Published: Sunday 15 June 2008


While the Agarias wage a constant struggle with the forest department, the government has allegedly turned a blind eye to pollution by two soda ash-making units run by major industrial groups. At Mithapur in Jamnagar district's Okha taluka there are charges of pollution against a salt-and-soda ash unit run by Tata Chemicals Limited (tcl). The Dalmiya group-operated Gujarat Heavy Chemicals Limited (ghcl) unit in Junagadh district's Sutrapada taluka faces more serious allegations it has refused to comply with a high court order for more than a year, after violating salt lease conditions for about 20 years.

ghcl occupies around 6,070 hectares (ha) in the taluka. The company, set up in 1988, was given a 20-year lease to operate salt pans in Kob, Chikhli, Zafrabad Port Victor and Bherai.The lease stipulated that ghcl maintain a "buffer strip between salt works and agricultural land" and construct a trench to obviate damage to agricultural land. Salt pan bunds have to be plastered with cement so that the brine does not percolate into nearby subsoil. The company has flouted all of these. Not only that, it has no intention of complying with government recommendations in the future. "Who reads all conditions while signing the agreement? If we obey every condition, we will not be able to run a business. In any case, these conditions are not technically feasible," T Malhotra, ghcl's general manager at Sutrapada, told Down To Earth.

Offending factories
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The people paid the price. In 2005 farmers of Kob complained of salinity in their agricultural lands. The Junagadh district collector decided not to renew ghcl's lease in that village. The company challenged the decision in the Gujarat High Court arguing that if the lease was cancelled, many people would lose their jobs. The court constituted a three-member-committee which testified that the salt pans did contribute to salinity of soil in Kob. "Saline water from the salt pans seeps out...and percolates to groundwater causing salination....this has adversely affected agricultural productivity...earlier, sugarcane, groundnut, wheat and even coconut groves were grown, now farmers have shifted to low-profit but salinity-tolerant rajko (a fodder crop) and bajra," the committee noted.

In July 2006, the court directed ghcl to close a few salt pans, construct cement bunds and trenches in others and deposit Rs 30 lakh with the district collector--for restoring the land and improving Kob's water quality. Junagadh's district collector Ashwani Kumar told Down To Earth that the company's lease expired in 2007 and has not been renewed. " ghcl has not deposited the money, and has not built the trenches. The company appealed to the high court, which reverted the matter to the collectorate. We have sent our report to the state government that the lease be renewed, but with conditions on lines of the court's committee," Kumar said.

But people in Kob are apprehensive. Though the lease has not been renewed and operations suspended, the company has not vacated the land. Their fight is still on "We did not let them make salt here last year. As a result, wheat production has improved by 25 per cent," says Mala Bhai Kala Gohil, Kob's former sarpanch. "We need a dam. The government acquires farm land for building dams all over the country, why can't it take back its own land from a company for building one here," said Dhayabhai Massad Darban, who worked with ghcl; he was sacked when he tried to organize the workers.

There are other charges against the plant as well.
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Effluents from GHCL pipeline has spread about a km into the sea The Tata Chemicals effluent settlement pond that has no concrete lining

It's underground pipeline discharges effluents about a km from the shore into the sea. Fishers allege that as a result their catch has declined. "Sewad (sea plant) on which the fish feed, has stopped growing near the shore. So fishes have gone further inside. Earlier, we could get a good catch within 20 km of the shore but now have to go as far as 40 km. Our kerosene needs have therefore risen," says Veerchandbhai Jayaraj of the fish workers' union, Sagar Machhli Sehkari Mandali, Sutrapada.

There seems to be a conflict when it comes to the maximum permissible level of effluent that can be discharged in the marine environment by a soda ash plant. According to the Minimum National Standards (minas), total suspended solids (tss) of the effluent discharged in sea should not be more than 500 mg/l. But when the Ahmedabad based ngo Janpath got samples from ghcl's discharge point tested in 2006, it found tss to be 964 mg/litre. V S Tyagarajan, ghcl's in-charge of salt works, however, says that according to Gujarat Pollution Control Board's (gpcb's) consent to the company the maximum permissible limit is 1,300 mg/l. gpcb's officials agree. Officials at the the board's regional office in Rajkot also say that the company has applied for renewal of consent and the limit will now conform to minas. Uptill now gpcb has allowed the company to discharge effluents in contravention to minas. Officials at the Central Pollution Control Board maintain that states cannot relax standards beyond central limits.

ghcl has polluted in other ways as well. "Limestone mining by the company has destroyed Rayan forests," says Parbat Balu Bhai Oza, secretary of Shramik Manav Kalyan Foundation, a Sutrapada ngo that has been campaigning against the ghcl plant for a long time. "Limestone holds potable water; limestone walls separate fields from sea, preventing salt water ingress. But due to mining, sea water is coming in and many have left farming. The use of dynamite for blasting the stone has led to breach of water table and to wells caving in nearby areas, " Oza adds.

There is 1107 ha of forest in Sutrapada taluk. But the forest department officials are not sure if the land that is being mined falls under the department's jurisdiction.

