PUNJAB: Ignorance is bliss

Published: Thursday 30 June 1994

PUNJAB: Ignorance is bliss

-- The situation is, if anything, worse in the north Indian states like Punjab, where many industrialists acknowledge they are not even aware of the possibility of their products being toxic or of solid waste disposal norms. As Kuldip Raj, vice-president of Punjab Woolcombers Ltd, said, "This is the first time I have heard anything about dyes being organic or inorganic. We simply buy our dyes from BASF Ltd in Bombay. They don't tell me what kind of dyes these are." Some warped reason leads Raj to presume that the dyes are safe because "otherwise wool would get destroyed".

In Ludhiana alone, according to S B Sharma, senior environmental engineer with the Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB), 200 hazardous waste producing industries have been identified. Sharma claimed that PPCB was "merely a nodal agency" trying to help the municipal bodies set up disposal facilities. "Basically, it is the job of municipal authorities, but so far, the wastes are disposed of either in low-lying areas or along with domestic garbage." Sharma also said that there were numerous instances of industrial waste being dumped directly into municipal sewers.

The indiscriminate spread of industrial waste hits the eye almost as soon as one enters the industrial estates. For instance, Vimal Electroplating Works, which uses about 4 kg of chromium and about 1/2 kg of nickel every day, dumps its waste right on the main road.

In fact, there is little logic in what the industries do with their waste. R K Sodhi, general manager of Surpal Cycles Ltd, said the sludge from his company is put into plastic bags, packed tightly and thrown out, insisting that "this was according to the norms of the Punjab government". Pritam Singh Kular of Kular Rims Ltd, whose effluents contain nickel, chromium and acids, said that the treated sludge was used to fill pits along the road. The factory produces about 1.8 tonnes of sludge every year. Although informed sources put the waste generation much higher, even such a quantity over a number of years is enough to play havoc with the local environment.

Interestingly, those who have installed some kind of treatment facility -- either voluntarily or under duress -- do not pay much attention as to how the sludge is disposed of after treatment. Vardhman Spinning and General Mills in Ludhiana, for instance, has put up a biological treatment system to treat 5-6 tonnes of sludge every month. But, according to chief engineer J B Sharma, when it comes to disposal, the treated waste is simply loaded on to trolleys and sent out. "We do not know where it is thrown. It is up to the trolleywala. We are not even aware of the composition of our sludge. A consultant recommended this process and we follow it," he says. Sharma also admitted that the company had not applied for state pollution board clearance; which is why the government is not even aware of the exact nature and quantum of sludge generated.

The situation in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Punjab has its unthinking mimics all over the country. Even 5 years after the hazardous waste handling guidelines were issued, no state has provided for safe disposal sites, let alone enforce the guidelines fully. This only seems to have legitimised the dumping of industrial waste, even at the risk of polluting the neighbouring areas.

Government agencies don't seem to have the faintest idea of the magnitude of the problem. Ajit N Jha, vice-president (environment and risk management) of the Essar group of industries, says that even attempts by agencies like the National Environmental Engineering Institute to quantify hazardous wastes are futile because they depend largely on information provided by the industries themselves. Says Manvender Singh, environmental engineer of PPCB at Patiala, "Preparing an inventory of hazardous waste producing industries in Punjab is taking a long time (it started about 3 years ago), not only because the industry has not come forward with information but also because we do not have adequate staff. Our staff is already hardpressed dealing with water and air pollution problems."

Several owners countrywide confessed to Down To Earth that they simply dump waste even though it is toxic. The guiding logic seems to be that they have to dispose of it somewhere and because the government has not provided safe facilities, they can dump it wherever it catches their fancy. Several pollution control officials also subscribe to this view and point to the industries' utter "helplessness".

It is not as though only small and medium industries have played havoc with waste disposal. The record of most big industries does not seem to be any better. The waste from the public sector Indian Petrochemicals Corp Ltd (IPCL) at Vadodara seems to have taken its toll on the local environment. IPCL, which generates waste in all of the 18 categories classified as hazardous by the ministry of environment and forests, dumps 1,800 tonnes of solid waste every month at a site near Nandesari. The company's on-site waste disposal tract is a semi-open area behind a wall, where waste from its 14 chemical units is dumped as a matter of routine.

