India's power ministry has asked for coal-fired power plants around New Delhi, the capital city with the worst air quality in the world, to be given more time to install equipment to reduce emissions, after the year-end deadline for action passed.
A government official, who requested anonymity told Reuters on Friday the power ministry had sent its recommendation to the environment ministry, which is in charge of enforcing the emission standards, for the power plants to be given new deadlines starting July 2020 and ending December 2021.
The utilities have cited costs and technical difficulties for missing earlier deadlines, at the end of 2017 and then the end of 2019.
Ultimately, the environment ministry and its federal pollution regulator could shut plants that continue to flout the rules, but such drastic action would appear highly unlikely, observers say, because of the public backlash to power shortages and the economic cost.
India had a phased plan for plants to comply with emission norms with some plants given until end-December 2019, while others had till the end of 2022.
The required changes involve some 440 coal-fired units, with a combined capacity of 166.5 gigawatts (GW).
Private industry estimates and a Reuters analysis in November had found that more than half of India's coal-fired power plants ordered to retrofit equipment to reduce emissions of gases causing lung disease were set to miss their deadlines.
Activists say the relaxing the deadline without imposing penalties will retard efforts to improve the capital's air quality, which was the worst on record during recent months, exacerbated by farmers in surrounding states burning crop stubble.
"It is highly disrespectful of the law for them to come back with another extension when most power plants have not even provided contracts for the equipment for reducing pollution," said Nandikesh Sivalingam, director at Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air.
NTPC and Adani Power, two of the biggest electricity generators in the country, have asked for their deadlines to be extended, Reuters reported this week.
Last month, Reuters reported, NTPC had rejected buying foreign technology to cut emissions of gases causing smog and acid rain.
Just one out of 11 utilities that had been bound to install the new equipment by the end of last year met the deadline, but they have all continued to operate regardless of the threat of being shut down.
A top executive from one of the power plants that had missed the deadline said the utility had received "oral communication" from the regulator to continue operations.
Power plants around New Delhi are operated by state-run NTPC Ltd, Vedanta Ltd, Larsen & Toubro Ltd and state government-owned power generators.
Reuters did not receive any immediate response after seeking comment from a top official at the federal pollution regulator, and a spokesman for the environment ministry.