Western tragedy

Eerie silence is all that is countering environmental pollution

Published: Saturday 15 April 2000

Western tragedy

The fertiliser plant of Dharam (Credit: TRINATH ACHARYA)"Industrialisation is a national priority and it has to take place. In Maharashtra we have demonstrated that industrialisation would bring prosperity," says Sharad Pawar, former chief minister of Maharashtra who has been an important player in national politics as well. "We have been able to concentrate on industrialisation consistently and thus there is a mad rush among the industries to set up their plant in Maharashtra," he says with a proud air. What he says is not untrue. But what Pawar's statement hides is another story.

The state of the national economy can be gauged from Maharashtra. It generates the highest amount of tax revenue and has the highest gross domestic product (gdp) among all the states. A recent survey by a business magazine identified it as the most investment friendly state of the country. Even before India's independence, it was the most industrialised state, accounting for half of national cotton and sugar production at the time. Its capital Mumbai -- known as the business capital of India -- hosts almost half of the industrial units in the state. The Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (midc) has created 265 industrial estates. Officials in the state industry department say that industrialists are more powerful here than the chief minister.

"Maharashtra's coast has a well developed petroleum industry, which attracts different chemicals units. Besides, the state unofficially projected the sea as a free dumping ground for these hazardous industrial units," says Rashmi Patil, professor at the Centre for Environmental Science and Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai. "The state is well connected to the international market through air and sea. Chemicals industry, which thrives on the export market, is more interested in Maharashtra and Gujarat," she adds. Maharashtra accounts for one-fourth of the national annual turnover of the chemicals sector.

All the industrial superlatives do not come without a cost. As industrialisation started resulting in high gdp and revenues, the state began paying a heavy cost in terms of environmental degradation, particularly due to the massive concentration of the chemicals industry. The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (mpcb) points out that the air of almost every major town of the state is unsuitable for breathing. The health costs due to this run into several crore rupees. The state has been reporting the highest number of accidents related to chemicals since 1985, followed by Gujarat, according to the Union ministry of environment and forests (mef). mpcb indicates that 80 per cent of the units in the state pollute water, while 15 per cent pollute the air. Of the 83,000 industrial units in the state, 50 per cent are in the chemicals, fertilisers and textiles sectors.

After using virtually every inch of space in cramped urban areas like Mumbai, the state government is now taking industrial development to rural areas. "That is industrialisation's final assault on the state," says Shanta Chatterji, an environmentalist working with Clean Air Island, an ngo working campaigning for clean air. "The industrial growth is based on outdated technology and without any respect to the environment. This had definitely resulted in environmental degradation," says Rashmi Mayur of the International Institute for Sustainable Future, who is involved in many environmental cases in the Mumbai High Court.

Recession increases pollution
The Indian economy has not been in the best of shapes for the past two-three years. Its effects can be seen clearly in Maharashtra, the most industrialised state of the country. One would imagine that an economic slump would result in less pollution. Incorrect. In face of the economic recession, more and more industrial units are failing in pollution control norms. To save money and reduce the cost of production, industrialists are not investing in pollution control machinery.

MPCB carried out a survey from April 1995 to March 1999 to identify units without adequate pollution control devices. "Almost all industries on banks of rivers or drinking water sources were found inadequate in pollution control measures," says an official involved with the survey. According to K H Mehta, member secretary of mpcb, industrialists are totally against pollution control norms as such and the economic recession has just provided the right excuse. "The economic recession has adversely affected the industrial sector and the government is trying hard to bring in more investments," says T N Mahadevan, scientist with the Bhaba Atomic Research Centre and secretary of the Society for Clean Air, a Mumbai-based ngo.

Small-scale chemicals industrial units of Mumbai, the first to be hit by the economic recession, are now being used by big chemicals factories outside Mumbai for illegal discharge of their untreated effluents into the sea. It helps the sick small-scale industrial units earn some quick money. In recent years, it has been seen that chemicals factories in remote areas of Maharashtra, who do not want to spend much on effluent treatment, are selling their effluents as 'chemicals' to these sick units, which, in turn, dump the effluents into the sea. "This is a very organised crime and basically aimed at saving money on pollution control," says Mehta. "There are reports of factories in Gujarat dumping their effluents in Mumbai through sick companies that earn around Rs 4,000-5,000 per tanker of effluent disposed," says another mpcb official.

Though the state government has done precious little to control this, it is doing its best to further promote industrialisation. According to the state's industry department, the financial allocation of midc has been increased and it is embarking on a major land acquisition drive in the backward areas of the state. It is rumoured that the corporation is acquiring 30,000 hectare of land. But there are no funds for pollution control. Six thermal power plants are yet to install pollution control measures. "We cannot blame them as the government does not provide the fund for pollution control machinery," says Mehta. The state government has stopped fresh recruitment to the board. A mere 150 technical mpcb officers are responsible for monitoring some 80,000 industrial units.

