Industry at any cost

Industrial estates of Gujarat are cesspools of filth and environmental health hazards. Yet the government is blindly promoting industry

Published: Saturday 15 April 2000

Industry at any cost

Untreated effluents from Vatva Gujarat has more than 90,000 industrial units, according to the state government. About 8,000 of these units are polluting, also says the state government. Major polluting industries are located in the Vadodara Petrochemical Complex, Nandesari, Ankleshwar, Vapi, Vatva and Hazira near Surat. The Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (gidc) was managing 270 industrial estates as on March 1996, and its activity plan for the year 1998-99 included sanctioning of eight new ones. "About 70 per cent of the investment in Gujarat since the 1970s has been in the chemicals sector," says R C Trivedi, former chairperson of the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (gpcb).

He says that in the 1970s, the state government was encouraging small-scale units in the chemicals sector through financial incentives. "These industrial units came up in huge numbers. But the government gave a very low priority to the environment. This is why environmental problems cropped up in Gujarat," says Trivedi.

Nowhere more so than in the nearly 400-km stretch between Vapi in southern Gujarat and Vatva in northern Gujarat, called the golden corridor, an industrialist's dream come true. This stretch has become a hot bed of pollution. "In the golden corridor, we have created a number of potential disasters similar to the Bhopal gas tragedy. The time-bomb is ticking very fast," says Achyutbhai Yagnik, secretary of Setu, an Ahmedabad-based ngo. Another example of an environmental nightmare is Alang, the largest shipbreaking yard of the world, situated 50 km from Bhavnagar. The 11-km coastline of the yard has been severely polluted due to scrapping of hazardous ships (see 'Bare Facts'; Down To Earth, Vol 6, No 20; March 15, 1998).
Government response, or the lack of it
"We are suffering because of the lack of proper planning in the past. But it is now a futile exercise to blame anyone for that. The situation is in front of everybody. We have to come out of it," says Suresh Mehta, industry minister of Gujarat. Optimistic words. But what is the state government doing to deal with the growing pollution problems? Well, it is trying its best to set up more industries.

The state government has planned the 'Infrastructure Vision 2010', which hardly lays any focus on environment. In a meeting organised by gec in Ahmedabad on October 29, 1999, K V Bhanujan, principal secretary of finance to the state government, had observed: "The 'Vision 2010' is a focused and comprehensive document on infrastructure. But environmental concerns in general or anticipated as a consequence of the implementations of the vision have not been even touched upon anywhere."

Blackened rivers
Gujarat's rivers are bearing the brunt of industrial pollution, as are the people living on the banks of these rivers. All the major rivers and streams of Gujarat are in a bad state due to effluent discharged by industry, be it the Kolak, the Mahi, the Daman Ganga or the Amlakhadi (see p35: Fighting against pollution). One can see red water flowing in the Sabarmati, released by the common effluent treatment plant (cetp) in Vatva. Several times, drug factories in Vapi dump spoilt batches in the open. These contain chemicals that are highly toxic.

Take the case of the farmers from 11 villages between Lali and Navagam, who irrigate their fields with untreated effluents released into the Khari river. Nearly 100 tubewells and borewells have been contaminated. "When factories were prevented from dumping effluents in the Mini river, they resorted to reverse boring, pumping untreated effluents straight into underground aquifers," says Sahabsinh Darbar, 73, a farmer from Sherkhi village in Vadodara district. "We do not require any study to confirm that channels and rivers in Gujarat are polluted. You can see that from the colour of the water," says Mayur Pandya, a noted lawyer who chaired a committee set up to investigate pollution of Khari river near Ahmedabad by the Gujarat High Court in 1995. So, what have the people done to prevent their land and rivers from being defiled?

