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  The River Damodar
The river Damodar is polluted with minerals, mine rejects and toxic effluents. Both its water and its sand are infested by coal dust and waste from industries that have sprung up in its basin.

The 563-km-long Damodar originates near Chandwa village in the Chhotanagpur hills in Bihar's Palamau district. It flows through one of the richest mineral belts in the world before draining into the Hooghly, about 50 km south of Calcutta. In the upper valley area, mining and mine-based industries are the dominant economic activity, with low agricultural productivity. This, combined with the heavy mining activity in the area, has made the valley vulnerable to soil erosion. More than 50 major and medium industries and over 400 industrial units dot the valley.

Indian industry depends on this region heavily: industry accounts for 91 per cent of the coal consumed in this country, 60 per cent coming from the Chhotanagpur belt. The states of Bihar and West Bengal depend almost entirely on this area for their power reqirements. How heavily India depends on this region was evident when Jharkhand agitators had called an economic blockade of this region in August 1992. In just one week, almost all industrial activity and rail transport in the country faced paralysis

Flood control
The average annual rainfall in the Damodar valley is about 1,400 mm. In the monsoon this leads to floods. The Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) was set up after the floods of 1943. Flood control is its primary objective. Now, power generation is the main objective. There are seven thermal power plants in the Damodar valley. According to Satyesh Chakraborty, a former professor at the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta and an authority on the Damodar valley, the Centre made money for power generation more readily available. This has complicated problems as DVC's power plants consume a lot of river water and dump ash in the valley.


The mining problem

P Mishra, former chairman of the Bihar State Pollution Control Board (BSPCB), says that the total suspended solid (TSS) count at most places along the upper and middle stretches of the river is 40-50 times higher than the permissible limit.

The Damodar and its tributaries drain almost the entire coal mining area under the Central Coalfields Ltd (CCL), the Bharat Coking Coal Ltd (BCCL) and the Eastern Coalfields Ltd (ECL) — all three subsidiaries of the public sector Coal India Limited (CIL). The Chhotanagpur region has sustained India's model of heavy industrialisation over the past 100 years. Coal extraction began in the 1770s and has continued since. This is the origin of most of the coal for industries in the country.
CIL is poised to produce 370 million tonnes of coal by the turn of the century. Underground mines cannot keep pace with rising demand. Thus, about 60 per cent of the coal extracted from the area comes from large, open-cast mines. These mines are serious sources of land degradation. The disposal of overburden — rock and soil extracted with the coal — is a big problem for the coal authorities. Mechanical extraction of coal leads to the mining of both coal and rock since the machines cannot distinguish between the two. The rock mined just adds to the volume of waste generated. The total volume of overburden, which is about 200 million cubic metres, is likely to be 500 million cubic metres by the turn of the century.
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The river Damodar made an entire industrial complex possible. Now, the entire industrial complex has made the river impossible
Proliferating industries
Coal-based industries of all types have come up in the area because of locational advantages and the easy availability of water and power. There are coal washeries, coke-oven plants and soft-coke batteries. In addition, the landscape is dotted with various industries varying from steel and cement plants to fertiliser and explosives plants. None have proper effluent treatment systems.

Large public sector plants are gradually taking steps to reduce the tss level and other effluents. Small, private factories do nothing.
Among the big coal-based industries, 15 washeries account for the bulk of pollution in terms of tss, oil and grease. The washeries handle between 3,000 tonnes and 8,000 tonnes of coal per day and the exact volume of coalfine generated by the washeries is a secret. However, sources say in certain plants, anything up to 20 per cent of the coal handled goes out in the form of slurry, which is deposited outside in ponds. After the slurry settles in the pond, the sediment — coalfine — rich in calorific value is collected manually.
The process of recovering coalfine as well as the oil and grease used in the washeries is variable. Often, the water discharged into the river from the pond after coalfine is recovered carries high amounts of fine coal particles and oil. This happens either because the retrieval methods are inadequate or they are conducted before all the sediment settles.

The other major coal-based polluters are the coke oven plants that heat coal to temperatures as high as 1100°c in the absence of oxygen to prepare it for use in blast furnaces and foundries. The volatile components in coal are removed, leaving hot, non-volatile coke in the oven, which is washed with huge quantities of water and crushed after cooling. However, the water discharged after the wash contains oil and suspended particles.

Often, the effluents also carry toxic substances such as cyanide. For instance, BHEL’s pollution control research institute, which conducted a survey of some of the plants earlier this year, found cyanide levels in the effluents from the Lodna coke oven plant at Dhanbad to be as high as 0.54 mg/l, while the dissolved oxygen was “very low”. Suspended solids, bod and oil and grease levels were also found to be far in excess of tolerable limits. The Bararee plant in Dhanbad district was also found to be discharging effluents into a pond that was used by the people in the vicinity.

