Movement Against Power Grid

Bhangar: ‘Nandigram’ in Reverse?

Nisha Biswas

People of the villages Khamarait, Machhi Bhanga, Tona, Gazipur etc. of Polerhat-2 Panchayet in Bhangar Assembly Constituency are very agitated. According to them, they are facing desperate situation due to the Government decision to set-up a Power Grid (440/220 KV) in that area. The Power Grid Corporation of India Limited (A Govt. of India Enterprise, PGCIL) is constructing the Rajarhat 400/220 KV, SF6 gas insulated Substation and associated 953 Km (480 Km passing through West Bengal) length of 400KV double circuit, 450MW Transmission lines, to transmit power between West Bengal and Purnia in Bihar costing Rs 1200 crore to evacuate power from NTPC power projects at Farraka in West Bengal and Kahalgoan in Bihar.

The Substation has been set up on forcibly acquired, nearly 16 Acres of highly fertile farmland at Khamarait, two years ago. Taking advantage of the innocence of villagers, they were informed that ‘a power house is to be constructed on the acquired land and also that the transmission lines will be passing along the road sides’. In early 2016 when the PGCIL began work of installation of transmission lines support structures (transmission towers) on their fields, without their permission, the villagers became suspicious. They started raising questions to the local Trinamool Congress (TMC) leaderships and to PGCIL authorities. Questions were raised on the use of extremely potent greenhouse gas SF6 (Sulphur Hexaflouride, SF6) and on the effect of electromagnetic field (EMF) that will be generated, once the transmission line becomes operative.

Sulphur hexafluoride, SF6, commonly known as SF6, is an inorganic, colorless, odorless, non-flammable, extremely potent greenhouse gas, with a global warming potential of 23,900 times that of carbon dioxide, is an excellent electrical insulator and is used in the electrical industry as a gaseous dielectric medium for high-voltage circuit breakers, switchgear, and other electrical equipment. More than 10,000 tons of SF6 are produced per year, most of which (over 8,000 tons) is used as a gaseous dielectric medium in the electrical industry. Other main uses of SF6 include an inert gas for the casting of magnesium, and as an inert filling for insulated glazing windows.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, SF6 is the most potent greenhouse gas that it has evaluated, with a global warming potential of 23,900 times that of CO2 when compared over a 100-year period. Measurements of SF6 show that its global average mixing ratio has increased by about 0.2 ppt (parts per trillion, 1 trillion = 1 lakh crore) per year to over 7 ppt. Sulfur hexafluoride is also extremely long-lived, is inert in the troposphere and stratosphere and has an estimated atmospheric lifetime of 800-3200 years. Average global SF6 concentrations increased by about seven percent per year during the 1980s and 1990s, mostly as the result of its use in the magnesium production industry, and by electrical utilities and electronics manufacturers. Given the small amounts of SF6 released compared to carbon dioxide, its overall contribution to global warming is estimated to be less than 0.2 percent in 2011, but that too is not insignificant considering its increasing uses and long life. In Europe, SF6 falls under the F-Gas (fluorinated greenhouse gas, that is required to be phased out) directive. Since 1 January 2006, SF6 is banned as a tracer gas and in all applications except high-voltage switchgear.

It was reported in 2013 that through a three-year efforts by the United States Department of Energy to identify and fix leaks at its laboratories such as the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, where the gas is used as a high voltage insulator, had been productive, cutting annual leaks by 35,000 pounds. This was done by comparing purchases with inventory, assuming the difference was leaked, then locating and fixing the leaks. In the laboratory set up, the anti-leak efforts though could reduce the leak only into half but was assumed to be a major achievement, equivalent to taking off 200,000 cars off the road for a year.

The most remarkable feature of this accomplishment is, realization of SF6 leaks a real problem. A few years ago, nobody suspected that such a leak problem even existed. The crusade against SF6, stemmed from an executive order early in President Obama's first term that directed federal agencies to calculate the amount of greenhouse gases their operations generated, and then to work to reduce the totals. Sadly, in India the authorities still do not recognize SF6 leaks a real problem. It was found that the gas leaks made up nearly one-seventh of the total 4.4 million tons of greenhouse gases—the equivalent of about 770,000 tons of carbon dioxide. And more than 90 percent of the leaks were of SF6. The Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, a center for nuclear fusion research, the lab with 100,000-volt cables, whose electricity powers equipment that heats plasma to temperatures hundreds of times hotter than the sun's core, and powers electromagnets that trap the heat in a so-called magnetic bottle, itself was losing 3,200 pounds of sulfur hexafluoride every year, the equivalent of nearly 39,000 tons of carbon dioxide. With the present efforts engineers are able to cut this emission to 920 pounds.

