Sponge iron industries are killing fields

The sponge iron industry is growing fast and polluting alarmingly. K Radhika in Chhattisgarh and Maureen Nandini Mitra in Jharkhand and Orissa examine the problem

Published: Friday 15 September 2006

Sponge iron industries are killing fields

-- Wayward growth
Since 2002, India has been the largest producer of sponge iron, also called direct reduced iron (dri), in the world. Today about 20 per cent of the sponge iron produced worldwide is made in India.

The growth of this industry is touted as one of the major success stories of the Indian industrial sector, after liberalisation. This industry has grown spectacularly in the last five years. There were 23 plants in 2000-2001, with a production capacity of 6.97 million tonnes (mt), today there are 206 sponge iron plants in the country with a capacity of a staggering 19 mt. And the portents are even more ominous.

According to the Joint Plant Committee constituted in 2005 by the Centre to survey the sponge iron industry, as many as 225 coal-based sponge iron plants are at various stages of commissioning and construction in the country as of today.In addition, of the existing 206 plants, 77 are in the process of expanding their production capacity. The committee says that in the very near future the country will have 431 sponge iron plants with a production capacity of 44 mt. This is a very serious number from the environment and health perspective. More so because most of these plants are located (and the future ones are being constructed) in areas characterised by virgin forest, tribals and poor environmental governance.

The major problem with the Indian sponge iron industry lies in the way they produce this product. The industry has grown with coal-based sponge iron manufacturing (see box Iron-age method). While globally, dri is being manufactured using gas -- the cleaner and more resource-efficient technology -- in India, sponge iron is usually produced with coal. Sources say coal-based production pollutes. "Coal-based sponge iron production is extremely polluting. Other countries do not want to do this dirty job," says an industry insider.

Almost 80 per cent coal-based sponge iron manufactured in the world comes from India and about 60 per cent of this production comes from the small-scale industry in the unorganised sector. Some of these are unregistered companies and it is, therefore, impossible to have an accurate count of how many plants are operating in the country. These small players run plants that are locally constructed and fabricated and lack required pollution control facilities. Many operate without clearances from state pollution control boards.

Sponge iron plants are 'red category' industries, which means they have very high pollution potential and can cause serious health hazards. The manufacturing process releases extreme heat and smoke containing oxides of sulphur and carbon, unburnt carbon particles and silica. The dust is a little less if plants use electrostatic precipitators (esps) -- to check emissions -- which most states have made mandatory, but the way they use it is questionable. Coal-char, iron dust and carbon dust collected from esps are also pollutants that need safe disposal.

These plants, which have come up mostly in tribal villages, don't add much to the local economy either. Despite initial assurances of job security, few local villagers have been hired. Given that most villagers lack adequate qualification, those that do get jobs are usually hired as unskilled labourers with no insurance or medical benefits. There's no provision for in-house training and accidents are common. Most workers are hired on contract from neighbouring states, and far-off districts at higher rates than those offered to local workers. This way, factory management ensures there's less trouble from local residents, especially in case of accidents.

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