In this case, the TSS, oil and grease levels were above tolerable limits, but many villagers complained that the pond water often made them ill.
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  Flyash pollution
The seven thermal power plants in the Damodar valley (three of which, with a combined installed capacity of about 1,800 mw, belong to the DVC) consume between 3,000 and 8,000 tonnes of coal a day and as much as 50 per cent of the total solids generated is in the form of flyash. Yet, there is little effort to manage the waste. This is obvious from the fact that very few DVC units, which are better managed than those run by the state electricity boards, have electrostatic precipitators (ESPS). Of the six units of the DVC's Chandrapura Thermal Power Plant in Giridih district, only one has an ESP, while the others make do with old mechanical dust collectors. As these plants are located on the banks of the river, the flyash eventually finds its way into the water.

Disposal of solid waste, or bottom ash, from boilers degrades the river even more. The bottom ash is supposed to be mixed with water to form slurry which is then drained into ash ponds. Most of the ponds are full and in several cases drainage pipes are choked. The slurry is discharged into the river.
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  Affected population
The people who live in the vicinity of the Damodar are the worst affected.
The river and its tributaries are the largest sources of drinking water for the huge population that lives in the valley. On April 2, 1990 about 200,000 litres of furnace oil spilled into the Damodar river from the Bokaro Steel Plant. The oil travelled about 150 km downstream to Durgapur and for at least a week after the incident, the five million people in the area drank contaminated water. The water from the river that the people drank was unfit for human consumption, with oil levels 40-80 times higher than the maximum permissible value of 0.03 mg/l.

The urban population of more than 3 million in Bihar and West Bengal is supplied Damodar water after treatment with lime and chlorine. The large rural population and urban dwellers outside the industrial townships are bereft of clean water. In Gomia, people living just outside the pampered Indian Explosives Limited (IEL) township depend on water from the Konar, a tributary of the Damodar. According to a worker of the Asha Seva Kendra, a missionary hospital on the outskirts of Gomia, even patients and their attendants often use the river water. Many patients, mainly TB sufferers, fall ill again.
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  Pollution studies
Scientific agencies and pollution control bodies are not above suspicion. dvc and cil officials question almost every report on the state of pollution in the area except the ones they have commissioned. A well-known scientist involved with pollution in the Damodar complained scientists and researchers were often under pressure to alter their findings to give offenders a clean chit. He alleged that collected samples were fraudulently changed at times.

The Bihar and West Bengal pollution control boards invite nothing but ridicule. Says a senior bccl official, "The state pollution control board officials come for an inspection only when they need money or a favour. If you make them happy, you can get a clean chit." Clearly, the two state pollution control boards have shown little concern for the diseased Damodar. There is little documentation on the state of the river, even though the Bihar state pollution control board has no less than 14 monitoring stations. Board officials, including its chairperson R C Sinha, say "current data is not available and it will take time to get them". The condition of the West Bengal board seems to be no better.

To make matters worse, inadequate policy initiatives on the part of the increasingly militant Jharkhand leadership has made it easier for lumpen elements in the area to run riot. For a long time, local thugs ruled the roost, demanding a role in almost all industrial activity in the area. Most local leaders want more industries with more jobs and lucrative contracts for the people.Thus, on the one hand, there are those who genuinely want to do something to clean the river and, on the other, those who prefer to collude with the local politicians and thugs and do nothing about the problem.

Hardly any major industry has come up in the area since the 1970s and the industries and dams once described as the temples of modern India are sick. The thermal power plants are never all operational at any given time and the fertiliser factory at Sindri is often closed. Given their current financial health, expenditure on pollution control is a low priority.
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  Clean-up plan
The only option seems to be to draw up a master plan for the whole area and get the industrial units in the area to bear the costs on the basis of their capacity to pay. The Union government seems to think the cost of cleaning up the Damodar is worthwhile and the second phase of the Ganga Action Plan plans to do just that. Sources in the Ganga Project Directorate in New Delhi say the state governments have agreed to bear their share of the cleaning-up expenses, which are expected to total about Rs 40 crore. But there are doubts about whether the contributions will actually come in and whether the scheme will have any impact at all.

The Damodar action plan, an end-of-the-pipe pollution treatment scheme, seeks to tackle effluents while allowing industry to continue polluting the region. One viable option could be a switch to less polluting industries and cleaner technology. But who is interested in that? Suraj Mandal, Lok Sabha member and vocal Jharkhand leader, echoes the problem, "The Centre and the various industrial lobbies are interested only in exploiting Jharkhand’s resources. Once they have exhausted it, they will find another area to exploit."

January 31, 1993
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