There's something rotten...

Tuesday 30 April 1996

The factories in Bichhri started operating a few months before the monsoon set in, in 1988. But within a matter of months, nearly 40 ground- water wells as far as two km from the site of the H-acid factory had turned black. In early 1989, environmentalist Kishore Saint came to the Centre for Science and Environment asking for help. We requested environmental engineer G D Agarwal, who had by then left the Central Pollution Control Board, to visit the sit e and advise us. Agarwal came back absolutely shocked. "I have never seen such bad pollution of the groundwater system... and I have seen a lot of pollution," he said.

We all made a pilgrimage to the defiled site near Udaipur and were equally shocked. As Agarwal was then working as a consultant to the giant public sector firm, Hindustan Zinc, situated near Bichhri, he requested them to help Bichhri by supplying the village with a tanker of water everyday. The villagers had by now lost both drinking and irrigation water. Simultaneously, we asked lawyer M C Mehta to file a case in the Supreme Court.

In order to bolster the case with hard data, we also worked with teams of Roorkee University and the Aligarh Muslim University to survey the extent of pollution before and after the 1989 monsoon. The two surveys revealed that the groundwater pollution was slowly spreading down the valley which cradled Bichhri. But these studies also showed that it would be impossible to clean up the wells. Only nature, over the years, could slowly cure Bichhri. For this entire exercise to be undertaken by human beings, several sq km of polluted soil would have to be dug out and decontaminated, without polluting any other site, and then, huge amounts of groundwater would have had to be pumped out and treated, again without contaminating another site. It was a task that would take crores of rupees and yet, nobody would still be able to guarantee success.

Our research also revealed the total lack of the, Rajasthan government's regulatory capability. Our NGO contacts in the Netherlands, who investigated the issue for us, said that production of H-acid, an intermediate substance used to make black dyes, had been phased out by European multinationals some years ago because of the ban on dumping industrial wastes in the North Sea. They had found the wastes too difficult and expensive to treat.

With Europe phasing out production, several companies in India and China had started producing H-acid. Indian industrialists were calmly importing dirty production technology and putting the country's environment at stake, while our regulatory authorities - the pollution control board of Rajasthan - remained unconcerned. There was, of course, considerable talk in Rajasthan of money, rather than the environment having been the chief consideration in Bichhri.

For the hapless people of Bichhri, living off that poisoned land, there were now only three points of help possible:
Since the people had lost their irrigation water - continuing to use the polluted groundwater for irrigation, as some farmers were trying to do, would pollute even the top layers of the agricultural land and ultimately contaminate even the crops, apart from depressing crop yields - they needed to be compensated financially for the economic losses, together with exemplary damages levied on the polluter so that other industrialists would think twice before undertaking polluting activities.

The villagers immediately needed an alternate source of clean drinking water, as permanent as possible.

Finally, the groundwater had to be carefully monitored for chemical contaminants on a regular basis and the villagers constantly kept informed.

Because as long as the water remained black, nobody would drink it. But the real danger would come when, over the years, the groundwater would start losing its black colour. Villagers would then think that it is now okay to, drink, but the carcinogenic chemicals in that water could still remain in significantly high concentrations. It is at that time that a monitoring agency would have to educate people not to drink the water and request them to put in the extra labour needed to get it from an alternate source. After all, pulling water out of a well in your courtyard, as was the case in Bichhri, was far more convenient than walking a kilometre or two to a central point where the tanker would deliver water once a day. That dangerous situation appears to be emerging now, more than seven years after the factories closed, and needs a swift and careful response.

It is indeed most unfortunate that the Supreme Court judgement, which used particularly harsh words against some polluters, and rightly so, failed to address these three key points or addressed them inadequately. In fact, it is strange that despite judicial activism in the environmental field, which has greatly helped concerned citizens seek some redressal, despite the failure of the regulatory system, the courts in India have rarely, if ever, granted financial compensation to environmental Victims, or imposed exemplary fines - a strategy used by courts in many parts of the world, including the United States, to punish polluters. As a result, the Supreme Court judgement on Bichhri remains without any real substance for the affected, victims as far as their daily lives are concerned. And it is, for that same reason, unlikely to deter many industrial polluters either.

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