NGT takes notice of frequent capsizing of fly ash laden barges in West Bengal’s rivers
Between March and May 2020, five fly ash laden barges have capsized, however, nobody has yet been held responsible for these incidents.
The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has raised concerns over the frequent capsizing of barges carrying fly ash in the rivers of West Bengal on the stretches of the Indo Bangladesh Protocol route (National Waterway -97 (Sundarban) and National Waterway-1. Between March and May 2020, five fly ash laden barges have capsized, however, nobody has yet been held responsible for these incidents. In its order dated October 19, 2020, the NGT has constituted a committee to examine and prevent the occurrences of such incidents in the future.
“We have been monitoring the incidents on this strategic route for quite some time. Thermal Power Plants (TPPs) in Kolkata use it heavily for exporting fly ash to Bangladesh. In fact, of all the commodities transported on this route, 97 percent is fly ash,” says researcher Avli Verma, who is associated with Manthan Adhyayan Kendra.
The order has come after application in this regard by the Dakshinbanga Matsyajibi Forum, an organisation working on welfare issues of small scale and artisanal fishing communities dependent upon the Hooghly river in West Bengal and the Sundarbans for their livelihood. The applicants pointed out that the riverine ecology has been disturbed due to such incidents as mostly old, worn out and dilapidated barges are being plied and that the activities are being undertaken in violation of CPCB guidelines issued in 2013.
“In August, an RTI inquiry showed that no assessment of the damage had been done by the Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) by that time. It’s possible that no damage assessment has taken place yet,” Verma said.
The NGT order also states that "the Inland Waterways Authority of India, which is responsible for ensuring safe and proper transport of cargo on the said route, has admitted such facts, no measures have been taken to identify the responsible barge owners and initiate appropriate legal action against them as there is no mechanism to deal with such increasing incidents."
Speaking about the incidents, Verma said, “Barges laden with fly ash capsizing in the rivers on Indo Bangladesh Protocol route has been an issue of major concern, and many activists working with local communities have also raised worries over the same. People are becoming aware of these issues now. But it has been observed that such incidents have been taking place since at least the past couple of years.”
Assessment of the Situation
“The order is in the right direction. It’s a good thing that orders have been issued by the NGT to the respondents. However, the order has also asked the committee constituted by it to conduct physical verification of the area and submit a report. But in an area like the Indo-Bangladesh Protocol route, dominated by tidal influence, how is the committee going to determine the damage caused by the disruption of fly ash? That too after so many months?” Verma questions.
The committee constituted for the assessment comprises the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the State Pollution Control Board, the PCCF Wildlife (Government of West Bengal) and the District Magistrate (South 24 Parganas). However, researchers have demanded the inclusion of an independent member as well in the committee.
“Spillage of toxic cargo such as fly ash, movement of barges in these stretches of rivers, and other National Waterways related interventions adversely affects the livelihood of fishworker communities. Manthan has been regularly monitoring and raising concerns on this issue, and we hope that an independent member is also added to the committee appointed by the NGT to look into this issue so that it is examined in an unbiased manner,” says a Facebook post by Manthan Adhyayan Kendra in this regard.
Verma adds, “We also want the communities that are affected by these incidents, the locals, to be informed of and involved whenever the assessment takes place.
The Committee has also been asked to examine the factors giving rise to the situation and suggest measures to prevent the occurrence of such incidents and also mitigation measures in respect of fly ash already split in the waterway.
Hazards of Fly Ash
Coal ash is not classified as hazardous in India. However, as per a report 'Coal Ash in India - A Compendium of Disasters, Environment and Health Risks', published in July 2020, it is known to contain toxic chemicals like arsenic, aluminium, antimony, barium, cadmium, selenium, nickel, lead, molybdenum, etc. As per the Inland Vessels (Prevention and Control of Pollution and Protection of Inland Water) Rules, 2016, fly ash has not been considered amongst designated pollutants as well.
“When such high quantities of fly ash are transported across these waterways, amidst the fragile ecosystem of Sundarbans, where is the regulatory mechanism to monitor and prevent such incidents of spillage?,” Verma adds.
Indian coal-fired thermal power plants (TPPs) generate an average of 200 million metric tonnes of ash annually, and this is expected to cross 600 million metric tonnes by 2032, as per the 'Coal Ash in India' report.