Thirty years of ash dump in Seppakkam

The land, air and water are contaminated in the ash town

By Anoushka Sawhney

Masks must be new for everyone, but the residents of Seppakkam wore them even before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

To protect ourselves from the fly ash we wear masks, Mani, a resident of Seppakkam, said. 

The Fly ash Mani was complaining about is a mixture of powdered coal and other hazardous materials, such as arsenic, chromium, mercury, etc.

Seppakkam is a small village about 25 km from Chennai. It is also the site for the North Chennai Thermal Power Station (NCTPS), owned by the Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation Limited (TANGEDCO). 

Every morning, hundreds of trucks hauling coal make their way down a dirt track connecting the power plant to the nearest all-weather road. The coal is burned there to produce fuel for the houses in Chennai. Hence the ash.

In Sepakkam, the ash is everywhere. The air is blanketed with the dust and clearly looks different. It coats everything within minutes. A small body of water near the houses was black.

The land was covered with ash as far as the eye could see. 

Even few flowering plants grown by residents have a coating of dust on them. 

As of December 31, 2021, India’s power generation capacity is 393,389.46 megawatt. In India, around 71% of electricity consumed is produced by thermal power plants in India. 

In 2020-21, NCTPS produced around 7,000 million units of electricity.  

According to Census 2011, Seppakkam has 5201 people.  

“We don’t open the windows or doors for the fear of dust. The room is often dark,” Mani said. 

The residents had put large green nets one month before to prevent the dust from entering their house, he added. “But, it doesn’t work.” 

“If we don’t clean the house for two days, there will be 200 gms of ash in the house,” said Mani. 

The ash from the factory and the lorries directly enters the house, he added. 

Through the pipelines, NCTPS dumps the ash slurry into the pond in Seppakkam. The farming lands have been turned into ash lands. Pipe leakages from NCTPS are also frequent. 

According to fly ash utilisation rules, 100% of fly ash generated by the thermal power plants must be used by them within a radius of 300 km.  

Due to the residue of fly ash from the thermal power, the number of families living in Seppakkam has reduced from 600 to 60.

The Tamil Nadu Electricity Board had bought the land, which was earlier farmlands, from the residents, Mani said. “Before this factory came, around 160-180 acres of land was used for farming,” he added. 

“Initially, we did not feel that salt ash would be a big problem. But, now it is,” he added. 

In between Vita, Mani’s mother interrupts and shows the fly ash affected water. The water was so dirty that one could not see the bottom of the large water container. 

“When we used to dig the ground before the plant came, the water used to be visible,” Mani said. 

The issue first came to light after Carnatic singer TM Krishna’s ‘Chennai poromboke padal’ video in 2017. In the nine-minute video, on the banks of the Ennore creek, artists wear an anti-pollution mask and sing, “Poromboke is not for you, nor for me. It is for the community, it is for the earth.” 

Poromboke means unassessed land, which belongs to the government. 

The village does not have schools, hospitals, local doctors, toilets and transport. 

“We have to travel five to ten km to visit a hospital,” Mani said. There are no autos available, and during an emergency, the residents have to call someone from outside, which also takes time to come, he added. 

Mani said that the maximum age of the people in the village is 60. “Many children get skin infections, sinus, asthma and vitiligo.” 

Elamutha, a resident of Seppakkam, said that animals in the village also have skin diseases.  

“In 1990, the factory was planted, and in 1993 the ashes started to come from the plant,” Elamutha said. Only a few residents, including me, had received compensation for their land, which amounted to 3,300 per acre, he added. 

While many people, who had the resources, left the village, others with no facilities have stayed back. 

“Even if we move out, we have to pay 4,000 – 5,000 for rent, which I cannot afford,” Mani said. 

“The situation has worsened over the years,” Vishvaja Sambath, environmental health researcher, said. According to the environmental clearance, there should not be any leakages from the ash pipelines, or the water bodies should not be contaminated, which is not true for Seppakkam, she added. 

Sambath said that the health of children and women are worse affected. 

People have complained of joint pains, backache; women have complained of postpartum depression, etc., she added. 

Women or girls completing their 10th standard is a big task as schools are far away, and there are safety and transport issues as girls have to travel for five-six km alone.

Many ministers have voiced their opinion against this issue however, nothing has been done. 

According to Sambath, inaction from the government is because the “vote bank in Seppakam is really low”. 

“Relocation is the major demand of the residents of Seppakkam,” Sambath said. 

The destruction has been made, and it cannot be fixed, but the pollution can be stopped. However, it is still hazardous and poisonous. “People’s demands are important,” she added. 

The relocation plan and execution should be done in collaboration with the people. “The top-down approach will not work out.” 

During a health camp in 2019, many cases of severe lung diseases, mental health issues, and few children, below the age of five, with a congenital deformity were reported, Sambath said. 

Dr B.C. Archana Kalyani I.F.S. was unavailable for comment. Advocate M. Mayakrishnan, who has filed a petition in the court on behalf of the residents, was also unavailable for comment. 

Mr Subbiah, forest range officer, said that National Green Tribunal (NGT) has formed an expert committee under the chairmanship of Santha Sheela Nair, retired IAS officer. NGT has given four months for field inspection and committee recommendations. 

He said that the government might soon hear from the committee and a desired action would be taken then.