Industrial units illegally dump hazardous waste in remote fields, often crossing state borders, to dodge the law and cut costs. ravleen kaur travels to Tumkur and Chamrajnagar in Karnataka to find out how untreated waste from neighbouring states ends up there
Interstate dirty dumpers
Seventy kilometres from Bangalore, a lorry veered off the main road and headed in an unusual direction towards groundnut fields in Yadagere village of Karnataka's Tumkur district. It stopped at an unsown field in the middle of nowhere. Torches were flashing in the dark. A flurry of activities followed, disturbing the midnight quiet. Some people jumped out of the lorry and began offloading barrels after barrels. Others with spades and shovels emptied them into 10-foot-deep pits in the field. They covered the pits with soil and disappeared in the darkness.
They always came at night. And this had been going on for the past one year. But no one knew who they were and where they came from. When a stinking, tarry liquid oozed to the surface last summer, people discovered that the lorries had been dumping hazardous waste oil. The land, twice the size of a football field, belongs to Thimmaiha, who does not stay in the village anymore.He had leased it out to Riyaz, a scrap dealer from a nearby village.
Fearing that the sludge would destroy the surrounding farms, the villagers complained to the police several times, but each time the police turned them away. Their fears were not unfounded. About six months ago, water in a borewell near Thimmaiha's field started turning yellow. "We knew where the filth was coming from. Even while tilling I fear some poisonous substance will turn up," says Narasappa, who owns the borewell. Now the well pumps up nothing but sludgy, black water that cannot be used for irrigating his half-a-hectare of groundnut field. Five other borewells in the area risk contamination.
Lab tests done at the Department of Mines and Geology, Bangalore, described the water in Narasappa's borewell as having a "strong acid smell" and revealed that it contained lead and aluminium, which affect the nervous system. "Groundwater in this area is 150 feet below, therefore, it took a long time for it to be contaminated. Otherwise by now the oil would have percolated to more borewells in the surrounding fields," says Ramesh D Nayak, regional environment officer, Tumkur.
Yadagere is a water-scarce area, so the farmers formed a group called Jala Samavardhana Yojana Sangha to tackle the threat. In July this year they approached the regional branch of the state pollution control board (pcb). Investigation began. And what it revealed is a game of clever deception, a shockingly callous handling of hazardous waste and a criminal circumventing of laws. The origin of the waste oil was traced to the sipcot industrial complex in Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu. The consignments changed so many hands before reaching Thimmaiha's field that the authorities have no direct evidence to nail the culprits who sent the waste to Yadagere.
It all began in 2004 when waste dealer Sheikh Afroze contacted Riyaz with the proposal of dumping industrial waste on the leased field. Riyaz agreed because he thought he could make money by selling the barrels. About a year ago the activity picked up. "They dug six pits, all 10 feet deep, and dumped waste in them," says Narasappa. pcb figures show that 47 barrels of waste were dumped at the site. One barrel contains 80-100 litres of waste. But the villagers say four-five lorries came in the past one year alone. Considering that one truck contains a minimum of 35 barrels, at least 140 barrels must have been dumped in the area. Six bald patches in the field, covered with solidified tar, stand testimony to that.
Afroze bought the waste from various factories in and around Karnataka to dump it in Tumkur. Investigation revealed that most of the waste came from two factories, Tagross Chemicals India Ltd and Shasun Drugs and Chemicals in sipcot industrial area. Apart from this, Afroze said, he bought waste from Somasundaram Polish Works in Puducherry and Super Petroleum Products in Taloja Industrial Estate, Raigad, Maharashtra. Curiously, Taloja--a good 850 km from Tumkur--has its own hazardous-waste-treatment facility. To corroborate Afroze's statement, Nayak visited the factories in Cuddalore and found that their waste was indeed very similar to that dumped in Yadagere. "As per the consent letter given to Tagross, it is supposed to store the waste in closed sheds on its premises until it developed a secured landfill for disposal. All the stored waste has to be entered into the logbooks," says Nayak, adding, "When we asked them for the record, they could not furnish any for 2004-05."
Riyaz and Afroze were arrested and some more links were uncovered. This is how the racket operated the two companies in Tamil Nadu gave the sludge to Senthil Velan of Sun Chemicals in Cuddalore to dispose it of Velan in turn sold it to Afroze in Karnataka, who tied up with Riyaz to dump the waste in the field. To cover his tracks, Afroze operated under a "waste handling" company, Shakthi Enterprises, registered in Goa. And this is how the economy of dumping worked Afroze took the waste from Velan at Rs 350 a barrel and sold it to Riyaz for Rs 500, who cleaned and sold each barrel for Rs 700.
pcb seized a document from the arrested dealers, showing that Super Petroleum Products in Taloja had recommended Afroze to Shasun Drugs and Chemicals in Cuddalore for collecting drums containing waste oil. Afroze also disclosed that he had dumped 80 barrels on the roadside near Lambani Thanda town on Gauribidanur-Koratagere Road in Tumkur.
Riyaz and Sheikh are out on bail and other culprits across the border remain unpunished because the Karnataka pcb cannot take action against anyone in other states. The board has asked its counterparts in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Puducherry to look into the matter and check illegal transportation. None of them has responded so far.
