Beginning this week, in a series of articles, M H Ahsan exposes corporate crimes against people. In the first part, he tells how a massive public health disaster is unraveling on the outskirts of Hyderabad two decades after a clutch of pharmaceutical companies dumped toxic waste into freshwater lakes and fertile agricultural land.
What would you say to a 75-year-old grandmother who wants to die because she can't live with the smell of the putrid wound bursting out of her breast? Mahmound Nissa's grandson, Syed Akbar, says doctors at the Triveni Madanlal hospital in Hyderabad have diagnosed it as breast cancer. Many years ago a small, itchy boil appeared on her breast. "We had 5 acres of paddy field. During harvest, the paddy would release an orange-colored dust. It would then itch all over the body. Later I found that my eyes and face would become red in the morning," says Nissa, as her cataract-ridden eyes desperately rolled, latching on to a sudden rush of memories.
Today, like her, the land she used to till lays waste. Pointing to her wound she said, "Yeh to shaitan ka namuna ban gaya (This has become the symbol of devil)". Staying in a mud tenement in Khazipally village on the outskirts of Hyderabad, Nissa's weekly medical bill is Rs 231. "We somehow put together the fund because if her wound is not washed every day and bandaged, it becomes painful and smelly," Akbar says. "Nobody can come anywhere near me, if I don't wash the wound," concurs Nissa.
Nissa is a victim of a corporate crime that has imperiled the lives of hundreds of villagers living around Hyderabad's six industrial estates, India's second largest bulk drugs and pharmaceutical manufacturing hub. The cocktail of poisons released by these industrial estates have wrung life out of fertile vegetable farms, killed fetuses in the womb and made children mentally retarded. Married women cannot conceive, pregnant women deliver stillborn children and hundreds of cattle die after drinking highly polluted waste water discharged from the industries. The villages surrounding the industrial estates have a high rate of infant mortality. "I have seen a blue baby, a blind child, a girl disabled by congenital anomalies, and a young lady losing 11 pregnancies and her capacity to have children. Eighty percent of the people here suffer from multi-toxics syndrome. The medical fraternity has no cure and can't stop these toxics from entering into the womb of mother," Dr Allani Kishan Rao of Patancheru Anti-Pollution Committee (PAPC).
Rao mobilized the villagers to campaign for immediate remediation of the chemical crisis in Patancheru. Having treated hundreds of patients suffering from toxic poisoning in his Yashodhara Hospital, Rao says, "Good corporate governance means using clean manufacturing technologies and here it simply means ensuring safe waste disposal and treatment of toxic effluents." However, far from caring for the communities around industrial estates, pharma companies in mint-fresh globalized India argue that nothing should hinder the country's ability to produce low-cost medicines and bulk drugs. "We are educating our people (companies) to be society-friendly. We have arrested future pollution and believe that nature will purify the environment over a period of time," says M. Narayana Reddy, senior vice-president of the Bulk Drug Manufacturers Association.
Vithal Reddy, an activist of the PAPC says, "Our future has been stolen by the most abominable corporate crime one can think of. For more than two decades the industries were allowed to dump toxic effluents into fresh water streams and lakes. Today all our sparkling lakes are poison ponds." Companies in this region dump toxic waste into the Nakkavagu stream, which flows into Manjira River, a major tributary of Godavari. Amid the granite terrain, the Nakkavagu, an age-old channel composed of clay, silt and sand is the lifeline of this region because water easily percolates down to the alluvial aquifer. A few decades ago this stream was clean enough to irrigate farmland. Toxic effluents discharged into the aquifer and surface water streams have destroyed 3,000 acres of fertile land when farmers used this water for irrigation. "Every year we plant crops and vegetables, but the borewell water is so toxic that it has made our 5-acre land heavy with chemicals. Nothing survives in this land," says Narsamma, a farmer.
The Nakkavagu today is highly contaminated and carry some of the most dangerous organic chemicals banned in most parts of the world like dieldrin and aldrin. Chemicals seeping through the Nakkavagu have made groundwater undrinkable because of a high level of contamination at a depth of 140 feet. This in turn is the source for a variety of debilitating diseases afflicting this region. According to a study conducted by the National Geophysical Research Institute, the morbidity rate in the area is a shocking 80 percent compared with the national average of 10 percent. The Supreme Court monitoring committee on hazardous wastes after a visit to Hyderabad in October, 2004, said in its report, "The destruction of underground aquifers on which ordinary villagers are dependent for their life and livelihood has not at all pinched the conscience of the state."
Nobody in the government seems worried about the unusually high mental retardation cases among children in villages around the industrial estates adjoining Hyderabad. Like Sankapally Kavita, a 13-year-old girl of Pocharam village. Her parents and neighbors aver that a few years after her birth she started showing signs of mental retardation. Villagers in Pocharam say their voices against toxic contamination of their bodies make no difference. But surely the government needs to know why, for instance, Chaikati Venkaiah, 22, a shepherd, is suffering from a debilitating nervous system disorder. "I used to wash buffaloes in the Nakkavagu and over many years chemicals got into my body. See what I have become, hollow from inside and unable to stand on my feet," says Venkaiah.
