Blood on its hands

Industry in Asia's largest chemical unit zone is like a terrorist outfit, devastating the atmosphere and, reportedly, killing people

 
By Meera Iyer
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Blood on its hands

A RED dog laps up purple water from an open gutter, while a yellow cow ambles past. Dreams in technicolour? No ... just one of the many everyday scenes in Ankleshwar, Gujarat, Asia's largest chemical industry zone and possibly one of the most polluted. The acrid smell of chemicals welcomes you to the township, just 10 km from Bharuch, on the national highway to Bombay. Innumerable chimney stacks belch smoke which smear the heavens. The 1,605 ha Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation's (GIM) Industrial Estate is tbebeart of the town. Set up in 1967, it is packed with 1,500 odd units. The Ankleshwar industries Association (AIA) lists 220 chemical, 156 dyes and dye intermediates, 196 engineering, I I insecticide and pesticide, 69 pharmaceutical, 81 plastic, rubher and leather and 201 textile units, among others, as its members.

The red dogs and the yellow cows, needless to say, are the effluential - if one can say so - by-products of the mercilesslypolluting units. But now, the people are not willing to take it lying down. Some farmers have filed a case in the Gujarat High Court (GHC) against the polluting unit.

In September 1994, a team of the Central Pollution Control Board (cpcii) scientists, who visited Ankleshwar, noted that the estate churns out noxious gases, 36,000 kilolitres of wastewater and 123 tonnes of hazardous wastes daily. Solid wastes are indiscriminately dumped on adjacent lands. Liquid wastes are discharged into open gutters and Ultimately Mad their way to the Narmada estuary some 25 km away. A random sample check revealed that most parameters of effluence exceeded the permissible limits. The full extent of the impacts are difficult to assess. P Muralilarishna, assistant engineer at the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GpcB) office at Bharuch, says villages within a kin of Ankleshwar are affected. Ajit Padival, a GHC advocate, holds, "Seventy thousand people living in some 35 villages within a 10 km radius of Ankleshwar have been affected."

Jayesh Patel, a sugarcane farmer, owning 20.25 ha of land in Ankleshwar, is incensed, "When the GiDc estate came up, 12.15 Its of my land were acquired. Now, they are not even sparing my remaining lands." Acidic effluents have altered the chemical structure of the soil of 8.10 ha of his lands, ruining fertility. Patel and another farmer have finally knocked on the doors of the High Court, seeking redressal.

A certificate issued by the Dim Agricultural Office (DAo) on July this year, says lands in Sass Amratpura, Gadkhol, Chapra, IN Pungaam and several other Vin" around Ankleshwar have become ind tile because of effluents. The dischm has "polluted watercourses and irq tion canals of the above villagm a& ing fields, wells, human beings and a mals", it says. A cpcB survey found d wells along the earthen drains carryi effluents have also been pollutl Indeed, tubewells and handpumps the uea produce red water.
Mucking up Farmers complain of a change the colour of wheat and maize grains, the ? principal crops of the region. Say Hasim Saigat, from Dadhal, a village 4 kin from Ankleshwar through GiDc nullah (drain) carrying fo black water flows, "We don't grow co ton here anymore. But if we did it would turn out red." A technicolour nightmare, no less. Often, crops don't flower at all.

In the neighbouring Hansot taluka, Satish Patel, a former scientist at the Tata Energy Research Institute, recalls how polluted water from some carrying effluents flooded vast grasslands lands in 1994. "Cattle didn't eat grass for the whole year," he says. Patel, who owns a small shrimp farm' Narmada estuary nearby, ;Mr many fish species have disapparent from the river. Children complain of skin diseases, while even a few hour spent in Ankleshwar, are enough to make your eyes water.

Industry, however, brushes off all accusations. Says Kamlesh Udani, man aging director of Unique Pharmaceuti- cal Labs and president, AtA, problem is largely because the Gi has not provided underground drainage." Gpca officials concur. But Giric, regional manager in charge of war, R D Naik, just clams up. G C Murniu, Bharuch's collector, says "Even though the GlDc has provided underground drainage in 2 phase of me estate, only Ow So of the 300 units have Plagued in."

