Play by the rules

Is the sponge-iron industry listening?

Published: Wednesday 15 June 2005

-- sponge- iron units have mushroomed in West Bengal since the turn of the century. Lack of space in urban industrial estates has pushed them into rural areas. The state government has been flaunting the units as a sign of industrialisation and development. But Harirampur village in Bankura district shows the plants in a different light.

Three coal-based sponge-iron plants operate in the vicinity of the village. What they mean for the residents of Harirampur can scarcely be qualified as "development"; "suffocation" seems more likely. The factories spew a continuous plume of greenish-black dust that is snubbing out the crops and making the livestock sick. The dust particles are polluting the village pond and the wells. It is only a matter of time before the vicious air starts telling on the health of the villagers, who don't want the factories in their vicinity but feel helpless.

It is not that the factories cannot control their pollutants. All of them are equipped with electrostatic precipitators (esps) that trap the unburnt coal char particles, iron dust and the carbon dust the plants spew. The use of esps is mandatory when the unit is running. But greed gets the better of regulations. The esp s are put off every night to save on electricity costs, though the plants run ceaselessly.

The dust collected from esps is dumped outside the units. A moderate breeze is all it takes to colour the skies black. The dust is not converted into slurry to save the cost of water that would be required! This, for a unit supposedly earning a profit of as much as Rs 60 lakh every month.

The sponge-iron plants are not only ruining the agrarian economy but playing havoc with the health of the workers, too. This is a "red category" industry implying it can ('has' would be more appropriate) become a serious health hazard. But the workers have not been provided even with the basic protective gear such as masks and helmets. Most of them suffer from breathing problems.

Industry is good for any nation. But that does not allow any industry to flagrantly violate pollution norms. A nation cannot justify ruining the health of its people or its environment as development. Nor can a democracy grow by drowning the voice of people's protest in the din of political chicanery.

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