Anjamanni of Gandigudam village underwent 11 traumatic miscarriages by the time she was 25 years old. She still doesn't have a child. Women in village after village in this region complain about how their wombs just don't hold on to foetuses. Dr Rao says the government must institute an inquiry to find out how and why hundreds of women have lost child-bearing capacity because of dumping of toxic effluents. Twenty-year-old Padma Kadigala of Bhaythole village, who has already had two miscarriages, says life has drained out of her after she was told that she would be never be able to become a mother. She says doctors have told her that her uterus is weak and cannot hold a fetus. "In Bhaythole there are 22 such women. This is not a freak occurrence. Things have gone terribly wrong here and this is not the development model that the government should promote," says Dr Rao.
Hyderabad's polluting industrial estates will soon pose grave hazards to the freshwater reservoirs of the city. According to the Central Research Institute for Dry Land Agriculture, the Manjira River and Nizam Sagar, located in the northwest of the city, are in grave danger of contamination by pollutants from the Guddapotaram-Bolaram-Patancheru industrial axis, as they are located within 15km of the freshwater source. In fact, a report released last October, 'State of Community Health at Medak District' ' a collaborative effort of Greenpeace India, Lokmanya Tilak Medical College and Occupational Health and Safety Centre (Mumbai); Community Health Cell, St John's Medical College and nimhans (Bangalore) ' reveal that on the outskirts of Hyderabad clinically confirmed cancer is 11 times higher and the prevalence of heart diseases 16 times more. Only a full-scale medical and public health investigation carried out on a war footing will reveal the exact extent of the damage done by the corporate crimes.
The Island of Hop
The Chinese fishing nets are back on the picturesque river island of Eloor carved out by Periyar River as it gently glides and loops through a verdant land of swaying coconut trees and lilting paddy fields. VI Francis recreates an ancient tradition every day a little after dusk, like many others on this island near Kochi, when he mounts the platform jutting out into the river. He slowly lowers the huge net into the Periyar and prepares for the night vigil. He talks about a time when the Periyar was abundant in fish. A lunch of meen varuthatu and meen vattichathu (fried fish and fish curry) was only a catch away. "Many years ago these nets became redundant because all the fish in the river died, poisoned by the discharge of industrial wastes. This happened after our agricultural land and wells became contaminated. This year we discovered that there is hope in community action. New fish shoals have come into the river," says Francis.
The remarkable faith of the Eloor islanders in community action has come as a pleasant surprise to VJ Jose, who many years ago chucked his job as a salesman to begin a fight of a lifetime. "When my father bequeathed his land and house to me, he also gave me clean air and water. The Periyar flows along my house and I want to make sure that I bequeath the same to my children," he says. When Jose began his struggle, most people in Eloor treated him like an outcaste. Many of them worked in the Eloor industrial estate and were afraid of supporting Jose's cause. The threat of job loss prevented them from fighting the pollution caused by their places of work.
But today there are many local environment protection groups in Eloor such as Periyar Malineekarana Virudha Samiti (PMVS), Periyar Samrakshana Samiti (pss) and Merchem Malineekarana Virudha Samiti (MMVS) which keep a watch on pollution by factories. "Without these industries, many people will lose their jobs and small businesses will shut down. But if the environment gets polluted nobody will survive," says Babu, a restaurant owner. Jose, who was appointed by Greenpeace India as the country's first 'river keeper', characterizes this sentiment as "collective community consciousness" which has helped the 30,000-strong island community to "at least ensure 40 percent clean-up of the Periyar." This was unimaginable when the island was declared a 'Toxic Hotspot' by the Central Pollution Control Board (cpcb) in 1999 because of the unbridled pollution caused by the 247 factories of the estate, 106 of which released harmful chemicals.
Several industries, like the public sector behemoth, Hindustan Insecticide Limited (HIL), should have long been closed because they are still relying on obsolete technology. HIL manufactures pesticides such as ddt and Endosulfan. ddt has been banned by most countries in the world, but is still used in India to control malaria. The disastrous health impact of endosulfan on farmers in Kerala forced the high court to ban its sale and distribution in the state.
Yet, chemicals such as these continue to affect the environment and unabashedly suck hundreds of crores of taxpayers' money. The Supreme Court monitoring committee on hazardous wastes (SCMC) in its August 2004 report recognized this by slapping a fine of Rs 2.5 crores on the entire estate. This was premised on the 'polluter pays principle' so that the funds could be used "to monitor the health of the river and restore its ecology".