In Yadagere, Narasappa has started keeping a night vigil to inform the police about any outsider coming to the field. And some strangers did come--this time to check the state of affairs. "They were asking around about the waste. They spoke different language; I think they were from Tamil Nadu," Narasappa told Down To Earth. The villagers have been told not to use the water from the contaminated borewell. "It will take at least 10 years to regain the water quality," says Nayak. But dealers Afroze and Riyaz will get away with mild punishment--that is if they are convicted. They face charges under various sections of crpc and ipc, the maximum punishment for which is six months' imprisonment and a fine of Rs 500. "Such a punishment was fine when the laws were enacted, but now the generation of hazardous waste has gone up so much that dumping has become a crime equivalent to murder--they are exposing people to deadly diseases and snatching away basic amenities like drinking water from them," says Sharatchandra, the chairman of the Karnataka pcb.
Yadagere is just one case of illegal dumping of hazardous waste. It is happening on a wider scale. Cut to Chamrajnagar district, 137 km from Bangalore in a direction opposite to Tumkur. Some people in Kundakere village of Gundlupet taluka are calling for action against panchayat member Puttanajappa. His crime is that he allowed lorries to bring dangerous waste to his two-hectare field. "My land is barren, and a contact of mine told me that it would become fertile if I allowed some people from Kerala to dump biodegradable waste there," he says.What they dumped, however, was not biodegradable waste, but dangerous biomedical, municipal and slaughter house waste. Some bags bore the names of Kochi and Kaladi towns, which are 210 km away. Why would somebody want to spend so much money on transportation is a mystery the Karnataka pcb is still trying to solve.
Puttanajappa says he allowed 15 trucks of waste to be dumped in the pits in his field. "Majid from Gopika restaurant in Gundlupet town contacted me and said that he knew a few people who would dump waste in my land to generate compost. They paid Rs 1,365 per tonne which was spent on digging," he says. Here too six 10-foot-deep pits were dug to dispose of the waste and then covered with soil.
On villagers' complaint, the local pcb unit dug up the pits. It found medicine strips, plastic gloves and syringes besides bones and municipal solid waste, says Shakuntala Bai, regional environment officer, Chamrajnagar. Water samples taken from nearby borewells were found to have high levels of fluoride and magnesium. Fluoride can cause dental damage and birth defects, while magnesium intake can result in muscle weakness. The water was turbid. There is no evidence of the waste on the surface since most of the dug-up waste has been washed away.
pcb has told Puttanjappa to remove the waste from his land and dispose it of scientifically. "We have registered a case against Puttanjappa under Section 133 of crpc. How can he not know what kind of waste people are dumping in his land?" asks Shakuntala Bai. "I have told them the names of the people who brought the waste and also about Majid. Why doesn't pcb question them instead? If the waste has crossed the border, it must have been cleared at the check post. Obviously, those people were hand in glove with the check post people," says Puttanajappa.
The environment officer, however, says her department cannot ask the companies and hospitals in other states not to send waste. "All we can do is punish people here who, because of greed for money, do not bother about the environment and buy waste to dump it in their land," she adds.
In this case too, investigation was stalled at the state border. "The check posts have been issued directions not to let the lorries containing biomedical and other hazardous waste enter the state and many lorries have also been sent back," says Sharatchandra. In June-July, several lorries were caught dumping waste in Kodagu, Gundlupet and Mysore.
The third major case happened in Bangalore. On September 7, the Karnataka pcb received a call from an informer that some people were extracting copper from industrial effluents at Kambipura area in south Bangalore and discharging the waste water into the Vrishabhavati river. The officials, along with the police, raided the place. The land belonged to one Kotappa, who had allowed it to be used for the purpose. Effluents from industries were transferred from tankers to plastic barrels and then to a concrete tank where it was treated to recover copper. The untreated waste water was discharged into the river.
Interestingly, the police found a lorry with a Tamil Nadu registration number on the spot. They arrested its driver and the owner. They have registered an fir against them under Section 277 of ipc for fouling the water of a public reservoir. But the maximum punishment for this is just three months in jail and a fine of Rs 500. The pcb also sent a letter to the deputy commissioner of Bangalore, asking him to seize the premises and take action against Kotappa for using agricultural land for industrial purposes without the board's permission. It also told the officer to declare the land unfit for any use until remediated by the owner at his cost.
"We can take action only against the people we have caught red-handed, like the lorry driver in this case, the land owner in Gundlupet and Afroze in Tumkur. It is very difficult to trace the waste to the generator, and even if we do, there will be no concrete evidence to implicate the culprit," says Sharatchandra. "All that we can do is write to other state pcb s to keep a check on their industries but everything ends there."
"The Tumkur waste is incinerable and could have been easily disposed of. I don't know why they sent it all the way to Tumkur," says Nayak. In Tumkur the waste oil came from at least 340 km away in Cuddalore and 850 km in Raigad. So the transportation cost, in addition to the money paid to various middlemen, must have been huge, but still less than the cost of taking it to a treatment facility. A rough calculation shows that transporting a truck of waste from Cuddalore to Tumkur will involve a cost of minimum Rs 3,100 on diesel but a truck-full of barrels can fetch a dealer Rs 17,500.
Industrial units are dumping waste illegally because it is possible, easy and cheap--incinerating a tonne of waste can cost about Rs 11,000, but for a lesser amount one can give it to a middleman to dump it in somebody else's backyard. The rest of the cost will be distributed among the gullible people there. It's economic; it's criminal.
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