Sunday, June 19, 2011

Industry at any cost

Maharashtra and Gujarat. The brightest jewels in India’s industrial crown. But impressive industrial growth figures fail to hide the grim realities of environmental pollution. While, the state governments are only bothered about industrial growth, the civil society is struggling to draw public attention to the impending danger to the environmental and public health.

Industrial survey statistics tell you that more than one-hird — 36.3 per cent — of the total value added by to the raw materials through manufacture in the factory sector of the country comes from Maharashtra (23.66 per cent) and Gujarat (12.64 per cent). Easily, the two most industrialised states of India. Governments of both the states claim they have created immense prosperity in the region. But statistics do not tell you the real story of thousands of workers and farmers. Aniruddha Mohanty is one of them.

Mohanty has been working in the Daru Khana shipbreaking yard of Chembur for the past 15 years. It is a life without any dignity due to a living being. Everyday for 8-10 hours he inhales toxic fumes from the abandoned ships that he breaks. The fear of explosion looms large. His best friend died last month in an explosion while breaking a ship. “In the past 15 years, I have got tuberculosis three times. The doctors say I have to quit this job and to shift to a cleaner place,” he says. He stays in Deonar, Maharashtra’s largest solid waste dumping ground. In violation of a Mumbai High Court order, prohibiting burning of wastes, wastes are still burnt in Deonar. For Aniruddha, clean air is an impossibility.

Drive down the Mumbai-Pune highway and you will witness the horrible truth of industrialisation. Hundreds of industrial units dealing with chemicals and fertilisers dump their sludge along the roadside. Chimneys emit gases that make breathing difficult. “Industrial units never stop polluting, and people cannot stop working for them. So, it is a treadmill that ends only with a painful death,” says Rajesh Panicker, an industrial worker of Panvel in Maharashtra.

A few hours of travelling northwards of Mumbai will take you to the Vapi Industrial Estate of southern Gujarat. At Kolak village, about 15 km away from the estate, you will get statistics of a very different kind. “Sixty people have died of cancer in the village in the past 10 years, while 20 others are fighting a losing battle,” says Ganpat B Tandel, former sarpanch (head) of the village council, who has been vehemently opposing pollution of the Kolak river by the industrial estate. Nearly 20 years ago, cancer cases were not so rampant. But factories of the estate, which produce pesticides, agrochemicals, organochlorines dyes and dye intermediates, have been dumping untreated effluents in the river. Most residents of the village are fisherfolk who eat fish from the river.

“The organochlorines and other persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in the industrial effluents are known carcinogens,” says Michael Mazgaonkar of the Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti (PSS), a Gujarat-based non-governmental organisation. Take the case of Deviben Tandel, who had cancer. On December 31, 1999, when thousands of people who use products manufactured at Vapi would have been celebrating new year’s eve, the 50-year-old resident of Kolak quietly died. Four months ago, her elder sister had died of cancer.

As per a Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) action plan for Vapi, factories cannot dump effluent in the rivulet Bhil Khadi but have to send it to a common effluent treatment plant (CETP). “But hundreds of industrial units do not treat their wastes as per the inlet parameters of the cetp, and are releasing untreated effluents into the Bhil Khadi. It ultimately meets and pollutes the Kolak river and the sea,” says a cpcb official.

Nainabhen Tandel, sarpanch of the village council, says: “On many occasions, we have caught tankers directly dumping effluents in the river.” The fish catch in the coastal areas has gone down considerably. Says K H Makrani, vice-president of the Daman Fishermen Association in Valsad district of Gujarat, “We don’t get fish catch in the seashore areas. So, only those fisherfolk who can afford to go as far as 12 km inside the sea are continuing in this business.”

There are innumerable stories like these that go unheard. Invariably, those worst hit by industrial pollution are either rural folk who are unaware of its effects or workers who earn their living from the polluting factories. But more than the polluting industrial units, the blame goes to regulatory agencies — state pollution control boards (SPCBs) and state industrial development corporations — that were created to control and monitor industrialisation. Instead, these agencies have been reduced to mere rubber stamps to promote industrialisation at a frenzied pace. The industrial system has been reduced to a state wherein it makes better business sense for industrialists to carelessly dump hazardous waste rather than set up mechanisms to deal with it.

So, what are the people doing to save themselves? Actually, not much right now. But, not too long ago, there was hope of battling out the pollution juggernaut through the courts and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Finding out that there was absolutely no point in knocking at the doors of government agencies — there is a clear bias in favour of the industry throughout the government machinery — those affected by pollution rallied behind ngos. A spate of public interest litigation (PIL) saw the polluters being dragged to court.