But the state government has pushed Eloor into a time warp from which it is unable to extricate itself. Neither has the fine been collected, nor has the government taken remedial measures. Fortunately, intense community action has ensured that during the last six months, illegal discharges of hazardous wastes into the Periyar, either in the form of solid waste or liquid effluents, have largely been under control.
Eloor is a grave hazard zone because there is no escape route in the eventuality of an industrial disaster. There is only one way to access Eloor ' that is by a bridge that connects this island to the 'mainland'. If ever there is a disaster, its 30,000 residents would be confronted with unimaginable danger. Last year in July when the endosulfan unit of HIL caught fire, the country could have faced a Bhopal redux. "We should hang our heads in shame for not having learnt from the worst industrial disaster the world has seen," says Purushan of PMVS. Environment activists warn that there could be significant long-term effects of the chemical pollutants released during the fire. "Our chemical analysis shows the presence of dioxins in the food chain," says Purushan. Dioxins and furans are chemicals that are life-threatening.
In 1999, Greenpeace India did a sampling study of Eloor and found 111 different chemicals in Kuzhikandum Thodu, a creek into which HIL, Merchem and other units discharge their effluents. Of these 111, there were as many as 39 persistent organic pollutants (POP). POPs are chemicals resistant to natural breakdown processes and are therefore long-living toxins. They build up in the fatty tissues of animals and humans, and might even cause severe health impacts like hormonal disruptions, loss of fertility and cancer.
Though factories in Eloor have regulated the discharge of effluents into the Periyar, the residents allege that the factories use the cover of darkness to release air pollutants and continue to store hazardous wastes within factory premises. They talk of nights when the stench of chemicals is so strong that breathing becomes difficult. No wonder many people living in the island suffer from respiratory diseases. Dr Mini George, the only doctor at the primary health centre, corroborates this. Though the industrial complexes have own hospitals, they are not accessible to the locals. She affirms that most of the cases she deals with are "either respiratory diseases or those caused by consumption of contaminated water".
MA Subramaniam, 53, complains of severe asthma and headache and attributes it to the heavy discharge of poisonous smoke from the factories. "My family lives on medicines," he says. KK Sasi, 45, an asthma patient, says that for the past eight years he has been using Asthalin to check asthma attacks. "I am panic-stricken if I ever step out of the house without Asthalin," he says.
Kunjappan, 60, whose house is near a polluted, orange-colored paddy field, is a victim of continuous exposure to Jarosite effluent of Binani Zinc Ltd. "I used to take cattle out for grazing, but now I can't even take a few steps because of the swelling on my legs," he says. Recognizing heavy pollution caused by this company, the SCMC directed the state government to ensure that "Binani Zinc supplies water through pipeline to the residences of all the affected communities in the vicinity of the unit".
The Eloor villagers also want the industries to compensate for the agricultural land destroyed by toxic effluents. "Apart from the fact that we don't have access to drinking water because of the contamination of our wells, our agricultural and horticultural resources have been completely destroyed," says Mohanan, a farmer. Given the grave threat to their lives and livelihoods, local environment activists and community members are collaborating to plan the future course of their movement to force industries to adopt clean production technologies. "Emboldened by the fact that the sc is backing our community's movement, we will ensure that there is zero discharge of effluents by the industries into Periyar," says Zakir Hussain of PMVS. Eloor is an example of how communities can contribute to safeguarding their environment. "Now our focus is on compensation and medical rehabilitation of the affected people. We will also force the industries to clean up all contaminated sites," says Jose.
Mercury rises in the Nilgiris
For almost two decades, Hindustan Lever Limited's thermometer factory in Kodaikanal functioned without alerting the employees or the people living in the region about the dangers mercury posed. But its fortune has run out. A Rs.1,000-crore lawsuit is on its way.
If you are planning a summer vacation at Kodaikanal, the Princess of Hills nestled in the Nilgiris, you should know that the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has found that the mercury level here is 1.32 mg per cubic meter, about 2,640 times higher than the normal level of 0.5-10 nanogram per cubic meter.
For nearly two decades, the Hindustan Lever Limited's (HLL) thermometer factory has been dumping mercury wastes down the hillside into the Pambar Shola forests. Mercury vapors escaping from the obsolete factory has had adverse effects on the lives of its more than 1,000 workers. The extent of contamination can be gauged from the fact that DAE discovered traces of the deadly metal on lichen samples from inside the forests, the region's precious water source. Slowly the years of rampant chemical pollution are taking a toll on the employees. Already 17 workers (average age 32) have died of mercury poisoning.
Many families living around the factory are grappling with serious health problems as a result of poisoning. Women have been affected the most because they would be at home and would continually be subjected to mercury vapors being forcefully blown out by the fans in the factory workplace. Kodaikanal has an alarmingly high number of renal diseases. "I lost both my kidneys because of mercury poisoning and had to replace it at the Madurai Kidney Centre," says Shanti Jaya Mary, 28. Her husband, John Kennedy, who worked in the factory for 18 years, is suffering from a host of ailments. Two of their three daughters have a severe thyroid problem while the other has growth deficiency.
