The interruption of the international cricket match in New Delhi between India and Sri Lanka by toxic smog has graphically demonstrated how little effort the Indian Government has put into curbing the country’s toxic air pollution problem.
Images of Sri Lankan cricketers wearing face masks and another of a fast bowler doubled over vomiting garnered international media attention.
“There were oxygen cylinders in the change room. It’s not normal for players to suffer in that way while playing the game,” said Nic Pothas, Sri Lanka’s coach.
The Hindustan Times estimated players were exposed fine particle air pollution levels (adjusted for their level of exertion) equivalent to 24 times the recommended World Health Organisation level.
It is not the first time New Delhi’s air pollution has affected a game of professional cricket in India’s national capital.
Back in May this year Harbhajan Singh, the former captain of Indian Premier League team the Mumbai Indians, posted to Instagram complaining about pollution after the conclusion of a match against the Delhi Daredevils.
“Delhi Pollution smog it was almost impossible to breath last night in the ground all players were suffering with bad throat after the game #almost choked,” he wrote.
On Twitter he pointed out that not only was it uncomfortable for players but it affected the fans too. “This should not be neglected and measures should be taken to reduce it in the future,” he wrote.
The coal elephant in the room
New Delhi’s air pollution problem is not new but, to date, has largely generated half-hearted policy responses: blaming farmers in surrounding regions for burning agricultural waste; the adoption of restrictions on car use during peak pollution events; and curbs on fireworks and the burning of trash.
While all of these are factors, a recent analysis of India’s air pollution indicated that the growth in year-round emissions has been driven by the industrial sector with power plants a significant contributor.
The old coal plants in New Delhi, such as NTPC’s 705 megawatt (MW) Badarpur power plant and the recently closed 135 MW Rajghat plant, have long been a source of controversy over their extreme pollution.
The Badarpur plant — rated by the Centre for Science and the Environment as the most polluting plant in India — keeps on stumbling on.
However, according to the most recent data from the Central Electricity Authority, the 44-year old plant ran at less than one-third of its rated capacity in October. (Data for November is not yet available).
As public alarm at air pollution has grown, state and national politicians are now grudgingly conceding that coal plants are part of the problem.
After Sri Lanka’s cricket players took to the field with face masks, a panel appointed by Prime Minister Modi acknowledged that addressing New Delhi’s air pollution may require the closure of coal plants within a 100 kilometre radius.
What is not yet clear is whether the mooted closures are just temporary measures when extreme conditions are expected, or are a more permanent measure.
New Delhi’s air pollution crisis also puts the spotlight on the Modi Government’s failure to require coal plants to comply with coal plant pollution standards.
In late 2015 new pollution standards for coal plants were finalised after years of discussion. The new standards imposed limits on sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides as well as mercury emissions. They also imposed limits on fine particle pollution emissions.
At the time it was thought that a staggered start date would give power plant developers and operators sufficient time to comply with the new standards.
New plants commissioned after January 2017 were expected to meet the tougher new standards while existing plants were given until December 7, 2017.
However, the new standards were greeted with disdain by the power industry.
According to an analysis by the Central Pollution Control Board, none of the sixteen new coal plants commissioned in the first half of 2017 complied with the strictest new air pollution regulations.
The only standards the new plants complied with are those for particulate emissions, the cheapest measure to accommodate.
The story was even worse for existing plants, with power companies all but ignoring the new standards. A survey by the Centre for Science and Environment found that, with the December 2017 deadline nearly upon them, most power generators had not even begun planning for modifying their plants.
The Ministry of Power, too, was well aware of the problem, informing the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change in June this year that 89 per cent of India’s 165,900 MW of coal plant capacity was not in compliance with the sulphur dioxide (SO2) emission limits adopted in 2015.
Having failed to win the argument when the standards were set, all the old excuses were being trotted out again. Some claimed it would take as long as seven years to add flue gas desulphurisation (FGD) units at their plants. The operators of 19,900 MW of plants even claimed they either do not have the space or just were not interested in installing FGD units.
In short, many operators had decided the regulatory standards were optional rather than mandatory.
Enforcement, what enforcement?
Faced with defiance of the new standards, India’s regulators faced the options of insisting on the enforcement of the new standards or bowing to the power of the coal lobby and allowing years more of extreme pollution.
So far, India’s regulators have chosen the latter path.
Despite the recent extreme air pollution crisis in New Delhi and across northern India, the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) proposed a five-year extension to the December 2017 deadline to allow coal plants to comply with the new pollution standards.
The only issue the regulators and the power industry were haggling about was who should cover the costs of the plant upgrades.
The power generators wanted taxpayers to pay for the new pollution controls while the CEA were arguing the costs should be recovered from electricity consumers through increased tariffs, even where Power Purchase Agreements had been entered into.
Environmental groups doubt that even new a new deadline for compliance will mean much unless there are significant penalties for non-compliance and regulators with an appetite for enforcement.
While the regulators and the power industry haggle over timing and costs, the courts may have a say in the matter too.
Environmental activist Sunil Dahiya has launched legal action in the National Green Tribunal, India’s national environmental court, seeking the enforcement of the Ministry of Environment and Forests 2015 pollution standards.
Last week the tribunal demanded the Central Pollution Control Board provide evidence at a December 7 hearing on just how many operating coal power plants currently comply with the new air pollution and water consumption standards. “Show us one plant where compliance has been done,” the tribunal insisted.
The outcome of the case may be too late to be of any benefit to Sri Lanka’s touring cricket team, but the speedy enforcement of the new standards will be of immense benefit to the hundreds of millions of Indian citizens who live downwind from polluting coal plants.
Bob Burton is the Editor of CoalWire, a weekly bulletin on global coal industry developments. (You can sign up for it here.) Bob’s Twitter feed is @BobBurtonoz.