Land use can be changed

Polluted groundwater cannot

Published: Thursday 15 December 2005

-- desperate people can do desperate things. But desperate people with no fear of regulation and no knowledge of the consequences of their action would definitely do desperate things that cause irreparable harm. Consider the case of how developers in Mumbai are buying real estate to build residential complexes on lands there were, till recently, polluting industrial estates. These sites on which new (perhaps plush) residential complexes are being constructed were declared contaminated by pollution control authorities and the industries closed down because they were toxic and dangerous.

It is on this land, which still oozes yellow (unidentified) effluent, that houses will be built for people to live. In all likelihood, builders will promise a paradise -- they will cover up the sore spots with some trees and shrubs and perhaps throw in a fountain or lake. The beautification will make the site sellable: a paradise on the outskirts of Mumbai.

But wait. What lies underneath is not an ordinary graveyard but a chemical disaster zone. What will be the impact of this on the inhabitants of this colony, who have now realised their lifelong dream to own a house of their own? The house is what middle-class Indians slave for throughout their lives -- aspiring to join the proud owners of property. What will come of their middle-class dream when, one day, they discovered that the water they drink is toxic. Because pollutants have leached into the groundwater. Or find that where their children play is poisoned, the green cover up notwithstanding. Because the playground is built on the toxic dump the factory left behind.

Who knows? Worse, as our story reveals, who cares? The fact is that housing, particularly in Mumbai, is prized. The construction lobby is king. The regulators are second -- perhaps last -- fiddle. There are no regulations to ensure that housing sites are carefully evaluated for their safety and presence of toxins. The bottomline is that environmental disasters are soon coming home. Literally. Very close to home. Watch out. More important, stop them before they blow up.

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