Coal Dust Is Forcing Pregnant Women to Leave Their Hometown in India

Environmentalists are fighting pollution from a coal storage yard linked to severe health problems.
(Photo: Amit Dave/Reuters)
Dec 19, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Padma Nagappan is a multimedia journalist who writes about the environment, renewable energy, sustainability, agriculture, and biotechnology.

In the bustling small town of Mettur in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu, coal dust is everywhere. On bad days, plumes of black grit drift along pathways and linger in the air, covering furniture inside homes and coating the hands of children playing outdoors.

On good days, the dust is not as visible but the irritation is constant, causing itchy skin and scratchy throats, asthma, and upper respiratory infections, according to several studies.

“On bad days, you’re scared to send your children out,” said Shweta Narayan, a local environmental activist. “It’s not just health issues but also the stress from exposure to constant pollution and how their way of life has changed.”

Women worry constantly about keeping their homes clean and their families healthy. And pregnant women are warned by doctors to leave town for the duration of their pregnancy and not to return with their newborns. That is an ironic twist on the Indian tradition of sending a pregnant woman to her parents’ home for rest during her last trimester and recuperation from childbirth.

The culprit is coal, stored in an open in a rail yard just 100 feet from homes in the low- to middle-income community.

While Mettur is a small city, the former fishing and farming town is now an industrial center that is home to a dam that generates much of the hydroelectric power for the state, as well the site of chemical and aluminum factories and power plants.

The town’s railway station gave space in the rail yard for an aluminum refinery and a chemicals maker to store coal that they use for their own power plants.

The proximity of the coal yard is not an anomaly—across India, industries that use toxic chemicals frequently spring up next to low-income communities, flouting poorly enforced zoning laws.

“It’s a testament to the addiction to growth that we have,” Narayan said. “There are no zonings, no regulations; industries come up left, right and center near water bodies and communities.”

Coal-fired power plants supply about 70 percent of India’s electricity, and the power-hungry nation is also a huge importer of the fossil fuel.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to fast-track industrial growth and boost the economy. To do that, he first needs to ensure a reliable power supply, to which end he is working on privatizing the coal industry. His government is also trying to do away with India’s notorious red tape by rolling back environmental rules and safeguards.

Narayan works with a grassroots support program, Community Environmental Monitoring, run by a nonprofit group called Other Media. She and her colleagues focus on communities impacted by pollution and work with residents to document their experience.

She said her group is targeting Mettur because not enough attention is paid to how coal is stored and transported.

“The problem is very real,” she said. “Trucks load coal from the open storage and transport it about three miles to the industries. So communities near the coal yard breathe air contaminated by exceptionally high particulate matter, as well as heavy metals and chemicals.”

Why don’t residents leave? Aside from the ability to eke out a livelihood, they’re stuck because real estate does not appreciate much in the area, so it’s hard to sell or rent out property.

When residents seek medical help in the closest bigger towns, doctors can often identify them as being from Mettur based on their chronic symptoms, according to Narayan.

“But no doctor will stick their neck out and put it in writing, which would help workers go after workers’ compensation and government benefits, and seek action,” she said.

“We will continue to fight, that goes without saying,” she added. “And the communities whose survival is at stake will also continue to fight and, hopefully, win.”