"My family's health has already cost us Rs 9 lakh. We are in debt and the only earning member is my mother-in-law. HLL should give us compensation," she says.
Peter J. Sundarajan who used to work in the air-passing unit of the factory, where mercury vapors are present in high quantities, says his rib bones have become brittle. His gums bleed and he suffers from giddiness. These are again symptoms of mercury poisoning. Yanasundari used to work in the factory and says that mercury vapors would settle down on the clothes of workers. She has twice delivered stillborn babies.
Wherever Devraj Edward, 62, goes he carries a framed photograph of his son. Wilburt Brito was 23 when he died of kidney failure. He was a daily-wage worker at the factory, earning Rs 25 a day.
"He first complained of recurrent headaches. Then there was blood in his urine and he would feel nauseous. After Dr. Balaji at the government hospital diagnosed his illness we used to regularly take him to Madurai Kidney Hospital for dialysis. But the cost of a kidney transplant is approximately Rs 6 lakh and I did not have that kind of money. HLL killed my son and we will drag the company to court," says Edward.
The 1,000-plus workers of HLL's thermometer factory have formed the Ponds Hindustan Lever Limited Ex-Mercury Employees Welfare Association and are preparing for a legal battle to press for compensation, rehabilitation and remediation of the mercury-poisoned environment.
"We are preparing and planning to file a Rs 1,000-crore lawsuit against HLL," says S. Raja Mohamed, general secretary of the association. "We are also calling on the Indian government to prosecute HLL for the murder of at least 17 workers," says Navroz Mody, former toxics campaigner of Greenpeace India.
Mody and the activists of the Palani Hills Conservation Council came to know of the pollution by HLL when they discovered mercury wastes in a scrap yard in the busy Moonjigal market. The mercury scrap was weighed and found to be approximately 7.4 tonnes.
Soon the people of Kodaikanal mounted protests. Their efforts bore fruit in March 2001, when the company was forced to close down the thermometer factory. "We are fighting for our survival and we will fight to the last," says K. Gopalakrishnan of the workers welfare association.
The workers' association had planned to approach the court for compensation before HLL's annual general meeting scheduled to be held on June 24. "We have made a comprehensive database of 500-plus workers, including 105 women, and their severe health problems as one of the preparatory steps towards filing of the case," says Mohamed. But at the Hazardous Waste Monitoring Committee (HWMC) meeting held at the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board's (TNPCB) office on May 3, it was decided that TNPCB should recommend Indian Toxic Research Centre, Lucknow, to do a comprehensive epidemiological health survey of all affected workers and the local community.
"You can be sure that when we file our case it will be the strongest challenge ever mounted against a multinational company for failing to maintain the same safety and disclosure standards that they are required to in their home countries," says Gopalakrishnan.
HLL, the subsidiary of Unilever, manufactures '35 power brands' in India like Surf Excel, Pepsodent, Lux and Brooke Bond Red Label. In 1984, the year Bhopal gas disaster took place, a second-hand mercury factory owned by Cheseborough Ponds was relocated from Watertown, New York, to a site in Kodaikanal at an altitude of 2,000 meters. In 1997, HLL acquired Ponds India Ltd and the ownership of the factory changed hands.
Between 1984 and 2001, long after the plant's 'safe life' period had expired, 165 million thermometers were manufactured for export to countries around the world. But HLL never informed the community or workers about the dangers of exposure to mercury. From HLL's own records it is clear that by the time the factory closed down, approximately 20-30 tonnes of mercury were 'lost' during manufacturing processes. This was in addition to the mercury vapors released by the plant while in operation.
HLL claims much of the mercury waste recovered from the scrap yard (289 tonnes) has been shipped back to the US. But the fact remains that hundreds have been affected by mercury poisoning. John George, factory manager at Kodaikanal, says that HLL's position is clearly stated on Unilever's website. What can one make of a position that started with this line: "Our thermometer unit at Kodaikanal does not send any waste mercury or mercury contaminated waste outside the factory" and ended up admitting that the company had indeed shipped at a very conservative estimate 98 tonnes of mercury-contaminated glass to unsuspecting recycling agents all over south India.
HLL professes its commitment to exhibit "highest standards of corporate behavior" and "follow best practicable means for minimizing adverse environmental impact arising out of its operations". Incidentally, Senthil Kumar, one of the three laborers contracted by HLL's thermometer factory to remove mercury waste from the factory died seven months ago.
Grapes of Wrath
Farmers in Dodballapur district of Karnataka blame the industries for crop failures and resolve to confront the corporate crimes against the environment.