Says K Baruah, former senior environmental engineer of the CPCB at Vadodara, "The IPCL dumpsite is on a hill. Since there is no adequate scientific treatment of the wastes, they are simply washed down into the river." Baruah should know. He recently submitted to the Environment and Natural Resource Division of the World Bank a plan for a hazardous waste tracking geographic information system for Gujarat. Fire in the afternoon
Pollutants from IPCL include organic acids, hydrocarbons, sulphides, acrylo nitril and propelene waste. Comments Babubhai Patel: "The dumpsite often catches fire in the afternoons. You can nearly always see fumes coming from the site. IPCL fire-fighting vehicles are deployed there quite often, and once in 1986 a fire engine itself caught fire and was destroyed." Chemical analysis of the dumpsite leachate shows it contains toxic levels of phenol.

Another big firm in the area, Gujarat Alkalies and Chemicals Ltd (GACL), seems to have played an equally big role in indiscriminate dumping. Right from the early '80s, the company has used a part of the dumpsite that GIDC had allowed it to use for just one year. But GACL has continued to utilise it for about a decade now, dumping up to 1 tonne of mercury sludge, among other things, every day. The volume of mercury sludge is reported to have been much higher in the past. Says Patel: "In 1988, the amount of mercury dumped was unbelievable. Rag pickers had a field day -- one bucket of waste would fetch nearly 1 kg of mercury. After I showed this to a group of journalists, GACL officials came and dumped tonnes and tonnes of mud on the sludge."

The sludge from the illegal dumping site at Vapi seems to have caused health problems, too. Only about 2 months ago, Ashok Abhyankar, medical superintendent of Haria Rotary Hospital at Vapi, received 3 cases of people who had burnt the soles of their feet while walking near the dumping ground. While conducting a survey at the dumpsite, the solid waste burnt the feet of the technical staff of the GIDC through their shoes. Comments Abhyankar: "We could not identify the chemicals responsible. But all of them did have the burns merely by walking on the waste site."

About 80 per cent of the solid waste at this dumpsite is gypsum, although none of it is as benign as the industry would like people to believe. Says V R Ghadge, environmental engineer of the GPCB at Vapi, "Impurities are trapped in the gypsum. All the gypsum leachates that we checked are quite acidic."

Groundwater subterfuge
In many areas, reports indicate that toxics from dumpsites have percolated to the groundwater. In Nandesari, for instance, the upper aquifer of the area's main water source is totally polluted. At present, water is pumped from the lower aquifer but no one is willing to guess how long it will remain uncontaminated. Explains a groundwater expert from Dalal Consultants, "There is an impervious layer of clay between the two aquifers. But the layer might give in any day. It could be an earthquake of mild intensity, an unattended borewell or even excessive pumping from the first aquifer which will do the damage."

Others speculate that toxic wastes may have already damaged the local environment and people substantially. Says a scientist from NPC, "We do not know the nature and extent of the damage simply because no one has tried to assess them."

According to Agarwal, solid waste dumping has still not made headlines because in a large country like India where intensive industrialisation is limited to certain areas, waste dumps go unnoticed. But with stepped up industrialisation, the problem is bound to spread. In the new industrial estates being developed, attention is being paid to water and air pollution norms but not to the management of solid waste and sludge.

The government has failed to keep its part of the deal. Safe waste disposal sites are not yet available in any state in India and rarely has anyone been booked for wrongful dumping. Asks Ghadge, "With what face will we go to a unit and ask it not to dump illegally when we haven't provided for a single site all over Gujarat for safe and solid disposal?"

Impending catastrophe
"The biggest irony is that there is no law to prevent degradation of the environment by toxic waste dumping," says a European consultant working for the CPCB. In a country where several laws have been enacted in a decade and a half, it is shocking that nothing has been done to regulate industrial waste, which may have a lasting and catastrophic environmental impact like in the Love Canal incident in the US (see boxEnvironmental anguish in Love Canal), says the consultant, who did not wish to be named.

Industrial waste disposal in India continues to be governed by the Water Act, the Air Act or the Environment Protection Act. While the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1974 has been designed primarily to "promote cleanliness" of water resources like rivers, wells and streams", the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1981 deals with toxics only when it is established that they pollute the air in a specific case. As a result, solid waste and sludge disposal continues to be governed by the omnibus Environment (Protection) Act of 1986. Effectively, this means that waste by itself is not a problem and becomes one only when it starts affecting water or air, says the CPCB consultant.

Even the 1989 guidelines have unrealistic requirements, like storing waste within factory premises until suitable disposal sites are found, says K P Nyati of the Confederation of Indian Industry.

