DESPITE A CLEAR order by the National Commission of Scheduled Tribes (NCST) to defer public hearings, and a study by Indian Council of Medical Research that points to adverse impact of coal mining on health of tribals, the Chhattisgarh government and the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF & CC), facilitated the green clearance for a coal mine in Gare Palma area of Tamnar tehsil in Rajgarh district.
What has now irked tribals and village panchayats is that three coal blocks in Sector IV of Gare Palma and two from the adjacent Ghargoda tehsil, also in Rajgarh district, have been put up for auction despite government-sponsored studies clearly stating that the air and water in the region is polluted, and pointing to increased prevalence of respiratory diseases amongst villagers.
The ICMR health report is the first of its kind in the country, and was undertaken following an NCST order of April 4, 2018, that called for conducting “a detailed enquiry into the complaints with respect to deprivation of rights and safeguards to the Scheduled Tribes”. NCST, which had heard from residents of 17 villages, had also asked Chhattisgarh state government to defer the public hearing for Maharashtra State Power Generation Company Limited (MahaGenCo) to be held on April 17, 2018, till all studies were undertaken.
The NCST had intervened after villagers in the region approached the commission about the adverse social and ecological impact of mining in the region by MahaGenCo. While MahaGenCo holds the licence to mine coal in Gare Palma Sector II, a Gujarat state agency has obtained the licence for mining in Gare Palma Sector I.
Despite the NCST order, the public hearing was conducted on September 27, 2019. And despite the ICMR handing over the health report to MoEF & CC in February 2020, the Expert Appraisal Committee of the ministry noted in its September 28, 2020, meeting that the “ICMR’s health assessment and project of health of people living in Tamnar block was yet to completed.” MahaGenCo itself had submitted to the court that ICMR had handed over the health report to MoEF & CC in February 2020.
The study authored by National Institute of Research in Tribal Health for ICMR found that 42.7 per cent pre-school children were underweight. “Overall acute respiratory infection (20.9%) constituted the most common morbidity among children,” the report said, holding “nearby mining activities” responsible. The study was conducted in 2019-2020 on 5,233 individuals covering 984 households from 33 villages in Tamnar block. The study’s objective was to find out the morbidity, mortality and nutritional status of the population residing in Tamnar Block of Ramgarh District.
“During the survey held for a year from 2019-2020, we also observed high prevalence of acute respiratory infection (20.9%). This was much higher than the National Family Health Survey-4 Chhattisgarh report where it was only 2.2% in the last 2 weeks preceding the survey. The reason could be due to environmental pollution or poor air quality index. However, in-depth studies need to be done to rule out possible other causes of infections as any infection of the lung in early childhood may cause the development of COPD and bronchiectasis in later years of life,” the report said.
While the report recommended to strength in health infrastructure in the region along with looking at alcohol de-addiction, it also entailed provision for safe drinking water, that is water free from “Fluoride, arsenic of any geogenic contamination” as a recommendation especially in two villages Mudagaon and Saraitola. Bringing up rise of fungal infection and its correlation with Arsenic concentration in water, the report quoted a CSIR-NEERI report from 2018, stating, “the presence of alarmingly high levels of Arsenic in drinking water along with acidic pH of water in 14 villages of Tamnar block and the optimal pH for arsenic absorption is 5.0 were associated with the development of fungal infection among villagers.”
The NCST officials confirmed that a study of three reports focusing on the ecological conditions of the region was ordered in April 2018, focused on health assessment, ground water study and fly ash disposal in the region. State Pollution Control Boards officials couldn’t be reached. The Union MoEF & CC did not respond to the questions mailed to it citing lack of awareness of the said study. The scientist at the department working on Environmental Health, to whom the questions were directed by the ministry, said he was unaware about the study. “It was not related to their field,” he said.
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