Appaiah, a progressive grape farmer of Basarahalli village has had a bitter experience with contaminated ground water. After he completed his education he came back to his village to farm. In 1997-98, he took a loan from the Government to set up his vineyard, a kilometer away from the industrial estate of Dodballapur. In order to secure a loan it is necessary for the borrower to get a certification from the state horticulture department that the soil is suitable for grape farming. A soil sample from his land was certified as suitable for grape cultivation by the horticultural department. For two years the grape yields delighted him and he was set to repay his loans.
However, in the third year he was devastated by the failure of his crop. Tragedy befell as his vineyard dried up and withered away. The grapes did not grow to their full size and the leaves on the vines dried up. Unable to comprehend his sudden loss of fortune he decided to take water and soil samples from his vineyard back to horticulture department. The laboratory tests at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore revealed that neither the soil nor the water was suitable for grape cultivation. The water in his bore well had been contaminated. "They said the water is not suitable for grapes. You can't use this water for grapes. You can try some other crop," said Appaiah.
Disheartened by this development Appaiah was forced to buy another plot of land a few kilometers away to install another bore well to direct water from there through a pipeline to his crop. Farmers like Sita Ram of Aradeshalli village in Dodballapur realized that their livelihood was being severely compromised by contaminated ground water. According to them companies like GOGO Exports belonging to the Goenka group and Brindavan Phosphates have endangered their livelihood. "These factories let out untreated effluents and this leads to contamination of the soil and ground water. Earlier they would nonchalantly dump the effluents onto to vacant land around the factories," said Ram. Once the toxic sludge is dumped it flows propelled by the natural slope of the land towards the Hesargatta Lake. It meets the lake in a village called Marsanda. Incidentally, Hesargatta Lake's water is used for drinking water supply in Bangalore city.
The effluents dumped in the vacant land around the industrial estate of Dodballapur trickles through the land charring the trees and vegetation along its flow. "The effluents are so toxic that even the Jalimara trees, which are sturdy and takes about 25 years to grow to their full size, have dried up," said Ram. The effluents flow through the land and into a storm water drain that is linked to the lake. This toxic effluent has affected the paddy fields and is slowly spreading all over cultivable land. "If this goes on unchecked then very soon the entire lake will be destroyed and poisoned," said Ram.
In the villages around Dodballapur, like Aradeshalli, there are umpteen instances of cattle poisoned to death by drinking contaminated water. "This is such a common occurrence that people don't even realize that their cattle is dying because of polluted water," said Ram. Dodballapur is primarily an agrarian district. At least 95% of its population is dependent on agriculture and rest comprise the work force engaged in industrial activity. The major concern in this region is the increasing pollution of ground water resources. "Our livelihood is at stake and we are very worried," is the constant refrain. The agriculturists and those engaged in dairy farming live under the threat of unchecked ground water contamination.
The manner in which industries flout environmental norms is staggering. Villages around Dodballapur industrial estate have to contend with depleting ground water. Savita, a sixth standard schoolgirl, Basunhalli village, said "water in our area is not potable because the factories are polluting it." Savita's mother fetches water for the family everyday from a bore well a kilometer away from their house. It is not only the dumping of effluents, but also the illegal drawing of ground water that is leading to water scarcity in Dodballapur.
In this region villagers complain about itching feet and legs. People had sores on their feet and legs. So do the cattle. In village after village around Dodballapur's industrial estate the same story is narrated with frightening similarity. In a village called Besavannagudi, just a few kilometers away from the industrial estate, the villagers use water from a community bore well installed by the village panchayat. This water is stored in brass, copper, steel vessels according to the local custom. But the vessels that store vessels corrode and the contaminants in the water cut through the metal creating tiny apertures. Such is the high toxic levels in the water that even pulses and vegetable don't cook properly in this water. The reality dawned slowly that the water is not fit for drinking. Now the village depends on a bore well half a kilometer away. During the monsoons, there are power cuts that last 2-3 days and the villagers have no option but to drink the contaminated water.
A cursory walk around the polluted sites reveals that Dodballapur's environment is being severely degraded. The villages around the industrial estate are left with degraded soil, contaminated water, and polluted air. The apathy of government agencies like the State Pollution Control Board has only made matters worse. The PCB has the mandate to be stringent about identifying and penalizing erring companies and polluting industries. However, officials of the PCB have turned a blind eye to the dumping of hazardous waste. Factories dump effluent concentrate on fertile cultivable land. The brazenness with which this effluent dumping is conducted is astounding. Truck-tankers pick up effluent concentrate released by factories and then illegally dumped on fertile agricultural land. Moreover, the tankers that dump the effluent are marked as 'Water Supply'. This is merely a cover for collecting effluents and dumping it illegally.
There is a strong local movement against water contamination. People in Dodballapur want the ground water contamination to be reversed completely. The compelling needs to protect their environment and preserve it for future generations have driven them to address their concerns firmly.
Fish exports from Cuddalore declines dramatically as chemical influx from industries into the environment increase.