The rise and fall of a people's campaign
On June 19, 1987, two people who had climbed down to do repair work in a well in Lali village died. The villagers knew the cause of death. Effluents carried by the neighbouring Khari river, better described as an effluent channel, had leached into the groundwater. The reaction had produced poisonous gases, which lead to asphyxiation. The river has been carrying industrial wastes for the past 20 years, says Pravinbhai Jashbhai Patel, a farmer from Navagram village.

A public outcry followed. "But as usual, the government chose to remain silent," says Patel. Finally, on February 16, 1995, the 11 villages filed a public interest petition in the Gujarat High Court. The bench comprising chief justice B N Kirpal and justice H L Gokhale set up the Pandya Committee to look into the matter. The committee reported that water samples taken from the Khari river, where it flows through Lali, had pH levels as low as 2, showing that the water was highly acidic. The biological oxygen demand was about 14 times the permissible limit and the chemical oxygen demand was much more than 16 times the limit, says Jashbhai Patel.

On the basis of the report, on August 5, 1995, the court ordered that 756 industrial units, which were regarded as highly polluting, pay up 1 per cent of their gross turnover of the year 1993-94 or 1995-96, whichever was higher. The court ruled: "The amount be utilised for the works of socio-economic uplift in the villages and on educational, medical and veterinary facilities and the betterment of the agriculture and livestock in the said villages." "But even today, farmers use waters from the polluted Khari river when water is released from the upstream Kadana dam," says Girish Patel, a lawyer based in Ahmedabad. As for compensation, sources point out that while some industrial units have paid up, others are still in the process of doing so. Several units have started production again. The situation has not changed at all. Untreated effluents still flow in the river.

Water in the 100-odd wells near Khari is still a distinct red. Kanubhai Patel, a farmer, says the paddy yield has gone down by half. The villagers find a difference in milk quality, too, which they attribute to cattle grazing in contaminated areas. In August 1999, Down To Earth got a sample of groundwater from Lali village analysed at the Facility for Ecological and Analytical Testing (feat) of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. It had a mercury concentration that was 211 times the permissible limit (see 'What goes down must come up'; Down To Earth, August 31, 1999). Mercury is an extremely toxic heavy metal and is known to cause damage to kidneys and the central nervous system.

Failure of the courts
The most damaging aspect of Gujarat's struggle against industrial pollution has been the failure of the courts to deliver. There was a phase in 1995 when the Gujarat High Court was cracking down on polluters, giving an impetus to the environmental movement in the state. Hundreds of cases were filed in the court. This continued for two to three years. As long Justice B N Kirpal was the chief justice of the high court, he took stern action against polluters.

After this period, the court got bogged down in dealing with applications to reopen industrial units after a closure order given by justice Kirpal. But the implementing and regulatory agencies remained lackadaisical. Soon, people handling these cases lost interest as the exercise could not yield the desired results. "In Gujarat, industry controls politicians, rather than the other way round. The situation does not look like it will improve," says Mayur Pandya. "If we try to find out how many industrialists have been put behind bars under the Water Act or the Air Act, we will hardly find any. So they are not scared at all," adds Girish Patel.

"The courts usually go by the the findings of gpcb. This is not acceptable at all. The court should stop relying on gpcb information if it wants better results," says Anand Mazgaonkar of pss. He says gpcb annual reports look like primary school books: "These are not the kind of reports needed in a state where so many industries produce extremely toxic chemicals."

Waste: solid and hazardous
Factories have been dumping thousands of tonnes of hazardous wastes in the open. Not only has this polluted the groundwater but it has also damaged fertile lands. Take the case of Bajwa, a village in Vadodara district where industrial waste has been accumulating for the past 30 years and there is barely any agricultural land to be proud of in terms of productivity (see 'Toxic trail'; Down To Earth, Vol 7, No 7; August 31, 1998). Now, industries are constructing landfill sites. But even in the construction and planning of these, environmental health has not been kept in mind. One example is gidc's Nandesari Industrial Estate north of Vadodara. Plans of a site to dump toxic wastes are severely flawed and there are fears of a major ecological disaster (see 'Hell-hole'; Down To Earth, Vol 7, No 14; December 15, 1998).