MIDC and industrial hell-holes
You go to any industrial estate of midc, you would find the same situation: either the river besides it is polluted or the residents of the area are suffering from several kinds of illnesses. Effluent flowing in open drains, careless dumping of hazardous waste and emission of poisonous gases are the common features of midc estates.

The Thane-Belarpur industrial area (tbia), the largest industrial estate in the country with a turnover of above Rs 4,000 crore, provides the real picture of industrialisation in Maharashtra. Situated along the Thane creek, its 40 per cent area is occupied by more than 1,200 industrial units. The effluents from these are drained into the creek after partial treatment. Some 25,000 cubic metre of wastewater from the factories is dumped into the sea everyday. The Ecology and Environment Inc of New York, usa, conducted a study on the tbia for the Maharashtra government in 1995. It points out that "some wastewater is discharged with minimal or no treatment". The effluents score quite high on several pollution parameters, and studies have traced heavy metal like lead and cadmium in the Thane creek.

In Chembur, industrial units discharge some 500,000 cubic metre of industrial wastewater to the Thane lower creek. Sandip Rane, a cardiologist and the president of Chembur's Smoke Affected Residents' Forum, says, "While vehicular pollution has peaked in Mumbai, industrial pollution is adding to it. Chembur is simply hell. The health impact must be serious, though no comprehensive study has been done on this." According to an estimate of the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (igidr), poor air quality costs people living in Chembur as much as Rs 35 lakh each year. Moreover, they have to avail of free government services like hospitals and municipal services worth Rs 20 lakh. No wonder the property rates have fallen in Chembur.

Solid waste: hazardous dilemma
Mumbai, with a population of about 10 million, produces more than 5,000 tonnes of solid waste per year. There are 40,000 small- and large-scale industrial units in the city, 523 of them in the chemicals sector, 531 in textiles and 9 deal with pesticides. One-fourth of the solid waste generated in Mumbai is toxic, according to the Environmental Status of Mumbai, a publication of the Greater Mumbai Municipality Corporation.

Maharashtra generates 195,000 tonnes of hazardous waste per year through 3,908 industrial units. This is supposed to be managed by midc. Though there has been a move to identify eight dumping sites, only one is operational. "Three years have passed since the government decided to allocate land for it. But we are yet to see any other sites except the one operating near the Thane-Belarpur estate," says Mahadevan.

Rivers: weeping black tears
MPCB says 75 per cent of the rivers in the state are polluted by industry. If you want to know the state of the Mulla river near Pune, speak to Rahim Muqbal Sheikh, a commercial painter. He spends his evenings on the bank of the Mulla. "I come here just to get a feel of the river," he says. The 35-year-old Sheikh is a key witness to Mulla's slow death. He has seen fish, the water crystal clear and its ferocity during monsoon. "The vibrant fishing community has disappeared with the fish," says Prakash Gole of the ngo Ecological Society.

Since the 1970s, Pimpri, one of India's premier industrial estates, has taken its toll. The river is so polluted that it is not even suitable for survival of crabs, considered some of the toughest creatures when it comes to surviving water pollution, says Gole. A 1997 study by the University of Pune observed that the water of the river just before entered Pimpri was potable, while at the point it left Pimpri, it was highly polluted.

The fate of Patalganga river is no better. The river flows besides the industrial area called Rasayani (which means chemicals in Hindi/Marathi) in Khapoli town of Raigad district. The Society for Clean Environment, a Mumbai-based ngo which has conducted a survey of the area, estimates that more than 15 million litres of highly polluted effluents are discharged into the river everyday. In January 1988, the executive engineers at Panvel examined the water at the intake point of the Chauna water supply scheme, which dams the river water for supply, and declared it unfit for human consumption, stripping 42 villages with 45,000 people of their only water source.

Since 1972, local residents have been protesting sporadically against the government and the industry. In 1988 the Bombay Environmental Action Group (beag) filed a public interest petition. In 1987 the villagers alleged that due to flushing of chemical residue into the river, the water had become acidic and it burnt crops in field. The state government and the pollution control board never gave any importance to this allegation. The Mumbai zonal laboratory of the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (neeri) finally exposed the government's ignorance. It after examination of the sample of water supplied from the Chauna water supply scheme observed that the water required proper disinfection and remarked that the water was unfit for drinking. The villagers reported large-scale mortality of fish in 1988.