Sulfur hexafluoride or SF6 is a non-toxic gas, yet by displacing oxygen in the lungs, it also carries the risk of asphyxia if too much is inhaled. Being more dense than air, if a substantial quantity of gas is released it will settle in low-lying areas and present a significant risk of asphyxiation if the area is entered. This is particularly relevant to its use as an insulator in electrical equipment where workers may be in trenches or pits below equipment containing SF6. In the present case, where the Rajarhat power grid is installed, is the area where the major occupation of its residents is farm and fish agricultural and SF6 leaks, whatever minimal it is will adversely affect fish farming.

As with all gases, the density of SF6 affects the resonance frequencies of the vocal tract, thus changing drastically the vocal sound qualities, or timbre, of those who inhale it. It does not affect the vibrations of the vocal folds. The density of sulfur hexafluoride is relatively high at room temperature and pressure due to the gas's large molar mass. Unlike helium, which has a molar mass of about 4 grams/mol and gives the voice a childish and a "chipmunk like" quality, SF6 has a molar mass of about 146 g/mol, and the speed of sound through the gas is about 134 m/s at room temperature, giving the voice a "demonic" quality when SF6 is inhaled. For comparison, the molar mass of air, which is about 80% nitrogen and 20% oxygen, is approximately 30 g/mol which leads to a speed of sound of 343 m/s. Inhalation of SF6 causes a lowering of the timbre, or frequency of the formants, of the vocal tract, by contrast with inhalation of helium, which raises it. Sulfur hexafluoride also has an anesthetic potency slightly lower than nitrous oxide, used in surgery and dentistry for its anesthetic and analgesic effects.

It must also to be mentioned here that as the greenhouse effect of SF6 cannot be ignored, significant amount of research efforts are going on internationally in finding its replacement.

According to a notification of PGCIL of January 9, 2014 the transmission lines from Rajarhat substation will be passing over 80 villages of seven districts, namely South 24 Parganas, North 24 Parganas, Nadia, Hooghly, Burdwan, Murshidabad and Birbhum of West Bengal, before entering into Pakur district of the state of Jharkhand. The nine to twelve transmission lines coming out of the Rajarhat Grid will affect more than 30,000 lives only in South 24 Parganas. The land is fertile to the extent that crops are grown all-round the year. There are large number of coconut and tall trees. All kinds of vegetables are grown here. The villagers fear that a network of high voltage (400,000V) power lines will affect their lives, livelihood, ecology and environment. There is habitation within 100 feet of Power Grid substation.

Power lines carry high-voltage electric current from one place to another. When current flows through a wire, two fields are created around it: an electric field and a magnetic field. These are the two components of the electromagnetic field (EMF). The magnetic portion is the more dangerous because of its ability to penetrate the human body. The strength and extent of this magnetic field depends on three things: how much current is flowing, the voltage, and the configuration of the wires (i.e. how far apart the wires are from each other, and similar other factors). Since power lines may carry huge amounts of current, often at high voltages, substantial electromagnetic fields (EMF) are created. In the case of high-voltage transmission lines, the EMF can extend to about 300 meters. Power Line EMF is strongest directly underneath the power lines, and gradually fades away with increasing distance. Many have experienced electric shock while walking under or nearer to these lines with an umbrella overhead even on a clear day. The field is so high that if one places florescent tube under the current carrying high voltage wire, it lights itself without any electric connection. There are plenty of demonstrations of florescent lights glowing on, but the best is hundreds of florescent light installation under 400 KV line by Richard Box of Bristol University.

There has been concern over power line radiation and its effect on human health for at least 40 years. Living close to power lines has been shown to increase the risk of leukemia and other cancers since 1979, when convincing evidence was first published by Wertheimer and Leeper in the American Journal of Epidemiology. Since then, dozens of published papers have found links between living near power lines (and other electrical wiring configurations) and a range of health woes, including brain cancer, childhood and adult leukemia, Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS), Alzheimer's disease, breast cancer in women and men, miscarriage, birth defects and reproductive problems, decreased libido, fatigue, depression and suicide, blood diseases, hormonal imbalances, heart disease, neuro-degenerative diseases, sleeping disorders and many others.

To appreciate the sheer weight of this evidence, see the excellent list of published research papers compiled by Powerwatch UK which identifies over 300 papers relating to EMF from power lines and electricity sub-stations. Of these, more than 200 were able to find a link between this type of radiation and (mostly) harmful biological effects. It is extremely unlikely that all these studies were mistaken in their conclusions. But in some cases, subsequent studies which tried to replicate the original results have failed to confirm the effect. Therefore, though the evidence cannot be considered to be 100% conclusive for any of the diseases mentioned, but must be taken seriously.

Environmental agencies, health organizations and power-industry spokesmen generally stress the weaknesses of the evidence, inconsistencies in the data, and lack of conclusive proof. Government organizations (which fund many of the studies) may not wish to promote the view that power line EMF can cause disease. People would ask "why have you allowed this health hazard?" The same applies to the power distribution industry.