From Vapi to Mehsana, several units dealing with pharmaceuticals, dyes and dye intermediaries are constructing landfills sites to dump their hazardous wastes. However, Mazgaonkar cites a 1977 study conducted for the us Environmental Protection Agency, conducted on 50 landfills, showed that 86 per cent had contaminated underground water supplies beyond the boundaries of the landfill.

Environment impact assessments by the National Productivity Council, Gandhinagar, in 1997-98 and 1997-98 showed high levels of lead contamination in the groundwater of Nandesari. Samples taken nearby the gidc dump contained 38.25 milligramme per litre (mg/l) of lead, whereas the permissible limit is a mere 0.05 mg/l for drinking water. The groundwater has been severely contaminated to a depth of about 60 metres, the study says.

"Disposal of untreated mercury-contaminated effluent from caustic manufacturers has contaminated large tracks of land in Nandesari in Gujarat," says a draft Sectoral Environment Report submitted in 1997 by the Union ministry of environment and forests to the World Bank.

Systems that do not work
"The entire machinery to control pollution in the state has failed," says Girish Patel. "The view of the ruling party is that environmental problems are just a problem of the elite. They do not accept that the poor people are the most severely affected because it is they who live in a polluted environment and drink contaminated water," he adds.

"GPCB is the one of the worst pollution control boards in India. It has mainly political appointees or bureaucrats at senior positions, who lack knowledge of environmental issues," rues Trivedi (see box: Polluting on legal grounds). "It is an irony that only the first two chairpersons of gpcb had any background in the field of the environment. I was the second chairperson during 1980-82. After me, either bureaucrats or the political appointees have been appointed. A former chairperson of gpcb was allegedly forced to leave because he did not work as the politicians wanted him to," says Trivedi.

"There is no pressure from the implementing agencies over industrialists. They do not have an initiative to meet the environmental norms," he adds. This has certainly helped big industries find ways to flout environmental norms (see box: Bypass for filth). Today, industrialists first invest money in a project and then plead in the court that they cannot stop the work on environmental grounds as they have already made the investment. "In most of the cases, the court relaxes some of the norms. As a result, what happens is that the pollution remains, but the conditions disappear," comments Patel.

A fatigued civil society
"The NGOs that are working in this field do not have the support to do anything concrete. So, by and large, there is no strong voice against pollution problems in Gujarat today," says Girish Patel. D S Ker, president of Gramya Vikas Trust, an ngo based in Dwarka, says: "ngos here have not been able to mobilise grassroots-level support. The voice of ngos in the state mainly comes from the middle class. But these people have not been able to carry together the grassroots level people."

Although people of Gujarat are gradually realising that pollution is becoming a serious problem, they are not reacting the way they should, considering that their very lives are at stake. The spirit of public good that saw numerous people going to court against polluting industry has been snuffed out after implementing agencies failed to enact the orders of the courts.

A way out?
Michael Mazgaonkar says the only way out of the present situation is to have a very democratic system of permitting industries: "If we can ensure this along with easy access to information, we can reduce the problem to a great extent. We have adequate environmental rules that, if implemented properly, can control most of the industrial hazards. But the industries have found ways to circumvent these rules. So even if all these rules are implemented and the decision-making is not democratic, the problem is likely to continue," he feels.

"The problem can only be dealt with if good ngos and people take up the issue seriously. If community-based organisations come up, then some improvement can be made in the present situation," says Trivedi. C J Jose, member secretary of gec, has another view: "To protect their trade at the international level, these industries will be forced to comply with international environmental norms."

Gujarat clearly needs direction today when it comes to environmental governance. The civil society is faced with a huge task. The first thing to do, however, is to involve rural communities and industrial workers in the struggle against pollution. That being done, solutions will emerge. But if that is not done, then the cesspool is only going to worsen.

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