The state government denied any pollution in the area and even defended the industrial units. The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board denied that the water of the Patalganga river had become wholly unfit for human consumption due to pollution. The court set up an expert committee to ascertain the truth. It said that the mpcb needs to be more vigilant in monitoring the industrial units. The case is still going on in the high court since. Though the Mehta of mpcb says that all the industrial units in the area are pollution free now, the river still looks 'faint green' and villagers protest saying that there is a nexus between the industrialists and pcb members.

What has aggravated the problem is the Tata Hydro Electric Power Station at Khopoli, which blocks the river flow to generate electricity for Mumbai. Some five years ago the flow in the river came to such a low that it was not even flushing away the effluents discharged by factories, turning it to an effluent drain. The petition of the beag said that "the peaking power requirement for Bombay city is not more important than drinking water for about 100,000 people".

Why isn't there any attention?

The rivers are polluted. The sea is polluted up to five km. Agriculture has become less productive in many industrial areas. Yet there is hardly any notable movement or protest against industrial pollution. And if there is any, it either fizzles out in face of an insensitive government or people involved abandon it half way. "Except jeevan sanghrash (the battle to survive), there is no other battle in the state," says Tulsidas Mishra, a resident of Mumbai. "In the past decade environment pollution cases are getting highlighted due to public interest litigation. But we are yet to boast of a major environmental movement," says Debi Goenka.

One reason for it comes from Ashish Kothari of the Pune-based ngo Kalpavriksha: "The stagnation in agriculture and spread of drought encouraged industrialisation. The state is depending more on industry now. A large portion of the population is working in industries, so a sustained movement against it is really difficult."

As part of its economic reformation, the state government has waived the mandatory permission of the district collector before converting agriculture land into industrial use. According to people of Marbad village in Thane, this has contributed to pollution. As agricultural lands in drought-prone areas are unproductive, many industrial houses are buying these lands at throwaway prices. "It's easier to pollute in rural areas given the level of awareness among the village folk," says Shanta Chatterjee.

In its annual review report, mpcb says: "On the industrial front, a licensing policy was pursued which prohibited industrial production of a large number of products beyond a particular capacity. This also prohibited the industries from achieving scale of economical production and setting up of pollution abatement plants with a zero pollution concept, these being unviable."

But Mahadevan says the absence of public opinion on these issues is due to the ineffectiveness of the agencies concerned: "It is really very difficult to find any data on the environmental status. mpcb doesn't come out with any study or survey on the state's rivers or air pollution. So the people do not have strong base to contest the powerful industrial lobby." On his part, Mehta defends mpcb: "We do not have that kind of resources to monitor." Says Mahadevan: "There is no independent source of information and the credibility of mpcb is suspected due to government pressures." Goenka, who is fighting the case against pollution of the Patalganga river, says, "Lack of information and the officials hesitation in giving you the available information are major hurdles that one would face while fighting pollution in the state. Apart from the court room, I was fighting a battle outside -- for more information on the water quality."

From here, whence?

Maharashtra was the first state in India to have water pollution control legislation in India in 1970. In the same year, mpcb was established. Although there are elaborate provisions in the law, factories continue polluting. "Implementation is zero," says Goenka. In its review of all the cases pending in the courts, mpcb says there was no effective control on containing the pollution in the intervening period. To curb this, it has started asking for bank guarantee from the industrial units, which would enable the board to force the industries to adhere to pollution control norms within the stipulated time frame.

It said that the laws are based on a command and control regime with an emphasis on punitive rather than pro-active and preventive measures. Undue emphasis is placed on criminal procedure. "We cannot close a unit for more than a week or, say, for 15 days. Beyond that we get pressure from political leadership," says Mehta. "Due to the nexus between politicians and industrialists, factories have been given unprecedented freedom; even the freedom of degrading our environment," says Chatterjee. "Industrial houses appease politicians by giving them construction contracts and in return they get very little punishment for their crimes," says Rashmi Mayur. "The process of taking industry to the court is torturous and drags on for years. We have cases which are pending since 20 years."

Jyoti Parikh of igidr says, "The government has to now adopt the 'polluters pay' method apart from having a policy of encouraging environment friendly industry with economic incentives." The most industrialised state of India direly needs an overhaul of the way it perceives environmental pollution. Otherwise its workers like Gokul Rao and Aniruddha Mohanty will continue to live a miserable life till a more miserable deaths relieves them. The chances of the politicians waking up to address this cause are quite faint, although they have the power. Now, it is up to the civil society to become more powerful. It can make a small beginning by compiling all the information available in the state on industrial pollution. Knowledge is the ultimate power. It is also the only tool for the civil society.

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