Singrauli Crisis: Lost sense of Social Responsibility | Overview Under the stalwarts of Democracy What is coal ash? Why is it hazardous? Social responsibility: A ludicrous reality to the affluent Conclusion: Singrauli Crisis The Singrauli crisis has mandated our attention to the lost sense of social responsibility of the businessmen of our country. This article highlights the unfolding… Read More »

Singrauli Crisis: Lost sense of Social Responsibility | Overview

The Singrauli crisis has mandated our attention to the lost sense of social responsibility of the businessmen of our country. This article highlights the unfolding of events that took place recently in Madhya Pradesh.

Under the stalwarts of Democracy

Two villagers – a 35-year-old man and an eight-year-old boy, have died and four are missing after a breach in an artificial pond that stores toxic residue from a coal power plant run by Reliance Power in Madhya Pradesh’s Singrauli on April 11, 2020, evening. This is the third such incident of ash leak in the last one year in Singrauli, about 680 km from state capital Bhopal, which has 10 coal-based power plants.

A team of 30 members of the National Disaster Response Force or NDRF are involved in the search operation for other villagers.

“So far two bodies of an eight-year-old boy and a 35-year-old man have been recovered from the ash slurry, around seven km away towards the border with Uttar Pradesh. Four more persons including the boy’s sister, 9, his mother, and the 35-year-old man’s son are still missing.”

Two women injured in the incident are said to be stable at a nearby hospital. Photos and videos taken by the villagers on their mobile phones show a sea of sludge in the areas around the power plant and also what appears to be agricultural land.

In a statement, Reliance Power said: “The break in the ash dump yard wall pushed the water leading to a break in the boundary wall affecting some thatched houses and minor land parcel”. The company added that it is investigating the reasons underlying the incident. Power plant operations, which are not disrupting the relief work, continue, the company said.

This incident damaged crops and the environment as fly ash leaked from its power plant. A huge quantity of fly ash, bottom ash, toxic water, and industrial/solid waste entered into the agricultural lands, water bodies, wells, and houses of the people residing in the village. The industrial waste also damaged the existing crops, cattle, and affected the children and people residing nearby.

Due to the same, the water has become contaminated and agricultural fields have become infertile. Houses of the people residing near the industry have been damaged. The children were also trapped due to the sudden breach of ash dyke. The Singrauli crisis was not a one-day affair, its longevity has been persistent and deterring for the village as a whole.

What is coal ash?

Coal ash is the powdery substance that remains after burning coal. What remains after coal includes fly ash, bottom ash, and the so-called scrubber sludge. The sludge, which is created from solutions sprayed inside exhaust stacks to capture the harmful chemicals that cause acid rain, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide, falls to the bottom. It is flue gas loaded with heavy metals like arsenic, nickel, and manganese. All of those remnants are mixed with water and then sent to vast retaining ponds or impoundments near the coal-burning power plants.

Why is it hazardous?

The remnants of burned coal include arsenic, boron, lead, and mercury, which are known carcinogens and damage organs, among other health effects.

Indian regulations stipulate that coal plants should ensure the fly ash they generate is made available, free of cost, to the cement and concrete industries, so that it’s recycled instead of polluting the environment. But only 67 per cent of fly ash is utilized in this way across the country, according to the Central Electricity Authority’s latest annual report.

Fly as is observed to be enriched with various heavy metals. Fly ash in slurry form may be a major source of groundwater contamination into an unlined pond. As hydraulic water of ash slurry infiltrates through the soil, heavy metals dissolve and percolate under the soil and reach the groundwater.

Heavy metal concentration assessed in groundwater around ash pond was found to be exceeding the prescribed permissible values of WHO in almost all reports. This may cause significant health effects on the population that depends on groundwater for drinking purposes and also causes damages to crops and makes the agricultural land infertile. This is also very harmful to the environment.

Social responsibility: A ludicrous reality to the affluent

This incident is a reminder of the lost sense of social responsibility, a business entity owes to the local community where it conducts its business operations. Singrauli has previously suffered from similar incidents of fly ash-laden water seeping into the adjoining villages which caused direct harm to the villagers because of increased levels of mercury, which is a chemical associated with causing neurotoxicity.

The town has already been identified as a critically polluted area by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. One of the reasons for its dismal environmental record is because it has emerged as a hub of coal-based thermal power plants with incremental coal mining activities. The rapid growth in industrial activity has created an acute air and water pollution issue thus, paving the way for the Singrauli crisis.

This indicates a conflict between the fundamental human rights of those affected and the expanding role of businesses in a globalized economy. This tension is contextualized within international legal scholarship broadly as issues relating to ‘Business and Human Rights’. Here we can refer to ‘The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights’.

The Principles provide a focused approach emphasizing the three pillars namely: State responsibility to protect, the corporate responsibility to respect human rights and the provision of access to remedy in cases of corporate wrongdoings. These three pillars comprise the theoretical framework for holding corporations accountable for wrongdoings. Apart from its aspirational goal of corporate accountability, the text also envisages the goal of progressing towards a rights-compatible form of business activity.

The Principles apply to all states and to all business enterprises irrespective of their size, industry, place of business operations etc. However, one of the major criticisms is that the Guiding Principles are non-binding in nature.

The question remains: How can we avoid more such disasters? There is no one solution to this complex question. There need to be consistent efforts to raise awareness amongst different stakeholders including corporations, state, civil society organizations, and right holders regarding various modes of emerging corporate legal liability. The regulatory apparatus needs to be strengthened to ensure respect for human rights, especially for those, who are marginalized and vulnerable.

Conclusion: Singrauli Crisis

The right to access remedy is one of the pillars of the Guiding Principles which considers ‘effective judicial mechanisms to be at the core of ensuring access to remedy’. Our existing judicial mechanisms need to be strengthened through strict enforcement of domestic laws. This must be complemented with a broader understanding of remedy beyond the traditional ‘fine/compensation model’. The Singrauli crisis upholds the cause of fight to hold corporations accountable for their wrongdoings, and should not be limited to paying token compensation with continuing business as usual. Merely providing compensation does not imply acceptance of legal liability for the wrongs committed by the alleged corporations.

Singrauli Crisis: Lost sense of Social Responsibility| Contributed By Samriddhi Pandey



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Updated On 21 May 2020 11:11 PM GMT
Saumya Shah

Saumya Shah

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