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India’s Protected Areas play a crucial role in preserving our precious biodiversity. India is home to 89,000 species of animals and 46,000 species of plants and nearly half the world’s aquatic plants. Conservation of wild flora and fauna has been one of the key thrust areas for India. Protected Areas have been declared with the primary objective of biodiversity conservation and they often exclude resource extraction and use by local communities. Under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, four categories of Protected Areas have been designated in India which are national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and conservation and community reserves. As of May 2022, India has a network of 990 Protected Areas including 106 National Parks, 565 Wildlife Sanctuaries, 100 Conservation Reserves and 219 Community Reserves covering a total of 1,73,307 sq km which is approximately 5.27% of the geographical area of the country.

When it comes to setting up any industry or development project near or within Protected Areas, then such projects need an additional level of clearance known as Wildlife Clearance. Wildlife Clearance is a clearance or permission required from the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) as per Supreme Court order to establish any industry or development projects inside or within 10 km radius of any protected area. This additional protection had been envisaged considering the crucial role played by the Protected Areas in conservation efforts, along with preventing mushrooming of industrial or developmental projects in the immediate vicinity of such protected areas.

According to the current regulations, any power plants can be set up only outside the Eco-Sensitive Zone (ESZ) of the Protected Areas which is usually a 10 kms boundary from the Protected Areas. However, in case of large coal-fired thermal power plants, this minimum distance of 10 kms or so may have a much more detrimental impact than other industrial projects such as a manufacturing facility. This is basically because of the sheer scale of power plants producing power in the range of 500-4,000 MW (or more) would burn hundreds or thousands of tonnes of coal per day. Coal-fired power plants results in emission of CO2 in massive amounts. Additionally, they also release particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and mercury, which takes a serious toll on the health of people. A study published in 2019 by ETH Zurich in Switzerland identified India’s coal power plants as the unhealthiest in the world. While a lot of attention has been placed on the hazardous health impacts on the communities living in the proximity of the coal fired power plants, but their possible detrimental impact on Protected Areas has garnered lesser attention.

There can be arguments that a power plant which is located at a 20 to 30 km distance from a Protected Area will have a negligible impact on any National Park or a Wildlife Sanctuary owing to the distance involved, but the sheer scale of power plants being operated in such places can impact the overall ecosystem of the surrounding region due to massive burning of coal and resulting in emitted pollution, which can be carried over by wind over several kilometres. Thermal power plants are also known to consume massive amounts of water for their functioning and also lead to groundwater pollution due to the fly ash discharge. A 2017 study by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) calculated that thermal power plants accounted for 87.8% of total industrial water consumption in the country. Taking these factors into account, the ecosystem of the nearby region will have detrimental impacts accumulated over the years.

With the presence of thermal power plants, another factor which comes into picture is that supporting infrastructure has to be ensured for the transportation of coal to the power plants for their smooth functioning. This may require construction of linear infrastructure projects such as roads or railway lines to carry the huge amounts of coal to the desired locations, which can also affect various wildlife corridors affecting free movement of wildlife in the nearby region. The places near the thermal power plants have also to face the pollution caused by spilling over coal dust during coal transportation.

It also happens that some of these power plants are set up near the coal mines in resource-rich regions to save the transportation cost. Incidentally, many of the protected areas fall in the region with dense forests rich in mineral resources like coal and they have to witness the pollution caused by both because of the coal mining and thermal power plants such as in the Singrauli region of Madhya Pradesh.

