On 9th of April, two barges carrying flyash from thermal power plants in West Bengal to Bangladesh capsized on the Hoogly river in West Bengal. One sunk in Kulpi and the other one in Kachuberia, Sagar Island, South 24-Parganas. Earlier, on 12th of March this year, another barge capsized near Uludanga, Maheshtala, South 24 Pargana. Last year on 22nd February a Fly ash Barge capsized in Gadakhali near Budge Budge. The increasing incident of accidents involving barges carrying flyash is a cause of concern given the fact that the transport takes place through the Sundarbans and through areas involving large number of fishing communities. Flyash is highly toxic substance and contains arsenic, chromium, lead, mercury and radioactive substances. According to studies, coal ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste. No Immediate action such as quick clean-up of oil, other spills was undertaken in any of the above instances. The shipping route to Bangladesh passes through the Sundarbans, almost bordering the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve which is also a World Heritage Site.
The Export of Flyash from India to Bangladesh
The export is flyash from India to Bangladesh is fairly recent as is an outcome of a trade agreement between the two countries. Though a Trade Agreement between the two countries was first signed in 2006 wherein the countries agreed to use the waterways as one of the medium for transportation of goods. It was in 2009, that the ‘Protocol on Inland Water Trade and Transit’ was signed by the two countries which allowed the use of existing ports of the respective countries for international trade. The countries also agreed on the river routes to facilitate the movement of cargo. The Protocol was renewed in 6th of June, 2015 and as per this Protocol there are 27 commodities that are allowed to be transported through the route- the first in the list is flyash. Inland Waterways Authority of India maintains a database of all the products transported through the Protocol on Inland Water Trade and Transit Route. After analysing the data it was found that in the year 2018, more than 27 lakh tons of Fly ash has been exported to Bangladesh. On an average 7476.18 tons of fly ash is transported to Bangladesh each day. The highest export can be seen during the period of March to August (Summer to Pre monsoon). In terms of export of commodities, flyash is the single largest export from India to Bangladesh amounting to nearly 97% of the total export.
Flyash is produced after coal is burnt. The major source of flyash is coal fired power plants. Under Indian regulations, Coal fired power plants are required to utilize 100% of their flyash within the first four years of operation. However, the actual utilisation is around 60%. The excess quantity is usually left at the dumping site and to the nearest river and farmlands. Exporting flyash is a relatively new approach of dealing with flyash. The process of export of flyash involves loading the flyash into trucks with silos from the flyash ponds of the Coal fired power plants. These trucks with Silos carry the flyash to the dedicated ports- Kolkata, Budge and Haldia. The entire process of transporting and loading is extremely hazardous and exposes both the workers and people in the surrounding areas to severe health impacts.
One of the possible reasons for such frequent sinking of barges are that most of them seem to be old and overloaded. On any given day, it is possible to see significant number of ships and most seem to be in a precarious state. There seems to be no monitoring mechanism in place to ascertain as to whether the barges are safe for transporting such huge quantities of flyash through ecologically sensitive areas.
As with all accidents involving barges carrying flyash, no immediate action such as quick clean-up of oil, fly ash was undertaken by any authorities. Given the fact that the shipping route involves prime habitat of the Gangetic Dolphin as well as its proximity to Sundarban tiger reserve, there is an urgent need to review this large scale export of hazardous material through a highly eco-sensitive location. There is no record that an environmental impact assessment has been done to ascertain the environmental and social risk involved in transporting flyash through the Sundarbans. There is also no record to show that any community consultation has taken place with fishing communities to inform them about the nature of goods being transported and its likely impact. The recurring incidences of ships capsizing on the Hoogly requires an immediate review of the policy of allowing the export of flyash to Bangladesh using such a sensitive route
(Subhrajit Goswami is with the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE). firstname.lastname@example.org)