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This is a story of justice denied.
On February 13, 1996, the Supreme Court, the highest seat of justice in the country, ruled that five units of a particular company, producing toxic chemicals in Bichhri village in Rajasthan's Udaipur district, be shut down. In reality, the main errant units had already been closed for the last five years...people's protests and NGO action had forced them to scoot. But not before they had completely poisoned the aquifer. Today, there is no drinking water from natural sources for either the humans or the animals of Bichhri. Agriculture has touched rock bottom. Every monsoon, rainwater rushes over the sludge, and more toxic chemicals seep into the aquifer. The water has become carcinogenic. The villagers had been waiting for the last seven years for compensation. But none is coming forth...the Court has told them that they will have to file writs once again in local courts. There is confusion. There is also anger. And there seems to be no one, anywhere, to turn to. Meanwhile, the same company has shifted base and is merrily doing an encore in Vapi, Gujarat, arrogantly confident that no one can touch it
THE Supreme Court (SC) judgement has made our village famous, a primary school headmaster tells a small group gathered around him in a temple courtyard in Bichhri. He is referring to the February 13, 1996 judgement in the court of Justices B P Jeevan Reddy and B N Kirpal, ordering the seizure of five "rogue industries" owned by O P Agarwal, whose H-acid units were responsible for polluting the aquifer around the village.
But the mastersaab's audience, comprising of Bichhri's menfolk, look unimpressed. The verdict has little in it for them. A shocking degree of damage has already been done. The villagers have suffered heavy losses in their livelihood, which have decimated both agriculture and livestock, over the last seven years. A village which, previously, had excess grain to export locally has been driven to depend on fair-price shops.
The sc order - at least for the moment - changes nothing for the villagers. The water in their wells is still the colour of black coffee, their dependence on an erratic Supply of water from tankers, sent by the nearby unit of Hindustan Zinc Limited, and the even more erratic and stingy monsoon, will have to continue. The tankers, too, come as the result of a private effort, and not at the instance of either the state government or the sc. The sc is silent in this regard.
Clean my wells, clean my land, and compensate me for the trouble I have been through all these years, says Bhairu Lal Dhangi, who owns one ha of land in the village. Bhairu is very clear about what is owed him for his travails. Land which earlier yielded up to10 bags of rice per bigha (an Indian unit of measurement, which varies from 1.5 per acre to 3.7 per acre), now gives only about two bags. With only the monsoon to depend on, the largely agricultural community of Bichhri can now grow just one crop annually. During a good monsoon, they get water from the nearby Udaisagar canal. But in the parched years, they desperately try to save their crops by irrigating the fields with contaminated water. They can no longer grow vegetables or even fodder crops, and raise only wheat and maize. But these crops too are stunted in the fields around Silver Chemicals, the unit primarily responsible for the damage, and its adjoining units - all property of O P Agarwal.
Advocate M C Mehta, who had originally filed the writ in the Bichhri case in 1989, feels that this is a landmark judgement, but admits that exemplary damages should have been awarded to the people of Bichhri, and that the Rajasthan government and the ministry of environment and forests (MEF) shouldalso have been held guilty for allowing the polluting industries to come up in the first place. Mehta, processing another application, is asking the Court to at least award interim relief to the villagers.
Meanwhile, polluter O P Agarwal seems to have got away lightly. He has long since relocated his H-acid-producing units in Vapi. His headquarters are in Bombay, and what remains of his property in Bichhri does not seem to be worth much. No assessment has been done so far, though the sc has ordered the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to attach his property and utilise the money recovered from it to carry out "remedial measures to restore the soil". The seizure of the Bichhri units is unlikely to affect Agarwal very much, and he has pleaded bankruptcy to wriggle out of having to pay even the Rs 50,000awarded by the Court to Mehta. Interestingly, Agarwal still owns two registered companies and by the admission of his own manager, has invested Rs three crore for the H-acid unit in Vapil (see box: And quiet flows the poison).
The order for carrying out measures for the cleaning up of the aquifer is not likely to amount to much either, as the extent to which this will be technically possible is questionable. CPCB chairperson D K Biswas says the water can be treated, but other scientists have 'expressed serious doubts about this (see box : No reprieve for Bichhri).
The story of Bichhri goes back to 1987, when O P Agarwal bought or illegally acquired several hectares of land which were traditionally grazing grounds for the village cattle. The villagers' protests went unheard. Agarwal set up a chain of chemical factories on the land, situated upstream of Bichhri, on the eastern slopes of a series of hillocks which flank Udaisagar canal: Hindustan Agro Chemicals, Phosphates India, Rajasthan Multi Fertilisers, Silver Chemicals and Jyoti Chemicals. He flouted every law in the book from day one. Hindustan Agro Chemicals, for example, obtained ano-objection certificate (NOC) from the Rajasthan Pollution Control Board (RPCB) for the production of sulphuric acid and alumina sulphate but instead, it took to manufacturing oleurn and single super phosphate. Jyoti Chemicals applied for anNOC for producing ferric alum, but started producing H-acidinstead. Silver Chemicals (another unit producing H-acid),Phosphates India and Rajasthan Multi Fertilisers were opened without any sort of NOCs. The RPCB never took action against them, and neither has the sc questioned how the agency could let this happen.
The two H-acid units, Silver Chemicals and Jyoti Chemicals, ruined the groundwater from the only source for at least 400 agricultural families in drought-prone Bichhri. The highly acidic, dark tan effluent was either stored in unlined pits within the premises or released through an open drain running right through Bichhri village, and into the main Udaisagar canal. The stored effluent seeped down into the aquifer, and in just three or four months, caused enough damage to last till today.
A study published by the Centre for Science and Environment in May 1990 showed that the groundwater contours in the region sloped down from the Silver Chemicals site towards a river called Bherach. The effluent flowed down, polluting at least 90 wells en route. As the water in their wells turned red, the people of Bichhri launched an agitation within three or four months after the factories started production.
In late September 1988, the villagers wrote to the President, the Prime Minister, the chief minister and the RPCB. The district magistrate (DM) visited the plants and the affected villages in November 1988, and legal proceedings were initiated against the units under Section 133 of the Criminal Procedure Code (which relates to police action necessitated by a public complaint against a polluting industrial unit). But an order passed by the sub-divisional magistrate to clean up the wells and the canal went unheeded by Agarwal.
Thus started a- legal battle which was to drag on for years. Peaceful mass protests forced the Dm at one point of time to order the closure of the two polluting units. And now, the Court, in its belated wisdom has ordered them to shutdown! For five long years, the people had fought on, taking their case right up to the final authority, the one which they thought would alleviate their miseries. But nothing has come about.