Coal pollution kills Indians

 Photo: Meghdut Gorai/ BY-NC-ND

Air pollution from India’s coal power plants causes around 100,000 premature deaths every year – yet there are no national emission standards for key pollutants such as SO2 and NOx.

Whilst comprehensive studies of health impacts caused by air pollution from coal power plants have been made in the USA and parts of Europe, such data has so far been hard to come by in India. But a new study1 shows that coal is taking a heavy toll on human life across large parts of the country.

According to the authors, the report is the first attempt to provide policymakers with objective information on the morbidity and mortality caused by coal plants in India, and it presents a clarion call for action to avoid the deadly, and entirely avoidable, impact this pollution is having on India’s population.

The report found that in 2011–2012, emissions from 111 coal-fired power plants in India, representing a generation capacity of 121 gigawatts (GW), resulted in 80,000 to 115,000 premature deaths, more than 20 million asthma cases and 160 million restricted activity days every year.

The largest impact of these emissions is felt over the states of Delhi, Haryana, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, the Indo-Gangetic plain, and most of central-east India.

Using a conservative value of US$ 40,000 per life lost, the premature mortality estimates from the study result in an annual health cost of US$ 3.2 to 4.6 billion (160 to 230 billion rupees). The total annual monetised health damage was estimated to amount to US$ 6.2–7.5 billion.

These alarming figures demonstrate, according to the authors, an urgent need to implement long-overdue pollution control regulations for coal-fired power plants, including mandating flue gas desulphurisation and introducing emission standards for pollutants such as sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx).

India has the fifth largest electricity generation sector in the world, of which two-thirds comes from coal. Current plans envision deepening this reliance with 76 GW planned for the 12th Five-Year Plan (2012–2017) and 93 GW for the 13th Five-Year Plan (2017–2022). The majority of planned capacity additions are coal-based and according to government projections, coal’s share in the country’s electricity mix will remain largely constant.

Emission standards for power plants in India lag far behind those of China, Australia, the EU and the USA. For key pollutants like SO2, NOx and mercury, there are no prescribed emission standards in India.

The report stresses the need to bring the country’s emission standards on par with other world leaders, to deploy the most advanced pollution control technologies, implement cost-effective efficiency improvements, and increase the use of inherently cleaner sources of electricity. India also needs to update its procedures for environmental impact assessments for existing and newer plants to take into account the human health impacts from coal emissions. Measures are also needed to ensure that norms and standards are actually adhered to, with deterrents for non-compliance.

The report concludes that cleaning up the nation’s power sector by strengthening and finalising stringent emission standards, as well as by reducing mercury and other toxics would provide a host of benefits – prominent among them the longevity of millions of Indians – and would help propel the nation to a healthier and more sustainable energy future.

Christer Ågren

1 Coal Kills – An Assessment of Death and Disease caused by India’s Dirtiest Energy Source (March 2013). By Conservation Action Trust, and Greenpeace India. Available at:

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