In early July, Murnm organised a sneeting between the AIA, rot 2 were aske d to cough up 13 bV1 each, towards deepen 9 g and widening of the Amla creek Patel hopes that prevent effluents from pzfiowing into his fields. It both Murmu and Patel 13owledge that this will not ON, he the problems elsewhere. The GPCB pleads helpless According to Murali uhna. effluents and emissions Fmonitored every month. But he, "If an industry doesn't have kmbber (to treat its gaseous emis pos), it simply switches off its reactors I hearing of a possible sample collection visit. Or, they discharge their kreated effluents at night."

There are hurdles galore before defulters can be booked. The 1988 amendment to the Water Act of 1974, k; not been adopted by the Gujarat de government, B F Salonia, member tretary, GPCB, explains, "We are, us, not empowered to issue notices I disconnect water and power supply. It can only request the Gil)c and Gujarat electricity board to do needful." Officials like Salonia el that what is needed is also what impossible: controlling at the source of pollution.

But the AIA is out to prove otherwise. "On its own initiative, the AJA in 1993 decided to set up a Common luent Treatment Plant (CETP) at a ,t of Rs 2.5 crores," beams Udani. is plant will handle 10 lakh litres a P from 80-100 units - primarily allscale ones and become operational ra March, 1996. The industries re set up a private company, virotechnology Limited, to manage CETP on a commercial basis. But as iow, the cETP remains a vacant plot. Meanwhile, the Ankleshwar fironment Protection Society (AEPS), up by the AIA as far back as 1986, has nted between 3-4 lakh trees here. s Udani, "Everyone has ignored the ironment so far, but now our aware- is increasing." For 2 years now, the along with the Rotary Club's Pollution Control Cell (Prc), - headed by Ashok Panjwani, president of the United Phosphorus Lid (UPL) - has been patrolling the GH)c Estate. Defaulters are fined Rs 5,000 for a first offence, Rs 15,000 at the second and Its 25,000 at the third.

Most people, however, remain unimpressed. Says B D Navale, a plant operator in Glaxo Ltd, "If they have planted so many trees, why don't we see them?" Most workers and villagers agree. Adds Jayesh Patel about the UPL and Unique Pharmaceuticals, " Unki khud ki factory ka ganda pani hamare yahan aata hai (polluted water from their very factories floods outlands)."

"Impossible," counters Panjwani. "We have oor own FTP, our effluents are neutral." And Udani defends Unique Pharmaceuticals, "It has no poflution at all because it is a formulation plant." And while industry and officials trade charges, the estate ties under a pall of fear and secrecy. Workers warn the inquisitive: "Mar dalenge (you'll be killed)."

Killer instinct
Workers allege poor safety standards. Chemicals are handled manually, carried in open buckets, without goggles, gloves or overcoats. Atul Pipavad, a former employee of Armour Chemicals Ltd, says he had once challenged his factory inspector to produce gloves and goggles for him, offering to resign if proved wrong, "He couldn't find any," Pipavad says. He was suspended in late July, allegedly for his active role in the workers'union.

Horror stories abound. "Two years ago, a worker died due to toxic gas exposure during a clean-up operation," says a worker secretively, "The postmortem claimed he died of snake bite." Says another, "Last month, a worker's body was found dumped in a gutter. He had died in the factory." Udani admits to slack safety measures. "There is a lapse on the part of the industry as far as training is concerned," he says, "But because the workers are uneducated, it takes a long time to make them aware of the dangers in handling some chemicals."

Haresh Shah, Chief Medical Officer at the Smt Jayaben Mody Hospital in Ankleshwar, denies having received cases of exposure-related deaths. "I have only noticed some cases of workers developing chemical dermatitis, that too, only in individuals with sensitive skins." He denies that the hospital receives significantly high cases of lung disorders, cancer, skin or eye diseases. Shah, who is a member of the Pcc, pooh-poohs fears of pollution related health problems: "The level of pollution has decreased over the last 10 years. The industry is very conscious of its responsibilities."

Meanwhile, the villagers await a messiah. Says Patel, "We want someone to guide us, to help us fight." A legal battle is seen as a partial solution. And closure orders from courts only rake up the fear of joblessness. Says Nilesh Parmar, a trade unionist, "We want industry, but we want them not to pollute.'

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