Sponge ironÃ”Ã‡Ã–s dirty growth
Sometime in June 2009, the West Bengal chief minister’s office forwarded a complaint to the state pollution control board (SPCB) about three sponge iron factories in West Medinipur district.
A team was dispatched to Jhargram subdivision. It found a thick layer of grey dust coating trees and pathways, and noted that the factories stored iron ore and waste in the open; these are carried away by the wind. A month later, the state’s Pollution Control Appellate Authority indicted the three units for causing “colossal damage” to the environment and ordered immediate closure of one factory that was a repeat offender; the other two were asked to comply with pollution norms and guidelines. But the repeat offender— Rashmi Cement sponge iron plant—did not shut. Reason: the SPCB suspended the closure order, citing the appellate authority order that allowed the factory to operate once faults are rectified.
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On December 18 that year, angry people reportedly set fire to some structures and vehicles at the Rashmi Cement plant. They claimed to be Maoists and said rampant pollution from the plant prompted them to act. The police pinned the incident on the resident who had complained about pollution and on a social activist. Naba Dutta, general secretary of nonprofit Nagarik Mancha of Kolkata
, was arrested on August 17, 2010, while visiting the area to attend a sit-in protest organised by tribal people against sponge iron factories.
Dutta is out on bail. Rashmi Cement is still in business and pollution continues unabated.
Pollution fuels protests
The story played out in Jhargram is not unique. It is being repeated in Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka where people are living in the shadow of sponge iron factories. Whether it is a remote village in Cuttack district of Odisha or a village in Raigarh district of Chhattisgarh, residents are angry over government inaction (see ‘Sponge iron industries are killing fields
’, Down To Earth, September 15, 2006). The protests are growing.
In Odisha, 500 women members of the Bonai Vana Suraksha Samiti Mandal, a people’s front in Sundargarh district, marched to the sub-collector’s office in January 2008. They were carrying samples of soil, contaminated water and grains as proof of damage caused by sponge iron factories. These factories have high stack emissions and dump ash and char in open areas. The district administration ordered an inquiry and 12 factories were closed, only to reopen 42 days later.
“Seventeen sponge iron factories are crammed in a five-km radius. We had to put our foot down,” said Ashwini Mohanta, chairperson of the front, which continues to organise protests. Odisha with 108 sponge iron factories— the maximum any state in India has—is witnessing similar protests in Sundargarh, Keonjhar and Sambalpur districts (see map
Pollution from these coal-based factories is more acute in Chhattisgarh. The state has close to 70 sponge iron factories, clustered mainly in Siltara and Urla in Raipur district and in Raigarh district. An estimated 60 more are operating illegally. The region is also the hub of public protests. In June 2009, about 300 people took to the streets to protest the health effects of pollution from the factories of Siltara and Urla. They complained of respiratory disorders and skin allergies. The authorities issued notices to 45 factories for not installing or using pollution control equipment.
“The Chhattisgarh Environment Conservation Board works under political and industrial pressure. When there are public protests, a notice is issued. What becomes of this notice, no one knows,” said Ganesh Kachhwaha of Zila Bachao Sangharsh Morcha in Raigarh. “These factories follow absolutely no laws. Their licences should be cancelled,” said BJP MLA Devji Bhai Patel from Raipur. A moratorium has now been imposed on new sponge iron factories in Siltara and Urla.
In Andhra Pradesh’s Mehboobnagar district, people moved court when protests and pleas to the government did not work. Initially no action was taken on the petition but later factories in the area were directed to jointly deposit Rs 3 crore with the district authorities as token compensation for farmers. The amount was decided on the basis of Kharif crop lost.
In Karnataka, angry residents attacked the Kundil Sponge Iron factory at Londa in Belgaum in November 2009. This was when the SPCB allowed it to resume operations a month after it was closed on high court orders. Protests are on in Bellary district, too, which has three sponge iron clusters.
These protests are happening because sponge iron is made through a process that is highly polluting and poorly regulated.