This year alone, five ships carrying fly ash – the primary waste generated from coal-fired power plants – containers to Bangladesh have sunk on the Indo-Bangladesh Protocol Route.
In two of these five accidents, over 1,500 tonnes of fly-ash, while in transit on barges, sank in the River Hooghly near Kulpi and Kachuberia in West Bengal. Both Kachuberia and Kulpi are in the Sundarbans, a part of the world's largest delta formed by the confluence of the rivers Ganga and Brahmaputra in the Bay of Bengal region.
Bappa Dulai, a fisherman in Kulpi, said, "It took about ten days to clear the mound of ash floating on the river, but the shipwreck became a permanent fixture. A pool of fuel and coal dust formed at the bottom of the wreck kept polluting the water, killing fish and other aquatic creatures."
Meanwhile, the Indian inland waterways system has recently come under the National Green Tribunal's scanner for pollution in the River Hooghly and the fragile Sunderbans ecology.
An Indian fish-workers' trade union, Dakshinbanga Matsyajibi Forum, filed a petition against frequent accidents and capsizing barges carrying dirty fly-ash on the on the National Waterway (NW) 97, also known as the Indo-Bangladesh Protocol Route and Sunderbans Waterway.
The Tribunal's Kolkata bench admitted the petition on 19 October and gave notice to the respondents, ordering them to respond in six weeks. The tribunal formed a committee to verify the "factual aspects set out in the application." It also asked for a probe into why these accidents were happening and suggestions as to measures to prevent the accidents and manage fly-ash that has already been discharged in the rivers.
The plea also stated that the amount of fly ash exported to Bangladesh by river is above the quantity that has been set by the West Bengal Pollution Control Board.
According to a 2017 report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, 5.97 lakh metric tonnes of fly ash was exported, as opposed to the 1.2 lakh metric tonnes permitted in 2014-2015.
The capsizing of barges and discharge of toxic fly ash in the riverine system was a violation of the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, and Environment Protection Act, 1986, the plea said.
The fishworkers union also made a serious allegation that movement on the route was happening without an environmental impact assessment and coastal clearance from the Indian Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.
"It is pertinent to note that the entire Sundarbans area constitutes CRZ IA areas which are identified as highly ecologically sensitive areas. As per the provisions of the CRZ Notification, 2019," the plea said.
The union also sought accountability and compensation from the Inland Waterways Authority of India and barge owners for the damage to the environment. It further sought directions to compensate around 5,000 families involved in small and traditional fisheries, whose livelihoods have been affected due to pollution and its impact on fish catching.
Fly ash is a highly toxic substance known for causing health and environmental problems. According to the Canada-based University of Calgary, it can contain: lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium, and uranium. When fly ash containers tumble into water bodies they contaminate aquaculture and may leach into landmasses, leading to toxicity of agricultural land and drinking water.
This toxic substance, however, is a big item of trade between India and Bangladesh.
New waterways and rising exports
Fly ash is a byproduct of pulverised coal, or coal dust, in power generating plants and is increasingly being used as a substitute for cement in making bricks.
But there are limits to fly ash use because, in concrete structures, not more than 30 percent of cement can be substituted by fly ash.
In India, the disposal of fly ash is a serious issue as more than 20% of fly ash generated in the country remains unutilised, according to data from the Central Electricity Authority (CEA). Every year, India exports three million tonnes (MT) of fly ash to Bangladesh, where it is used in cement factories.
In May 2020, India signed a treaty with Bangladesh, which would further boost the trade of fly ash between the two countries. Under this, the number of Indo Bangladesh Protocol (IBP) routes, the permitted water routes between the two countries, increased from eight to 10.
About 97% of waterway traffic from India and Bangladesh is for fly ash transportation, according to the Federation of Indian Export Organisations' data. Between 2017-2018 and 2019-2020, there was an about 27% increase in cargo traffic from India to Bangladesh via water routes; from 3.09 million MT in 2017-2018 to nearly four million MT in 2019-2020.