"If the people or the government have so many problems with the factory in the area, we can pack up. But then thousands of local people employed with us will lose their livelihood," Malhotra says. ghcl claims it pays minimum wages to its labourers in the mines, but a random survey revealed they are paid only Rs 50 per day.

Tata's unkept promises
tcl that occupies 14,568 ha is amongst India's largest producer of soda ash with a yearly output of 875,000 tonnes. "When the Tata factory came up, way back in 1939, people thought they would get employment and bring prosperity to the area. Instead we have suffered pollution," says D S Ker, who runs an ngo, Gramya Vikas Trust, in Dwarka. Salt leaking out of pans is a common sight in Mithapur. Eighteen of the 42 villages in Okha have captive salt pans of tcl. "Most fresh water tanks in the area have gone saline. Many farmers took a loan for digging wells in their fields, but since the water has become salty, they have difficulties paying back," Ker says. He adds "Most salt pans do not have a concrete bund, so brine seeps into farmland. The channel along the pan meant to release rain water, also releases brine which seeps into agricultural land."

Salinity Ingress
Data collected by the Gujarat government's Salinity Ingress Prevention Circle, Rajkot, shows salinity near the salt pans of Tata Chemicals (yellow) and GHCL (blue) have gone up, though there have been periods of decline
Wells (in villages) TDS in May 1995 (mg/l) TDS in May 2004 (mg/l)
Well no K-140, Vasai (Okhamandal) 2240 2370
K-144, Mojap (Okhamandal) 5360 6870
K-151, Ghadechi (Okhamandal) 2600 3400
K-156, Padli (Okhamandal) 3220 6620
Kob 195 (Una) 4329 6964
Sokhda 243 (Jafrabad) 513 1309
Sokhda 284 1367 1964
Chikhli 289 (Una) 5696 5714
  TDS = Total dissolved solids
Many farmers were forced to sell their land. Sohnibai Modba in Padli village, just behind the Tata plant, sold off 6 ha in January to a middleman. "We used to grow bajra on this land. But brine from salt pans and chemical effluents penetrated the soil over the years, so much so last year we practically did not have any yield at all," she rues. "My son will have to work as a labourer in a town because the company does not employ us. But if you come here after six months, you will see my land with tcl," she says. Jaggubhai Passaba of the same village talks of a trend that has intensified in the past 20 years. "People sell land because nothing grows on it. But from the brokers, it goes to the company," he says. tcl's corporate manager H Pota counters "We do not need more land. We have bought only small patches in the past 20 years".

Padli's storm water drain discharges foul smelling water into the Arabian Sea. Pota says this does not come from tcl's plant. "The factory discharges effluents into the sea," he contends. But another Tata official says effluents are released into the drain when the plant's effluent settlement ponds overflow.

tcl's records reveals some irregularities. gpcb renewed its "consent to operate" to the company in May 2008--the company had not received the consent when Down To Earth met its officials on April 21. The last consent had expired on August 12, 2007. So for almost 10 months, the plant operated without permission. But gpcb's officials in Jamnagar defend the company. "They sought permission well in time. There was procedural delay for which tcl should not be blamed," says J K Patel, the board's regional officer at Jamnagar.

But the reason for the delay had been evident even before the consent was given. Files pertaining to Tata's consent application at gpcb's head office in Gandhinagar revealed that tcl was discharging effluents in the Marine National Park, the country's third biggest marine sanctuary. But the company managed to secure a permit citing a 1987 stay order from the Gujarat High Court on grounds that the unit had come up before the park was notified. A forest official, who does not wish to identified, elaborated on the case "At times pipes carrying brine pass through the national park break. When the department restricted them from discharging effluents in the park in 1986, tcl managed a stay order from the high court."

In 2003, the plant was shut for about a week when the pipelines broke and effluents leaked into the national park. The forest department said about 1,500 mangroves were affected. But gpcb exonerated the company with a warning to control pipeline leakage." tcl did get a study conducted by the National Institute of Oceanography but that was a sponsored study, so one can hardly trust its credibility," the forest officer told Down To Earth. The matter is sub-judice, so we cannot comment," says a tcl official. "The entire Gulf of Kutch coast has been converted into a national park, so where does our factory discharge?" asks another.

Water guzzlers
While walking along the channel that takes effluents to the sea, the Down To Earth correspondent noticed it was not sandy like normal beaches. Over the years it had become a hard patch of sediments shovelled out of the channel.

Villagers also complain that tcl has taken control of two tanks built by Baroda's erstwhile Gaekwad rulers Bhimgaja and Meethikhari. "Earlier they used to take up to 19.2 million litres of water every day from wells in Gadhechi, Tupni and Vasai villages--three times the water requirement of entire Okha taluka--but have stopped taking water from Gadhechi and Tupni now," Ker says. "Okha gets its water supply from a dam on the Sani. If Bhimgaja and Meethikhari were not taken up by Tatas, we would not need the river's water," he says.

One by one villagers have lost everything their source of water, their land and consequently their livelihood. Conservation has become a ruse to evict Agarias, but so far as allegations of widespread pollution and environment destruction against big companies is concerned, authorities have chosen not to be strict. Local communities face a dual threat they are dispossessed in the name of conservation and then large companies destroy farms forcing them to migrate.

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