A victim of throat cancer at Kolak village (above); and dead fish of Kolak river washed ashore. Fish kills occur when Vapi factories discharge untreated effluent
But the lack of initiative on the part of the implementing agencies tired out the public spirit. In 1995, the Gujarat High Court ordered the closure of 756 industrial units in Vatva, Narol, Naroda, and Odhav, asking them to compensate the villages affected by pollution through discharge of untreated effluents. Many of these units are operating even today and are still polluting. “The failure of the court had an extremely damaging effect as even the last institution of democracy failed to check pollution in Gujarat,” laments Girish Patel, an advocate in the Gujarat High Court.

In Maharashtra, the problem is componded by the absence of credible data. “It is difficult to find any data on the environmental status. The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board does not come out with any study on pollution. So the people do not have strong baseline data to contest the powerful industry lobby,” says T N Mahadevan, a scientist who is also the secretary of Society for Clean Air, a Mumbai-based ngo. “Lack of information paralyses the battle against pollution.”

At present, it’s all quiet on the western front. And dirty.

Untreated effluents from Vatva factories blacken the Khari river near Lali village (above); and pink foamy effluents find their way to the Sabarmati river near Vatva

Industrial estates of Gujarat are cesspools of filth and environmental health hazards. Yet the government is blindly promoting industry

Gujarat has more than 90,000 industrial units, according to the state government. About 8,000 of these units are polluting, also says the state government. Major polluting industries are located in the Vadodara Petrochemical Complex, Nandesari, Ankleshwar, Vapi, Vatva and Hazira near Surat. The Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC) was managing 270 industrial estates as on March 1996, and its activity plan for the year 1998-99 included sanctioning of eight new ones. “About 70 per cent of the investment in Gujarat since the 1970s has been in the chemicals sector,” says R C Trivedi, former chairperson of the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB).

He says that in the 1970s, the state government was encouraging small-scale units in the chemicals sector through financial incentives. “These industrial units came up in huge numbers. But the government gave a very low priority to the environment. This is why environmental problems cropped up in Gujarat,” says Trivedi.

Nowhere more so than in the nearly 400-km stretch between Vapi in southern Gujarat and Vatva in northern Gujarat, called the golden corridor, an industrialist’s dream come true. This stretch has become a hot bed of pollution. “In the golden corridor, we have created a number of potential disasters similar to the Bhopal gas tragedy. The time-bomb is ticking very fast,” says Achyutbhai Yagnik, secretary of Setu, an Ahmedabad-based ngo. Another example of an environmental nightmare is Alang, the largest shipbreaking yard of the world, situated 50 km from Bhavnagar. The 11-km coastline of the yard has been severely polluted due to scrapping of hazardous ships.(see ‘Bare Facts’; Down To Earth, Vol 6, No 20; March 15, 1998).

Government response, or the lack of it
“We are suffering because of the lack of proper planning in the past. But it is now a futile exercise to blame anyone for that. The situation is in front of everybody. We have to come out of it,” says Suresh Mehta, industry minister of Gujarat. Optimistic words. But what is the state government doing to deal with the growing pollution problems? Well, it is trying its best to set up more industries.

The state government has planned the ‘Infrastructure Vision 2010’, which hardly lays any focus on environment. In a meeting organised by gec in Ahmedabad on October 29, 1999, K V Bhanujan, principal secretary of finance to the state government, had observed: “The ‘Vision 2010’ is a focused and comprehensive document on infrastructure. But environmental concerns in general or anticipated as a consequence of the implementations of the vision have not been even touched upon anywhere.”

Blackened rivers
Gujarat’s rivers are bearing the brunt of industrial pollution, as are the people living on the banks of these rivers. All the major rivers and streams of Gujarat are in a bad state due to effluent discharged by industry, be it the Kolak, the Mahi, the Daman Ganga or the Amlakhadi. One can see red water flowing in the Sabarmati, released by the common effluent treatment plant (CETP) in Vatva. Several times, drug factories in Vapi dump spoilt batches in the open. These contain chemicals that are highly toxic.

A tractor unloads hazardous industrial waste brought from the factories in Nandesari to the disposal facility
Take the case of the farmers from 11 villages between Lali and Navagam, who irrigate their fields with untreated effluents released into the Khari river. Nearly 100 tubewells and borewells have been contaminated. “When factories were prevented from dumping effluents in the Mini river, they resorted to reverse boring, pumping untreated effluents straight into underground aquifers,” says Sahabsinh Darbar, 73, a farmer from Sherkhi village in Vadodara district.

Children from villages near Nandesari learn their lessons in colour from the water they drink. In this particular case, the water is yellow. But mostly it is red
“We do not require any study to confirm that channels and rivers in Gujarat are polluted. You can see that from the colour of the water,” says Mayur Pandya, a noted lawyer who chaired a committee set up to investigate pollution of Khari river near Ahmedabad by the Gujarat High Court in 1995. So, what have the people done to prevent their land and rivers from being defiled?

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