the TPPs in this.

The latest evidence of this comes in relation to the norms that require all TPPs to shift to a closed cycle cooling system.

What Is Closed Cycle Cooling

In thermal power plants, a large percentage of the energy obtained by burning fuel is lost as waste heat.  In coal based plant this can be as high as 65%. This heat needs to be removed from the steam that drives the power plant to ensure efficient operation of the plant and in most cases is done with the help of water.  An open cycle cooling system is where the TPP takes in water from a source like a river or a lake, uses it to cool the steam and releases the water back into the water source. This water is now at temperature higher than the water source as it has absorbed the heat from the TPP. This process needs massive amounts of water to be drawn, which can have significant impact, even though it is retuned back. Discharge of heated water too has several adverse impacts.

To cut down on the withdrawals, a closed cycle system is used. In this case, water that has absorbed the heat of the TPP is not released back to the source, but is itself cooled in the cooling towers. In cooling towers, part of the hot water evaporates and this helps in cooling it down. The cooled water is sent back to the TPP to cool the steam once again. This leads to much lesser withdrawals but more water is “used” due to evaporation in the cooling towers.

Each system has its advantages and disadvantages.

Total Non-compliance

Official documents obtained by Sunil Dahiya, Analyst, CREA under RTI and made available to us show that as late as Nov 2019, that is four years after the notification and two years after the expiry of the deadline to meet the norms,  49 units of 13 power plants with a capacity of 12,144 MW were still operating on open cycle cooling, in complete violation of the law of the land, as contained in the MoEFCC notification.

The names and capacities of the violators are given below. It should be mentioned that not all units from each of these plants are based on open cycle cooling. Unitwise details are not being given here.

Thermal Power Stations with Once Through Cooling System



Name of Plant


Capacity (MW)



Anpara TPS

Uttar Pradesh




Farakka STPS





Korba West TPS





Kota TPS





Obra TPS

Uttar Pradesh




Parichha TPS

Uttar Pradesh




Rihand TPS

Uttar Pradesh









Sanjay Gandhi TPS

Madhya Pradesh




Sikka Rep TPS





Singrauli STPS

Uttar Pradesh



Tenughat VN Ltd

Tenughat TPS





Ukai TPS








Source: Letter No. 30-5/1/2019/ St. Th dated 21st Nov 2019, written by R.K. Das, Under Secretary, Ministry of Power, Government of India, to Nidhi Khare, Jt. Secretary, MoEFCC, Government of India. (Obtained by Sunil Dahiya, Analyst, CREA under RTI)

Ministry of Power Justifies Violation, Requests Exemption

What is even more of concern is that the Ministry of Power (MoP)  is effectively justifying these violations, condoning them, and has appealed to the MoEFCC to exempt these power plants from the norms. The letter quoted above is a letter from the MoP where it has sought the exemption, and  has given several reasons to justify the same. These include technical non-feasibility  due to lack of space and layout restrictions, and that such shift to closed cycle cooling will lead to “decrease in unit efficiency,  higher emissions and  increase in water consumption”.  They also argue that these units are old and “reducing in numbers”.

This entire set of reasoning is specious. We won’t get into a detailed discussion of these reasons here as it would take lot of space.  Here, it is sufficient to mention that the significance of these arguments is quite overstated by MoP;  that there are numerous benefits of shifting to closed cycle cooling that are not mentioned; and that there are serious impacts of continuing with the open cycle cooling that are also not factored in by MoP.

As in any choice, there is always a trade-offs, and so there is between open and closed cycle cooling. It should be noted that the advantages of closed cycle were significant enough that the Government of India notified that all new non-coastal TPPs commissioned after 1 June 1999 would be based on closed cycle cooling[2]. In 2015, the MoEFCC notification required that any remaining TPP still operating on open cycle should shift to cooling tower based closed cycle cooling. This decision of MoEFCC in 2015 was taken after considering all the factors that MoP is bringing up now. So MoP is just bringing up old justifications which were considered and found not significant.

To elaborate, when these norms were put out as draft notification, the MoP and others had been given a chance to give their comments and they had had detailed discussions with the MoEFCC. Even after the norms were notified, the MoP raised these very same points (related to shift to cooling towers) in June 2016, along with points related to some other norms in the notification. (Documents accessed under RTI). It is noteworthy that the MoEFCC did accept some of the feedback from MoP and changed some norms related to coastal power plants. But for all others, MoEFCC squarely rejected MoPs arguments and the notification stayed as it is. A legally binding regulation.

Yet, it is amazing that the power plants have chosen to ignore it totally. Clearly, they can do this only because they seem to have the backing of the MoP. MoP’s actions also indicate a condoning of the blatant non-compliance and violation of the law of the land. Moreover, by taking up again and again the same arguments with the MoEFCC, the MoP makes it appear that such norms – notified by another arm of the government after due consultations and considerations – are something that need not be taken seriously, that can continue to be evaded, debated and are essentially negotiable. Imagine if an ordinary citizen did this.

In fact, MoP has been playing this role in many of the other norms notified in the same notification too: the SO2 norms, the NOx norms, the specific water consumption norms. We will highlight these in a subsequent blog.

This is a clear indication that the ministry of power considers itself superior to the ministry of environment in the unsaid hierarchy that prevails in the system. The complete lack of any action against the non-compliance, and the total silence and acceptance of these actions by the MoEFCC only indicates that MoEFCC is willing to accept this secondary position and abdicate its responsibilities and duties.


[1] Documents obtained by Sunil Dahiya, Analyst, CREA under RTI and made available to us.

