When homemakers unite

Housewives in Kolkata move the court against the irresponsible and negligent functioning of factories in their area

By Jayanta Basu, Jayanta Basu
Published: Wednesday 31 July 2002

When homemakers unite

Every once in a way, one comes across an instance that reestablishes faith in the tools of the establishment. Take the case of the Behala public interest litigation (pil), for example. About a hundred housewives from Behala, situated in the southern part of the city of Kolkata, approached the green bench of the High Court of Calcutta in February 1997. They submitted before the court that their "health and well-being are in danger" due to the selfish and indiscreet functioning of various factories -- chemical, plastic, paints, spray painting, printing, metal plating (galvanising) and plastic dusting -- in their area. They said that these factories are responsible for water, air and noise pollution and also pose the danger of fire outbreak due to negligence and irresponsible functioning.

The petitioners claimed that they had been through the regular administrative rounds, to no avail. They approached the West Bengal Pollution Control Board (wbpcb), Calcutta Municipal Corporation (cmc), district magistrate, South 24 Parganas, even the West Bengal Fire Service, all to no effect.

"Behala pollution is a classic example of what could happen if you do not have an effective land use plan in place," opined a senior environment department official. The wbpcb report seems to agree. "As per the land use and development control plan, the areas of Behala as mentioned in the writ petition falls under category 'RI' (residential industrial). No clear policy guidelines have been formulated regarding the status of existing industries," the report says.

These explanations do not impress the likes of Asima Biswas or Namita Mondal, housewives living in Behala. The residents of the area had approached the court earlier and that case had gone on to the Supreme Court. The apex court had remarked in its November 1996 order that the "area is primarily residential". "The euphoria of the Supreme Court verdict quickly died out, and the problem continued unabated," they say.

On an earlier case by residents of the area, the apex court had directed neeri (National Environmental Engineering Research Institute) to conduct a study of the area. Based on this study, the court ordered that six polluting industries of the Chanditala cluster must be shifted out. Things did not improve much with the court order.

"It was at this point that we came up with the idea of starting a movement of the housewives of Behala. As non-working women, we are most vulnerable to the pollution of the area, by virtue of being exposed to it for the maximum amount of time," states Sutapa Bhattacharya, who was one among the first to take the initiative and organise the housewives of the area.

"Initially, we formed a small group, which would move from household to household in the evenings or on holidays, so as to spread awareness among the local population. Soon the numbers swelled, as housewives of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds joined the group. This is when we started to build a corpus fund to fight the problem. The sustained movement continued. We tried various methods to get at our goal -- posturing and roadblocks, for example," said Bhattacharya.

"Consider the number of industries scattered throughout West Bengal. With the present infrastructure facilities available with the wbpcb, it is practically impossible to monitor these industries," stated the wbpcb's affidavit to high court. The court ordered an inquiry into the matter. The wbpcb report on the inquiy indicates that the units are polluting, but is not threateningly so. As things stand, the housewives' litigation is still pending.

The problem is not new, neither is the face off between industries and residents. This takes nothing away from the significance of this initiative by a largely silent, politically unorganised group.

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