Murthy, a fisherman from Sonanchawdi village in Cuddalore despairs over the chemical influx in the Uppanar River. "Our fishing activities have been grievously affected and the children in our community show signs of chemical poisoning. They complain of breathing disorders and nausea. The children are not growing properly and there are many who have stunted growth. It seems there is something wrong with their bones. A 14-year-old girl looks like she is 7 or 8. Many of our community members also complain of infertility."
But the most damaging impact has been on the fishing trade. "Even Germany is not buying our prawns any more because of the chemical contamination. The prawns that we catch can find no market and is thrown away. There's no bottom life in the riverbed any more, no algae, nothing for the fish to feed on. Earlier when we caught the fish they would be alive for 5 minutes, now they don't even survive for 30 seconds," says Murthy.
The fishermen say that during the rainy season the water level rises and washes away the contamination in the water and the silt in the river doesn't have many contaminants enabling survival of bottom life on the riverbed. At this time the prawn catch is good. Pollution has made fishing dependent on the rainy season.
Sukumar, a fisherman from Thaikalthunithorai village says that people have generally stopped eating fish in this region because there seems to be direct relation between consumption of toxic contaminants in the fish and health problems like headaches and blisters on the body. "We have a dug a 300 feet bore well to draw out drinking water. But this water can't be stored beyond a day because it begins to smell and we have also noticed that an oily film on the surface of stored water.
Vasanta from Eechankaadu village bemoaned the cancer of pollution that has destroyed the Uppanar River. "The chemical in the water corrodes kitchen utensils," she said. "The Uppanar was beautiful earlier. The children would go there, so would the cattle. Now it's filled with sludge. If you step in it you will instantly develop skin rashes."
Twenty years ago when SIPCOT industrial estate was set up in Cuddalore it was done without taking environmental degradation into account. Like most project planning in India planners of industrial estates ignored the heavy price that communities and the eventually the country pays when the sustainability of the ecology is not factored as the key element of any industrial development plan. "First they started building big companies. For the first few years we couldn't tell the difference but soon we realized that our lives would be changed forever by the pollution emanating from the industries," said Vasanta.
According to Nityanand Jayaram, a writer and environment activist who took an active part in training the villagers to monitor analyse and document environment pollution, "chemical odors are an indicator of gross pollution and that the release of toxic gases from industries represents a case of hazardous waste dumping into the atmosphere. Currently, no regulatory agency requires or monitors the air for toxic gases such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and sulphur compounds. Fed up with the degrading quality of their lives the villagers in Cuddalore helped by Jayaram and other activists resolved to make their habitats safe for future generations. The villagers in Cuddalore now go on regular pollution patrol exercises. They collect air samples and analyze them for pollutants. This grassroots movement has even attracted the attention of the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee.
SIPCOT Area Community Environmental Monitors are the first to have conducted a study on toxic gases in ambient air in India. The findings of the report confirm that residents in SIPCOT have been exposed to toxic gases for at least 20 years. The report's findings corroborate the persistent complaints by residents about pollution-related health effects and bear particular relevance to the health of women, children and the elderly who spend all their time within the polluted confines of the SIPCOT villages.
In fact, the SCMC has referred to the 'Gas Trouble' generated by the villagers of Cuddalore. The Committee also said that such studies ought to be carried out by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB). "The Board ought to seriously respect the 'data' provided in the complaints by human beings and the living sensors of human ears, throats and skin to industrial pollution," stated SCMC.
The TNPCB is yet to come out with authentic information regarding the nature and levels of toxic gases in the ambient air in the residential areas in and around SIPCOT. The 'Gas Trouble' report has indicated presence of 22 toxic chemicals that are harmful to eyes, respiratory system, central nervous system, skin, liver, heart, kidney etc. Some of these chemicals are even known to cause cancer. Air quality measurements conducted by village monitors at different locations have reportedly shown concentration of toxic gaseous compounds far in excess of standards permissible under the United States Environment Protection Agency (USEPA). For many of these compounds there is no Indian standard as yet.
The SCMC has set an ultimatum to the TNPCB that "If the air pollution around Cuddalore is not reversed within three months, from the date of this Report, that is, by December 31, 2004, the entire Cuddalore industrial estate shall go for closure and units will be allowed to reopen only if they meet the currently available standards (applicable in this case) laid down under the USEPA for volatile organic compounds or CPCB (central pollution control board) standards if made available during this period." However, the three-month deadline has gone by and in Cuddalore its business as usual.
A Monsoon of Chemicals
The recent floods have made the region around Gujarat's 400-km Golden Corridor of industrial estates dangerous to live in. Deadly effluents from thousands of industries are flowing into villages
Bhanu Patel, a farmer in Bharuch district, was simply stating a fact when he said "our crops stand in several feet of polluted water for days together when monsoon waters inundate our fields." This year too, as monsoon arrived, Patel's words have come true. Poisonous chemicals have flooded acres and acres of farmland as effluents from Gujarat's industrial estates have been washed out into the vast agricultural hinterland. Lakhs of farmers face the prospect of withered, poisoned crops.