West Bengal, which has a substantial number of thermal power plants, is the second-largest producer of fly ash in the country. It produced nearly 15 million tons of the total ash produced in the first half of 2019-2020, according to data from the CEA.
"India wants to dump its fly ash in Bangladesh, and this is clearly environmental racism. The opening up of more routes would mean increased traffic. Its transportation from India to Bangladesh is a big concern because of the fragile ecosystem of the Sundarbans," Sharif Jamil, Buriganga Riverkeeper and general secretary of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA), an organisation involved in environmental conservation, told Mongabay-India.
Shweta Narayan, coordinator of Healthy Energy Initiative, a global collaboration of health professionals, organisations and researchers for clean energy, said "India or the global south is the recipient of toxic waste from the global north" and "we are continuing that behaviour by dumping our waste in countries that are smaller or lesser influential than us."
"Fly ash is a very dangerous substance that should not be transported anywhere. Any kind of spill can be lethal for the environment. No amount of checks and balances will stop the spillage of this highly toxic material. We do not even know what kind of lasting impact it will have. The aquatic ecosystem might be permanently damaged because of these types of toxic chemicals," Narayan told Mongabay-India.
Dakshinbanga Matsyajibi Forum, an association of fishermen, recently moved the National Green Tribunal (NGT) demanding a stop to cargo ship navigation through the ecologically-sensitive Sundarbans.
Poor implementation of regulations governing fly ash
There are few regulations governing the safe handling of toxic ash in India and existing regulations are not followed properly.
"The cause of recurrent accidents in the region is the use of old vessels for transporting the ash," said Pradip Chatterjee, who is the national convener of the National Platform for Small Scale Fishworkers.
"The way fly ash is loaded and unloaded is not safe. It causes fly ash spills, which often do not get reported. In addition, most of the vessels that ply from India to Bangladesh are not seaworthy, leading to recurrent accidents. All this is damaging the fragile ecosystem of the Sundarbans, as well as the livelihood of a large number of people," Chatterjee told Mongabay-India.
"We are talking about old barges with excess weight. It is like trying your luck. How many investigations were ordered? What is the clean up take up? What are the steps taken? How are they making fly ash transportation safe? Where is the regulatory oversight?" said Narayan.
In 2000, fly ash was reclassified from being a hazardous waste material to a waste material, leading to a relaxation of norms governing its transportation.
"I do not think fly ash transportation is covered by any legislation, as it is not termed as hazardous waste. If it is not transported safely, there are high chances of these toxic materials leaching out," Ravi Agarwal, who is director of Toxics Link, a non-governmental organisation working in the field of environment, told Mongabay-India.
In 2014, the government of India made coal washing mandatory for supply to all thermal units beyond 500 kilometres from a coal mine. In May this year, the government dropped the washing clause for supply to thermal power plants.
"This is going to create a bigger problem because coal washing helps in reducing ash content. Fly ash utilisation is much lower than the amount of generation. Most power stations generate more fly ash than they can dispose of. To dump ash they need to buy more land. As a result, more and more land is being used for dumping ash, which is neither environmentally-friendly nor a good use of land," Partha Bhattacharya, former chairman and managing director of Coal India Limited, told Mongabay-India.
In India, an area of 65,000 acres of land is occupied by ash ponds, according to the Journal of Materials and Environmental Science.
Shrinking livelihoods due to fly ash mismanagement
Increased water pollution in the Sundarbans region is evident from falling fish production.
"In the last ten years, the average fish catch has fallen by 50-70%," said Anshuman Midda, a fisherman from West Bengal's South 24 Parganas district.
"Fish production has nosedived. Every year it is falling in the region. Compared to last year, 50 percent of the trawlers are not plying this year because there are no fish in the Sundarbans region. In the next month a further 25 percent of trawlers will stop plying the routes. Even in the monsoon season, production is low," Bijon Maity, secretary of the West Bengal United Fishermen Association said.
The report is prepared based on information from The Wire and News18.