The legislative lacunae have only encouraged waste producers to worry about how to get rid of the waste without getting caught in the act. Consequently, in most parts of the country, industry representatives measure their waste only in terms of how many tractors or trolleys it takes to dispose of it. Throw and forget
Down To Earth came across several instances of factory owners claiming that they stored hazardous waste -- either from production processes or from effluent treatment plants -- within their premises as stipulated by law. However, none of them could explain how on-site waste dump never exceeded the prescribed limit of 10 tonnes of waste or one truck load. As Ranjit Singh, the deputy director of the Small Industries Service Institute in Patiala put it, "Most of the sludge is simply thrown out. Anyone claiming otherwise is not telling the truth."

Perhaps the best example of this is Hero Cycles in Ludhiana, one of the biggest cycle manufacturers in the world, with an annual turnover of Rs 560 crore. Although general manager T L Karwal claimed that all waste is packed in bags and stored in safe pits within the premises, Down To Earth,/I> found only 2 pits, of which only 1 was operational. And, in utter disregard of regulations, temporary workers' settlements had come up around these pits.

Asked how such a large plant had stored all its waste in just 2 pits for the past 5 years (since the disposal guidelines were framed), Karwal had little to say. Workers at the plant, on the other hand, insist that the waste is cleared out as scientifically as in any other factory in Ludhiana.

Malvindar Singh, an environmental engineer with PPCB, is confident that things will improve once dumpsites are designated and become operational. Similar hopes are harboured by officials of the central and other state pollution control boards.

The optimism, however, may be somewhat exaggerated, says Chandak of NPC. Waste will have to be transported from factories to dumpsites. Industrial estates in India invariably have dense residential settlements around them and pollution experts point out that leaving the responsibility of carrying out the waste on the producer and transporter may not be very safe. "If a truck meets with an accident in a populated area, the disaster would be extreme," says Trivedi.

Will burning help?
Even at disposal sites, the rules stress incineration, which experts say is not the best course of action. Incineration is expensive and many small waste producers may not be able to afford it. "The small-scale industries that operate on low margins are almost certain to avoid paying for incineration," says the CPCB consultant. This appears to be even more of a possibility given the fact that laws are not implemented equally effectively in all states.

Then, there are technical problems with incineration. For incineration to be successful, analysis and segregation of waste is necessary. However, several small-scale industries change their product lines frequently, which makes analysis of waste difficult. Similarly, wastes like heavy metals are difficult to incinerate.

Similar problems exist with effluent treatment plants. Small-scale industries cannot afford them and common effluent treatment plants cannot clean up all types of wastes.

Even in the developed world, experts recognise that end-of-the-pipe measures to manage waste are not appropriate. Besides being cost ineffective, they assume tremendous wastage in the production process. Studies suggest that the efficiency of industrial chemical reactions in the developed world is not higher than 85-90 per cent and waste generation depends on the number of steps involved. According to a study of the US organic chemical industry by Robert U Ayres of the European Institute of Management Studies, Fountainbleau, the dissipation of inputs in the form of waste is as high as 35 per cent.

Minimise, reuse and recycle
As a result, the trend abroad is increasingly towards waste minimisation, reuse and recycling. It is interesting to note that almost no incentives are offered to industries that look for cleaner and more efficient process of production. For instance, in 1992 the US National Science Foundation and the Council for Chemical Research launched a research programme called Environmentally Benign Chemical Synthesis and Processing -- Research on Pollution Prevention at its Source. European countries and Japan have undertaken similar programmes.

In India, waste dissipation is much higher. M A Mashelkar, director of the National Chemical Laboratory, says the way to tackle such colossal waste is to explore more efficient processes and waste recycling. In industries where toxic waste continues to be churned out, there is an urgent need to bring about observable transparency. For instance, most small and medium industries do not maintain strict inventories of inputs, making an accurate assessment of their waste impossible.

The biggest problem area seems to come be the small-scale industries. Most of them are not in a position to invest in technologies to contain waste toxicity. Globally, the chemical industry has moved to bigger industries where the scale of operations allows for investments in waste control, disposal, reuse or cleaner processes. If only for practical reasons, it is easier to police a few big industries than innumerable small industries. But the question is whether the pollution control authorities will be able to weather the tremendous political clout that the small-scale industries wield in most states, even where the land is gradually turning into expanses of poison.

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