Patancheru, one of India's worst toxic hotspots, is located only 30 kms from Hyderabad - the country's newest high tech destination.
Patancheru, in Medak district of Andhra Pradesh, has over 300 units that manufacture chemicals, pesticides and pharmaceuticals. Most of these industries were set up much before the Environment (Protection) Act of 1986 came into force. And although a common effluent treatment plant was set up in the late 1980s, this plant itself has become a major source of pollution, according to documents furnished in the ongoing legal battle between industries and action groups.
An October 2004 report - based on a health survey commissioned by Greenpeace and conducted by independent doctors and researchers - shows alarming results. The largest study conducted so far in the region, this health survey covered over 10,000 people in nine affected and four unaffected villages (used as control group for comparison). It has found that the incidence of diseases related to nervous, circulatory, respiratory, digestive and endocrine systems was one to four times higher in affected villages as compared to the control group. Many cases of congenital deformity and chromosomal abnormalities were also reported, in addition to 11 cases of different kinds of cancer. Skin disorders are also rampant. The researchers conducted tests as well as examined the medical records of people.
"Cheruvu" is the Telugu word for lake, and Patancheruvu (as it was originally called) means the city's lake. But the wave of industrialization that began in the late 1970s has changed the complexion of its once placid landscape. Lakes, streams, as well as the groundwater of Patancheru and surrounding areas are laced with toxic heavy metals and chemicals, as proved by several studies by government agencies and research institutions including the National Geophysical Research Laboratory and the state groundwater board.
"If a coin fell in the water, it could be seen. Now even a human being won't be visible," points out K Sattamma, a 65-year-old woman from Kistareddypet village, while comparing the water quality in the lakes and streams around her village today with earlier times. She says people could drink water from the wells, streams and lakes without any problem before the industries were set up. The crop yield was also good even though they used only cow dung as manure.
A study in 2002 conducted by a local physician, Dr A Kishan Rao, and scientists at the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology observed high levels of contaminants (copper, selenium, chromium and iron) in the blood, urine, hair and nail samples of exposed villagers. "Indiscriminate dumping of chemicals and toxins into the environment of Patancheru and surrounding villages has made life miserable for the people. Most of them are hapless villagers suffering silently for the past 20 years," says Rao. "Nearly 80 per cent of them are suffering from the multi-toxic syndrome. The medical fraternity has no answer - either to cure or to stop these toxins from entering into the wombs of mothers."
The fact is that the manufacturing units have not disclosed the nature of hazardous chemicals they are handling or storing, and the effluents they are discharging. This means that the local medical fraternity is not equipped to diagnose and treat problems caused by exposure to various toxic chemicals. "The community's right to know what chemicals they are exposed to has been violated drastically," says Bidhan Chandra Singh of Greenpeace India. "The most vulnerable section of the population, children, are being severely affected in terms of their health and development. In effect, they are being robbed of their future."
Medak district is a prime example of development that spells disaster. Considered a backward area, industries were given incentives and sops to set up their units here, without any plans on how they would handle the toxic waste.
As Veeraswamy Goud, a farmer of Pocharam village puts it, "It was Indira Gandhi's wish to make Patancheru an industrial area of Andhra Pradesh. The factories were started in 1978."
After Indira Gandhi chose Medak as her constituency (for the Lok Sabha elections), the then Congress party-led state government and the Ministry of Industry in Delhi put Medak on the fast track of industrial growth. Development was equated with industrial development. It did not mean development of agriculture, health services or education, as it is evident from the situation today. And it is ironical that the people of Patancheru are suffering from medical disorders and disease caused partly by large factories making life-saving drugs.
"Crops no longer grow here," says Goud. "The only crop that grows is rice; all other crops dry up because of the polluted ground water. This water smells a lot. The fruit trees too are drying up because of air pollutants like ash and mica. The trees no longer bear fruits and flowers."
The crisis in Patancheru has led to the socio-economic degradation of the people. "They have lost their source of income as their fields have become barren and their livestock have died. They are forced to work as laborers in the building industry in Hyderabad," says Dr Aparna Hegde from the Lok Manya Tilak Medical College, Mumbai. Hegde, one of the investigators in the Greenpeace study, says the people "have been squeezed from all sides. They are prey to chronic diseases, but they have no money to treat themselves. And yet they are forced to work as laborers to escape starvation."
An advisor associated with the Greenpeace report, Dr Thelma Narayan (from the Community Health Cell, Bangalore), says, "This is a gross denial of citizens right to life, which includes the right to health. It is important for state and central governments and the industry to act and provide compensation, treatment and rehabilitation as well as ensure strict enforcement of regulatory and safety measures."