Research studies can be structured so as to demonstrate whatever conclusions their sponsors would like to promote.

Big money, from government and industry, could be backing the (minority of) research which fails to find health effects from power line radiation. These large and powerful organizations greatly influence public (and even scientific) opinion.

Therefore, the evidence for EMF health effects will likely remain inconclusive, and may never be sufficient to prove unequivocally that long-term exposure to low-level, low-frequency EMF actually causes disease.

Increase in demand for electricity, sees a growth in number of electric transmission lines which cross the countryside. Lengthy segments of these power lines pass directly through productive agricultural land. The crop producers whose fields are traversed by overhead transmission lines are affected in two ways,
(i)   Power line support structure is a physical obstruction that impedes machinery field operations and precludes a certain area from being cropped (pole effect), which results in time loss, and thereby financial loss, due to increased labour and machinery time (required to work around support structure) throughout the cropping season;
(ii)  Area loss—a support structure precludes certain area directly beneath the structure (350 sqm to 750sqm) from being planted or harvested, resulting in decrease in crop production; and
(iii) Yield loss due to Wire effect—depressed or reduced yield in the vicinity of power lines mainly due to crop stress caused by electromagnetic field beneath the transmission lines.

Apart from the above, the support structure is usually laid on raised platforms, so as in case of heavy rain, the structures do not submerge or damaged. These raised platforms disrupt the draining system of the field, and it is generally seen that after rains such fields take longer time in drying and disrupting the next cropping cycle.

Moreover, because of corona the tall trees like coconut palm, areca nut palm, date palm etc., get burnt to the extent that the coconut water dries up and the kernel gets burnt and becomes black and useless because of electric discharge. Many times one sees the tips of the leaves of the tree blackened, putting trees under chlorophyll stress. The darkening of the ears of maize crop is also noticed. The EMF generated by LFHV transmission lines exerts a stress on crop growing under and in the vicinity of transmission lines leading to loss in production and hence economic loss.

The apathy of the government towards the farmers above whose land the transmission lines are passing can be seen by the fact that no clearance from environment ministry is required whereas the same is required if the lines pass forest area under the Forest Conservation Act. Once a transmission line is laid, the farmer has to forfeit most of his rights over his land, crop and plantation. In the name of preventing damages due to 'flash overs', maintenances, of line the power line installing company has unfettered rights of cutting the tall trees, entering into the fields and thereby damaging standing crops, year after year.

Also, the transmission-line support structures and lines are laid near and within the ponds, where the farmers cultivate fish. The support structure within or near to the pond changes its ecology and make them unfit for fish cultivation. Then the generated EMF overhead, changes the growth and breeding pattern of fishes, for which farmers suffer substantial losses. For installation of support structure, the ponds, fish embankments (bheries) have to be dried and the machine and human activity that will go on in installation of towers will grievously damage the soil bed, swamp and under-bed micro-organisms, making them unfit for fish cultivation. Like on cows, electro-magnetic field, affects the magnetic alignment ability of Fish and disrupts their movement. And then, there are certain fishes, who refuse to move in high EMF.

Not falling in line, to intimidate, PGCIL took help of administration and police, 6 persons (including 3 women) were arrested on 3rd November 2016 and prisoned for 20 days. Among them there was one Noorjahan, who was accompanying her small son to local primary school. All this has not worked in favour of PGCIL, and has made people suspicious of the activities of PGCIL. A movement is developed against the acquisition of 16 acres of farmland and putting up of transmission lines. The villages of Khamarait, Machhi Bhanga, Tona and Gazipur in the Bhangar II block have been on the boil in the last few months. A committee named Jomi, Jibika, Poribesh O Bastutantra Raksha Committee—has been formed to lead the protest.

People have been getting organized under the banner of Jomi, Jibika, Poribesh O Bastutantra Raksha Committee, against the power grid and administration. They have come out on the streets in protest. They have submitted a memorandum to the SDO recording their opposition to the operation of the power grid in the midst of fertile agricultural land. The PGCIL authorities promised to meet them and hear their grievances, but on the scheduled day, when the people of the area arrived at the PGCIL office, the officers had already locked up the office and left, afraid to meet the people. They have also filed complaints with local Kashipur PS, under whose jurisdiction the area is, against forcefully putting up towers against their will.

Where, life, livelihood is at stake, no Sec 144 can deter the resolute action of people. On December 28, a huge gathering of several thousand people took place at Machhibhanga. People coming in vehicles from Deganga, Beleghata, and other places, arrived on foot after being stopped by the police to express their resolve of not letting PGCIL and administration continue with its anti-people activities and deprive them of their life, livelihood, ecology and environment, even when the roads leading to the meeting were manned by police and the hired goons of the ruling Party.

Vol. 49, No.30, Jan 29 - Feb 4, 2017