Though flooding is almost an annual occurrence, the industries release toxic effluents during the monsoon. This practice is premised on the smug belief that the monsoon dilutes the toxicity of the effluents and renders them harmless.
For instance, the Ankleshwar industrial estate, situated along the Narmada estuary, floods every year during the monsoon but doesn't stop dumping toxic wastes. This industrial estate is Asia's largest and comprises approximately 3,000 individual units, half of them chemical plants manufacturing dyes, paints and fertilizers. There are 189 other industrial complexes in Gujarat. This industrial estate alone generates 270 million liters of effluents every day and 50,000 tonnes of solid waste a year.
Although the bigger factories have effluent treatment plants, many of the smaller units dump their waste into open ditches or into the Amlakhadi, a rivulet flowing through the estate. The polluted waters of the Amlakhadi spread far and wide, affecting thousands of acres of farmland. The effluents in Amlakhadi are known to damage crops and seep into underground aquifers along with rainwater.
The Nandesari industrial estate housing such giants as Gujarat Alkalies and Chemicals, Reliance's IPCL, Gujarat State Fertiliser Corporation and the Indian Oil refinery has been dumping effluents into the Mahi estuary. During floods the polluted river water is pushed almost 60 km into the hinterland, even contaminating wells from which villagers take water for drinking. Farmers in the area lament that the effluents from the factories are turning their fertile fields of cotton, sugarcane, maize, groundnuts, banana and lentil into wasteland.
The villagers in the region are paying a big price for the state government's decision to sacrifice hectares and hectares of fertile land to build a corridor of industrial estates from Vapi to Ahmedabad. There was a time when the Vadodara-Kheda area was known for its banana plantations. Bananas produced here were much sought after in Punjab. "This was fertile land and anything would grow, even mangoes. Now nothing grows," says an affluent organic farmer, Nilesh Ramanbhai Patel, of Dasarath village adjoining the Nandesari estate.
Miles away in Sarangpur village, yellow water gushes out from a deep bore well a few seconds after Ashok Vasava, a farm worker, switches on the pump. He squats on the wet earth and watches the contaminated water drawn from hundreds of feet below where he is hunkered down.
The hazards of industrial pollution are beginning to show in Gujarat's famed corridor of growth ' the chemical industry belt between Vapi, in the state's southernmost district Valsad, famous for its mangoes, guavas and chikoo, and Vadodara. The borewells and hand pumps in this heavily industrialized region spew out yellow, red and green-colored acidic water. "This is a clear indication of the enormous chemical contamination of the groundwater," says AP Suleiman, an official of the Gujarat Water Supply and Sewerage Board (GWSSB).
But Sarangpur villagers are fortunate. They don't have to drink the contaminated groundwater. Ahmad Patel, political secretary of Sonia Gandhi, hails from the nearby Piraman village. He has used his influence to make the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation to lay a Rs 2-crore water pipeline to supply drinking water to Piraman, Bhadkodara, Kosambhi, Dadhan and Sarangpur.
However, many other villages and towns are living in a permanent state of water crisis. The people there are dependent on chemically contaminated water despite the fact that more than 600 borewells have been sealed in this region.
"The groundwater of approximately 14 out of 19 districts and 74 out of 184 talukas of Gujarat, are critically affected by pollution," says Rohit Prajapati of the Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, Vadodara.
In response to the water crisis, the GWSSB has started a water supply scheme, Fajalpur Juth Yojna, for 42 villages surrounding the Vadodara petrochemical complex and the Nandesari industrial estate. In fact, the GWSSB, in a recent report, admits, "Even though the development of this industrial complex has helped the economic development of Gujarat, it has created adverse impact on the ecology of the surrounding villages. There is noticeable adverse effect on the environment particularly regarding drinking water."
The air and water contaminants have potentially exposed lakhs of people living in and around the golden corridor, a large number of them living without basic amenities such as water, sanitation and health-care facilities. Though a comprehensive health impact study is yet to be undertaken, skin ailments, respiratory diseases, and headaches are commonly reported. Cancer cases related to blood, urinary bladder, reproductive tracts, lungs, breasts and the digestive track have shown an increase. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHS) like benzene and chlorobenzenes, heavy metals like nickel and cadmium, and suspended particulate matter (SPM) in the environment are believed to be some of the principal causes. Neither the government nor voluntary organizations have done epidemiology studies. Therefore, no reliable data on the health impact of unbridled pollution in the golden corridor exists.
However, the most critical aspect of the golden corridor is the complete absence of a well-defined disaster management strategy. Recently, there has been a spate of industrial accidents that left many dead and injured. Most of the recent incidents have occurred in chemical plants, but the state government is yet to put in place a disaster management plan in the eventuality of a Bhopal-like emergency.