[2] EPA Notification [GSR 7, dated Dec. 22, 1998] Amending the Environment (Protection) Rules 1986.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Draft EIA 2020 Notification – What Next: Some Thoughts

Background-Time for Comments Extended

The timeline for public comments/objections to the EIA Notification (Draft) 2020 [Draft2020] has been extended till 11th August 2020 by the Delhi High Court via its Order dated 30th June 2020. The same order also requires the MoEFCC to translate the Draft2020 into all the languages of the 8th Schedule of the Constitution so that it can effectively reach different parts of the country.

A dredger in the Gandak River. (Photo: Shripad Dharmadhikary)

This opens up the opportunity for more and wider set of people to respond to the Draft2020. We welcome the order by the Delhi High Court for the extension of this deadline, and wish to point out that it is not just the time at which the Notification was released that was problematic  (with the country under lockdown) but that the Draft Notification is the problem in itself. Many research groups, movements and civil society organisations working on the issues related with environment, including Manthan, have foregrounded the critique of the EIA Notification Draft 2020 time and again during this lockdown and shown that the Draft2020 is deeply flawed, its provisions are against the basic principles of environmental protection and it weaken an already weak environmental governance regime represented by the existing version of the Notification (2006).

Therefore, we join the call by many other environmental groups to REJECT this Notification. At the same time, we also want to share some thoughts in how to go from here.

Thoughts for Way Forward – Drawing from Submissions and Discussions

In the course of the many debates and discussions around the Draft2020, several important suggestions been put out  which offer important suggestions for the way forward. These include suggestions for actions by MOEFCC as well as by civil society, groups and movements. We are sharing important suggestions drawn from these discussions so as to highlight some key points for the way forward and to initiate a wider discussion on the same.

We would like to clarify that the list of these suggestions and the action points is not exhaustive but reflective of the broader issues emerging in the many submissions by civil society organisations and research groups including Manthan’s submission as well as in the discussions.


  1.  Now that deadline for comments has been extended, the priority must be to SEEK and obtain, in a PRO-ACTIVE manner, comments of those who have not been able to do so, either due to lockdown, or due to their not having access to internet, or due language issues etc. This should be the primary responsibility of MoEFCC and civil society groups should also work towards this.

  1. In particular, MoEFCC should hold regional meetings, especially in areas where there is already high environmental impact and areas of likely high environmental impact – e.g. Singrauli, Korba, Nellore, Krishnapatanam, submergence areas of dams like Narmada, key industrial and chemical estates like Vapi, Vizag, oil fields in Assam  etc. and newer frontier areas like Arunachal. These should include presentations in local language by MoEFCC on the Draft2020, the reasoning behind it and then seeking comments.
    Village submerged by the Sardar Sarovar Project (Photo: Shripad Dharmadhikary)

Given that MoEFCC went out of its way and proactively invited 78,706 project proponents to give their comments, and also had circulated a draft in advance to the state governments, there is little reason why they can’t pro-actively reach out to the most affected people for comments.

  1. Once the comments have been collected, they need to be processed. This should be done in an independent and transparent manner. MoEFCC should set up a committee headed by a SC judge and co-chaired by an eminent environmentalist, who would process the comments. This committee should call for MoEFCC’s response to all comments and then consider the comments and the responses together. They would be free to call in those sending comments for any clarifications. The Committee would then prepare a report of the comments and their suggestions based on the same. This should be placed in the public domain.
  2. Given the fact that a large number of comments already sent to the MoEFCC have called for scrapping the Draft EIA2020 on account of number of problems, and also called for more fundamental restructuring of the EIA/EC process in the country, it would be useful that the above committee’s mandate or ToR not be limited to only processing the comments; the same committee can also be tasked with taking the next step, in terms of recommending either amendments and changes to the Draft EIA 2020 and proposing a new draft, or if deemed necessary, propose more fundamental changes and a better legal and regulatory framework for EIA/EC process in the country.
  3. The above-mentioned exercise will take substantial time. Till then, some of the most problematic provisions present in the EIA Notification 2006 that militate against environmental protection should be removed immediately through executive action. This should include, but not be limited to amending the Schedule to include projects currently missing.

6.       A list of such amendments can be made based on past experience and examples, including those that have been put forward in the many comments made on the Draft EIA 2020.

 Civil Society organisations, movements and groups can use this extension for the following:

  1. Civil society, movements must also organise and hold regional meetings, especially in areas where there is already high environmental impact and areas of likely high environmental impact and with vulnerable communities, in areas where repeated violations have shown the problems with the EIA Notification and the institutional mechanism to implement it.
  2. Use of voice and video recordings of the comments from remote or restricted areas can be explored. Civil society organisations can use these recordings to translate and transcribe the comments for those who could not send in the wake of Covid from these areas.
  3. The analysis done so far, and the comments already prepared by a number of groups, movements and civil society organisations represent a substantial critique of the Draft2020. While this has been disseminated to some extent, it is important that this dissemination be continued extensively, so that an informed understanding of the Draft2020 can be developed amongst common citizens. Civil Society and media should come together for such continued dissemination of the comments submitted for EIA draft Notification 2020 and the recommendations for the scrapping the Draft2020 and developing a new framework for EIA/EC in the country.

Naturally, all of the above will be subject to distancing and other regulations as applicable due to Covid.

For the ease of quick reference, we have also taken the liberty to put together some of the comments and submissions on the Draft2020 at one place on the internet, which can be accessed here. The page has a folder with the pdf versions of submissions, as well as a file with the urls to the submissions. Again, we want to clarify that the comments we have put on this drive are not an exhaustive or complete listing but only some of the comments that reflect various facets of the analysis.

This blog post put together by:

Manthan Adhyayan Kendra Team