Chandrapura Thermal Power Station and its Proximity to a Tiger Reserve

 The case in point here is of Chandrapur Thermal Power Station (CTPS) located in Chandrapur, Maharashtra. Chandrapur district with its presence of vast coal reserves is called a Black Gold City and has several coal mines in operation, along with presence of this 2,930 MW thermal power plant. The large extent of coal mining, along with presence of other industries has led Chandrapur to become one of the most polluted districts of India and it is counted among the list of Critically Polluted Areas. For several years in the past decade, Chandrapur faced a moratorium of not having any new industrial units. CTPS is the 2nd largest power plant in Maharashtra and meets 25% of the electricity needs of the state. The power plant is located approx. 30 km from the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR), the oldest and largest National Park in Maharashtra, and in 2019 was estimated to have 115 tigers and 151 leopards. A complaint was filed against the power plant in November 2021 over sudden fly ash emission, which was found deposited on vehicles all over the city. Even earlier, concerns have been raised due to the pollution caused by the power plant. Back in 2013, complaints were raised to Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) regarding repeated violations of pollution control standards by the power plant. The plant’s oldest unit Nos. 1 and 2 (commissioned in 1983 and 1984 respectively) were regularly discharging suspended particulate matter much beyond the prescribed standards. The low height of the chimneys also meant that pollution was suffered more by the nearby areas. However, taking this into consideration the unit Nos. 1 and 2 were subsequently retired in FY 2015-16. Despite this move, the air pollution caused in the nearby areas by the power plant is a matter of concern for both the people living nearby and the environmentalists worried about the long-term fate of such protected areas.

How Panna Tiger Reserve escaped pollution from a Coal-fired Power Plant    

Similar to CTPS, Panna Tiger Reserve (PTR) in Madhya Pradesh would have witnessed a large scale power plant coming up in its proximity. A news report had come in 2014 that India’s largest power company National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) was planning to set up a 2,640 MW Super Thermal Power Project in Barethi in Chhatarpur district of Madhya Pradesh at the cost of about Rs 18,000 crore. The land requirement for the project was put at 2,481 acres. The annual coal requirement for the power plant would have been 12 million tonnes. The distance of the project site from the core zone of PTR and the proposed ESZ was 14.24 km and 12.23 km, respectively. While the location of the proposed power plant was in line with the restrictions imposed in terms of the minimum distance (10 km) to be maintained for such projects from the protected areas, however, the sheer scale of the project would have deeply impacted the tiger reserve. This concern was largely overlooked when suggesting the proposed location for the power plant.

In a meeting held in July 2016 by Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the environment ministry, the project proposal was discussed where the EAC deferred its decision on the proposal and asked NTPC to get wildlife clearance from NBWL taking into account the scale of the project and its proximity to PTR and the contiguous forest. In November 2020, it was mentioned in a media report that the project had been given an NOC by PTR, NBWL and even the Archaeological Survey of India department had given an NOC despite the project being only 24 km away from the historic Khajurao Temples. However, the EAC had not given the NOC to the project due to which the project remained stalled. In an another media report released around the same time, it was informed in writing by Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) that the tender for the thermal power plant had been cancelled and a solar power plant of 550 MW would be installed on the 2,839 acres of land already acquired by NTPC. If the proposed power plant had proceeded as planned then it would have caused irreversible damage to PTR not only through the massive air pollution but also the regular transportation of millions of tonnes of coal in the region.

While we are seeing positive strides in the transition to renewables, the government should take measures to phase out the thermal power plants which are not far from the protected areas. However, replacing these thermal power plants with solar power plants is not really a solution that should be sought. Setting up of mega solar power parks in proximity to protected areas should be avoided as they tend to interfere with the wildlife corridors and damage the local drainage patterns. Additionally, environmental activists have raised concerns that the purpose of ESZ around is to ensure that land use pattern remains compatible with the forest environment and restrictions have been placed on change in land use pattern and installing solar panels over hundreds of acres in proximity to protected areas entails land-use change which needs more scrutiny. Steps should be taken towards phasing out any functioning thermal power plants in the regions where our Protected Areas exist and not allowing there any new thermal power plants in the future. Ideally, we should aim for decentralized production of power such as roof-top solar systems and other decentralized systems that allow co-existence of agroecological and pastoral livelihoods.

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