The public hearing for the proposed expansion of the Bhugaon pig iron plant in Wardha, owned by Uttam Galwa Metallics Limited, turned into a war over jobs and corporate sops. Environment issues took a back seat during the hearing on November 21. Residents of the area were very articulate about the water pollution caused by Galwa’s pig iron plant located in villages Barbadi and Bhugaon, and the diseases caused by it. Surprisingly however, all statements ended in pleas for more jobs to local youth.
The pig iron plant, which started operating in 2010, was stiffly opposed at the time it was proposed by Gandhian organizations in Wardha city because of the plant’s proximity to the historic Bapu Kuti. The proposed expansion, from the existing annual capacity of 0.47 million tonnes to 1.5 million tonnes, in addition to a 17 MW captive waste to heat power plant, however, hardly drew protests, mainly because no fresh land acquisition is required. A second reason, informed residents of nearby villages, is that the company has bought over the local body representatives through jobs and other sops.
Pollution, diseases, crop loss
Speaking of pollution caused to groundwater in her village by effluents from the unit, Kavita Kelvadkar, former sarpanch of village Barbadi, said that children in the village have become chronically malnourished because of constantly suffering from diarrhoea. She demanded that the company install a reverse osmosis water treatment plant in the village to ensure clean water supply.
Narendra Thute, sarpanch of Chithoda village, said that soot released from the unit’s stacks was causing eye-problems in his village. “All the management does is to hold medical camps and distribute bad quality glasses.”
Vilas Moon of Barbadi said that six months ago eight youth from the village were sacked from their jobs in the unit after they called the management’s attention to the death of fish in a stream near the village because of polluted water released from the unit. “I and a few others in the village have been attacked by the company’s goons after the protest,” he said.
Sanjay Kubde, sarpanch of villge Selu Kate, said that the company had violated promises made to villagers that 80 per cent of the jobs would go to locals. “The company is using our land, and we are bearing the brunt of air and water pollution,” he said. “In summers, when we sleep outside, we find ourselves covered with soot in the morning. But when it comes to skilled and highly paid jobs, our educated youth are overlooked in favour of outsiders.”
Farmers alleged that the productivity of land has gone down because of the severe air and water pollution caused by the unit. Kubde said that his milk business has been severely impacted by soot released into the air by the company which settled on his fodder crops. Elderly farmer Devisingh Barwal said that because of pollution in the nullah, cotton and soybean crops in the village have been damaged.
MPCB at fault, people’s reps sold out
Speakers blamed the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) for not taking action against Uttam Galwa for the unchecked pollution. “We cannot oppose the company in any way because 200 families in my village are dependent on the company for wages,” said Ashok Lad, gram panchayat member from village Barbadi. “But why is MPCB not taking note of what is going on here?” Other speakers agreed that beyond periodically issuing notices, MPCB has not taken action against the company.
Moon of Barbadi village said that there is hardly any opposition to the proposed extension, which would doubtless raise pollution levels in the area because Galwa management has bought out all people’s representatives. “Most of the company’s land is in my village, and it should be paying gram panchayat tax to the tune of Rs 70 lakh per year. However, sarpanch and other panchayat members have given them illegal tax sops and so they are paying us just Rs 12 lakh per year.”
A letter submitted to MPCB at the public hearing by Sudhir Paliwal, convener of Vidarbha Environment Action Group (VEAG), a Nagpur-based volunteers group, raised several objections to the extension project. It argued that blast furnace-based steel plants have high risk of explosion, and the location of the current project, within a residential area instead of in a notified industrial area, is unsuitable for such a project. Citing several court directives, it pointed out that integrated steel plants are highly polluting and pointed out that the project proponent has deliberately separated the present extension from the original steel plant to obtain terms of reference (TOR) and environment clearance. He also pointed that being located only 4 km from Sewagram, the project violates a Maharashtra government directive of 1994, which prohibits industries within 10 km of Mahatma Gandhi’s historical abode. Water containing untreated effluents from the unit have polluted a stream flowing through the ashram, the letter pointed out.
MPCB defends Galwa
In a surprising and illegal action, MPCB regional head N H Shivangi used the platform of the public hearing to refute charges of water pollution against Galwa. “Iron and steel is an air-polluting company, not a water polluting one,” he said. “I have myself been monitoring the water and only treated water is being released.”
The audience, however, nailed his lie after an MPCB notice issued to the company in January this year for releasing polluted water into the surrounding areas was produced by local people. Company representatives, challenged to explain water pollution, however, did not reply to people’s questions, saying that the question pertained to the existing plant and not to the proposed extension.