Considering the fact that the chemical plants in the golden corridor rely on tightly coupled operations whereby one industrial process affects another, rendering human intervention difficult if something goes wrong, it is all the more important for the state government to chart out a clear protocol to handle chemical disasters. A disaster management plan would also entail training of industrial workers on how to react in case of emergencies, supply of safety gear and regular maintenance of chemical plants.
The gross violation of the most important worker safety law in the country' 41 B of Factories Act, 1948 ' is the clearest indication of how Gujarat's golden corridor has become the country's most hazardous industrial zone. This law makes it mandatory for chemical industries to share information with the workers and the public at large on what is produced in the plant, how it is produced and the toxic effects of the chemicals that a plant produces. The law requires chemical industries to reveal their production processes to the workers and the community. But in the golden corridor, the industries hide the basic mandatory information from the workers and community in the name of secrecy.
Tanneries Pollute Vellore
The city famous for its super specialty hospital is now acquiring a newfound status of a toxic hot spot
The Ministry of Environment and Forests has for long upheld its belief that Common Effluent Treatments Plants (CETPs) are the solution to the illegal dumping of toxic effluents by industries across India. The Supreme Court Monitoring Committee (SCMC) on hazardous principally considers CETPs and secure land fills to dump hazardous wastes as the solution to illegal dumping of toxic effluents in rivers and arable land. However, even the SCMC suspects the efficacy of CETPs operating in the country. In its report on Tamil Nadu the SCMC sought prior information from the State Pollution Control Board relating to the number of CETPs that were in compliance of the environmental standards for discharge of liquid effluent. This was because the "data on CETPs supplied by the Board during the SCMC's visit was not adequate in terms of treatment system place, performance of the units and the characteristics of final treated effluent."
But Indian farmers who have had the misfortune of cultivating arable land in the vicinity of industries are aware that CETPs are not the panacea for polluting effluents. Kuppanga, a farmer, whose farm adjoins a CETP complex in Vellore, affirms the 'dead at birth' status of the CETP.
"The entire toxic waste goes into a pit inside the CETP compound. There it is sieved as it streams into a septic tank. But at this juncture the toxic sludge leaks out and contaminates the soil. The toxic waste has degraded the fertility of my land. Invariably only one in five crop does well. I told the officials of CETP that the inefficient handling of the toxic waste is the primary reason for the crop on my field drying up, but they just don't care."
In fact the CETP in Vellore was touted as the solution to all the effluent problems, but Kuppanga says that even the treated water is full of toxic chemicals. "When the 'treated water' is released by the CETP it gushes out and the chemicals are not visible to the naked eye. But the moment it dries up on the land you can see the white residues of the chemical." Farmers also complain of foul smell emanating from the 'treated water'. "We can't even walk through our fields. We can tell from experience that when we come into contact with the 'treated water' we get ulcerations on our skins and it stings like an insect bite," says Kuppanga.
The SCMC has expressed serious concern over the extremely hazardous wastes dumped by Tamilnadu Chromates and Chemicals in the open environment in violation of the hazardous waste rules. According to the SCMC "the Geological Survey of India has reported contamination of ground water up to a distance of 2.5 kms from the dumping site of the unit. Despite this finding the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board has carried out a survey of the people affected by such contamination of ground water and there is no accurate data available of affected facilities.
The other reason for the contamination of the ground water in Vellore is because the tanneries are dumping their effluents into city's lifeline'the Palar River. All the tanneries here from Vaniampadi to Ranipet dump their effluents into the river. The tannery industry in Vellore earlier worked on organic production processes. But with the introduction of modern production technologies the tanneries wilfully ignored the need to set up effluent treatment plants.
The high pollution level of the Palar is because the tanneries are completely dependent on the river for their fresh water used in the production processes. The Ranipet pumphouse is the place from where the tanneries source the fresh water. " They are paid 30 lakhs per year. They charge Rs 50 for 1 tanker truck, that is, ten thousand liters. Everyday hundreds of tankers transport fresh water to the tanneries and all the effluent is directed back to the riverbed," says Srinivasan. What has compounded the problem is the significant increase in the setting up of new tanneries and up scaling of leather production.
The Palar River bed is dry most of the year because it is a seasonal river. It stirs to life every year during the monsoon. When the river is devoid of water the riverbed is quarried for its 15 feet of sand. Palar is the primary source of drinking water for the residents of Vellore. But those who live in this city made famous by the super specialty hospital, Christian Medical College, say that the clear water of Palar has turned into blood red. A local environment group, Pasumai Thayagam, affirms that the red toxic water has destroyed sources of potable drinking water in various localities of Vellore like Ambur, Vaniampadi and Ranipet.
There have been instances when red toxic water has gushed out of newly dug bore wells. Srinivasan, an environment activist of Pasumai Thayagam, vents his desperation: "Where is the government? Where are the pollution control authorities? Why doesn't anyone come here to check and find ways to stop it?"