Thermal Power Plants are delaying measures to control toxic emissions at the cost of public health

Most of the Thermal Power Plants (TPPs) in India have missed the deadline to implement measures to bring their toxic air emissions under control.

Credit : Sam Panthaky/AFP

Whenever we talk about air pollution, people majorly tend to pin the blame onto the increasing emissions from vehicles or garbage burning, or the ammonia from agriculture. However, we forget one of the most significant of the causes of India’s ever-deteriorating air quality - Thermal Power Plants.

This year, most of the Thermal Power Plants (TPPs) in India have missed the deadline to implement measures to bring their toxic air emissions under control. It has been three years since the initial deadline for the same had been extended by the government. As per a report by Central Electricity Authority (CEA), in August 2020, only four units out of the 448 TPPs in the country, that had planned installation of Flue Gas Desulphurisation (FGD) equipment, have successfully commissioned them. Moreover, the Association of Power Plants (APP) has already written a letter to the Prime Minister to extend the deadline further owing to pandemic amongst other reasons, which has been supported by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI).

“One of the clear messages of these events is that nobody takes the environmental rules seriously here,” says Shripad Dharmadhikary of Manthan Adhyayan Kendra. In 2015, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) had first notified the rules, asking the TPPs to make necessary changes in two years. In December 2017, further extensions were sought and given, for the TPPs to complete the process by 2020, 2021, and 2022. 

“Now, it’s almost 2021, and most of those who were supposed to complete their deadlines by this year have not done that. The matter is now also monitored by the Supreme Court, but the companies have no dearth of excuses. Earlier, they said that it was difficult for them to meet the costs, they had no supplies, they could not get loans, and so on. They also demanded subsidies and soft loans from the government. Now, the reasons have shifted to the disruption caused by the Coronavirus pandemic and ban on Chinese products, as most of the necessary equipment came from China,’” Dharmadhikary explained.

As mentioned in the report India’s Energy Transition: the cost of meeting air pollution standards in the coal-fired electricity sector, released last year, “If the emission trends of thermal power plants remain unchanged, projections estimate that these pollutants will cause an estimated 1.3 million deaths in India per year by 2050 (Health Effects Institute, 2018).” 


Tactics for Non-Compliance

“Most of these plants - state-owned as well as private - haven't even started the process of releasing tenders to allot the work of installing FGDs. Once the process starts, it takes almost two whole years by the time this equipment is installed and becomes functional. The year 2020 is almost over. So, we can definitely say that none of these TPPs will meet the deadlines given to them by 2022,” said Sunil Dahiya, an analyst at Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA).  Dahiya has been following up on the issue for years.

“Delaying and giving excuses are the tactics used by these companies to avoid meeting the standards and eventually try and dilute them. Many of the TPPs have reached the end of their life, and several are approaching. Delaying the installation of FGDs means keeping these older plants running for a longer period of time despite their condition. The coal-based sector is using the delaying tactics to move towards not implementing them at all,” Dahiya added.


Government Apathy

“I am surprised how the government brought these rules into existence in the first place, considering their apathy towards the implementation,” Dharmadhikary said, adding that it is the job of the MoEF&CC to ensure that the power plants comply to the standards set by the Ministry itself.

Dahiya added, “The entire exercise began to ensure that the TPPs meet the emission standards set for them, however, the progress has only been on paper. Non-compliance of these plants has not been penalised by the government. The power sector’s attitude has been clear - nobody can harm them. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) had issued some notices to a few plants, but even they have been stayed.”


Air Pollution and Other Implications

“All our air pollution-related measures are centered around vehicles, as the narrative has been cleverly shifted to the vehicles, farmers, garbage. Of course, vehicles do add to air pollution, and they need to be part of the long term measures to reduce air pollution. However, controlling emissions from Thermal Power Plants and industries is one of the easiest ways of controlling pollution. We need to enforce regulations that already exist,” Dahiya said.

Recently, a video released by experts and several organisations working towards the cause like CREA, Doctors For Clean Air, Let ME Breathe, Warrior Moms, etc. released a video which stated that an estimated 88,000 new cases of childhood Asthma, 1,40,000 preterm births, and 3,900 premature deaths annually. 



“The health implications of this non-compliance are many. Serious pollutants like sulphur dioxide, mercury, etc. are present in these emissions. They could lead to an increase in respiratory, cardiac, and multiple other health complications for people,” Dharmadhikary said.

He also added that while maximum people are aware of the air pollution caused by these emissions, the norms for water discharge and water pollution have also been sidelined by these plants. “At Manthan, we are trying to focus on this issue as well, but even the government has no data in this regard,” he added.


Are people aware?

People and organisations have been running campaigns in order to spread the word and get more people to talk about the issue, but the deadlines keep extending nevertheless. “The awareness is not enough. People who are talking about the issue are either researchers or activists or those in the power industry. The discussion has not reached the common people as much as it should have. Only a small fraction of people understands that TPPs are majorly responsible for air pollution,” Dahiya said.

Several organisations have already jumped into this, and we see extensive campaigns and hashtags on social media. Organisations like Let Me Breath are also letting people share their stories on their online platform so that they reach maximum people. The organisation has also made a sample letter available to people to encourage them to write to their Chief Ministers and other political leaders to take the issue seriously.



“We don’t see power thermal power plants. So we don’t see the pollution caused by them. However, the toxicity emitted can pollute the air even up to 100km away from the power plants, and people need to know that,” he adds.

Sharing an example of the same, he said that there was a period of a few weeks during the lockdown when the pollution in Delhi was at its lowest. “Delhites were celebrating the reduced levels of air pollution, and everyone was attributing it to the lesser number of vehicles on the roads, and of course that was one of the major factors responsible for the better air quality. However, what was left out of the conversation was that at the time, only one out of the around six TPPs around Delhi was functional, and the rest all were shut. That was what made a major difference to the city’s pollution levels. People need to know about this,” Dahiya stated.

For this, he added, that the campaigns for the implementation of the emission norms must go beyond social media, and grow exponentially. The campaign must reach people on the ground.