Action against polluting units gives Goa villagers some relief

 
By VASUDHA SAWAIKER
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

-- (Credit: Vasudha Sawaiker)POLLUTING industrial units in Cuncolim Industrial Estate, located about 10 km from Madgaon town in Goa, are beginning to feel the heat. On September 11, 2006, the Goa State Pollution Control Board (gspcb) issued closure notices to three units. Less than a month later, on October 6, it issued closure orders to five red category (most polluting) industrial units, and show-cause notices to eight green category (least polluting) units and one orange category (medium polluting) unit for operating without its consent.

Worse was to follow.The Panaji bench of the Bombay High Court upheld gspcb's directions against these polluting units and, in an order dated October 10, directed three independent teams of experts be set up under the guidance of the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (neeri), Nagpur, to assess air pollution, water pollution and disposal of solid waste from these units. The order was in response to a petition filed by Oscar Martins, a resident of Cuncolim. Martins had filed the petition in view of the extreme suffering being inflicted upon the residents of two villages in the immediate environs of the estate on account of severe pollution. Taking into account the gravity of the situation, the court also directed gspcb to conduct an environment impact assessment of the area with the help of these teams. Units which had been served notice by gspcb for causing pollution were told to deposit Rs 50,000 each to bear the expenses of the neeri teams, which have to submit their final reports by November 20.

The first three units were Nicomet Industries, Sunrise Zinc and Karthik Alloys. One of the five red category companies to fall into the net was Roquedal Lubricants, involved in recycling used oil, was operating without consent from the Central Pollution Control Board as mandated under the Hazardous Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, 1989.
Scattergun Martins, a local health insurance agent, had filed the petition on August 14, against the state government, gspcb, Cuncolim's health officer, the Cuncolim Municipal Council, the south Goa collector, the Union ministry of environment and forests and nine allegedly polluting units. The petition said the authorities had failed to control widespread and intense pollution and demanded immediate action against the polluting industries.

The subsequent actions of the court and gspcb have shown light at the end of a very long, very dark tunnel to the villagers of Simplear and Akamol, barely a kilometre from the estate. These villages have been devastated by pollution from the estate for the past 14 years. Previous complaints and exhortations for ameliorative measures had been ignored.

Under the banner of the Cuncolim Citizens Action Front, Ambauli Nagrik Samiti and Cuncolim Citizens Action Committee, the villagers had served a two-month ultimatum to the state government on August 22, demanding immediate closure of all polluting units and compensation for farmers whose lands had turned barren from pollution.

Cuncolim has a population of over 17,000 people. The estate is spread over 972,335 sq km. It has 57 registered units, most of which manufacture ferro alloys and steel.Villagers allege that none of the units follow proper waste disposal guidelines. Hazardous waste is dumped in the open and sometimes buried. Water bodies in and around Cuncolim have acquired lurid colours due to the presence of contaminants.

First complaint
The first complaint against pollution in Cuncolim was made by a resident, Paulino Rodrigues, about 15 months ago, to Joquim Alemao, the local mla. But there was no response. "Since April this year, we have been writing to various authorities, such as gspcb, the Cuncolim Municipal Council, department of irrigation and department of water resources seeking information on the nature of pollution and also requesting them to shut down defaulting factories," says Jorson Fernandes, a local doctor and advisor to the Cuncolim Citizens Action Front.

Then on August 5, 2006, water samples from Rodrigues's well were collected in the presence of gspcb officials and sent to the laboratory of Italab (Goa) Pvt Ltd for testing. "The lab reports confirmed my fears, since the well water was found to be highly contaminated. My well is about two kilometres from the industrial estate, so one can imagine the spread of pollution," says Rodrigues (see table Poisoned water). "There are various water bodies in and around Cuncolim. Earlier we used to fish and go for a swim in these water bodies, but now I will enter such water only if I want to kill myself," he adds.

Other villagers also allege that poisonous chemicals in carelessly dumped hazardous waste have seeped into Cuncolim's groundwater and surface water, and turned its soil infertile. "We used to bathe in the village lake, but for the past five years we get boils all over our bodies when we bathe there. The cattle have stopped reproducing. I have kept my land uncultivated for the last eight years. From a landowner, I have turned into a daily wage labourer," says Shamba Gaonkar, a 60-year-old villager from Simplear.

It is the same story in the neighbouring Akamol. "We cannot sleep at night because the noise from the factories is deafening. My grandchildren have got boils all over their bodies. I have not cultivated my land for nearly five years now. How am I supposed to feed my family?" asks Atonet Rebello, a 65-year-old villager.

It's not just the groundwater and the ponds. The Salaulim Irrigation Canal, which provides irrigation to a command area of 11,749 hectares in south Goa, also passes through the estate, though no study has been conducted to ascertain the safety of its water. Villagers claim that this canal has turned into a stormwater drain for industries. "Guidelines have been flouted and the department of water resources has been completely apathetic in its attitude. High levels of sulphates and chlorides cause allergic reactions and many people complain of itching after taking a bath. Consumption of water with high copper level may cause sporadic fever, coma and high blood pressure," warns Fernandes.

gspcb acknowledges the threat posed by such high levels of pollution and claims to have detected high levels of cadmium and lead in Cuncolim's water bodies, though its findings were not made available to Down To Earth.

The extent and nature of dumping is astonishing. Analysis of solid waste samples collected by gspcb on August 4 outside the estate showed a very high level of chromium 650 milligram per kilogram (mg/kg) against the permissible limit of 50 mg/kg as prescribed under the 1989 rules. dte found an area of about 10,000 sq m behind Sunrise Zinc's premises covered with mud to hide waste containing chromium.

"The chromium will reach the groundwater and run into to the Salaulim irrigation canal. gspcb also found thrice the permitted limit of cadmium in Rodrigues's well. Cadmium can cause testicular atrophy, kidney damage, growth retardation and injury to the central nervous system," says Fernandes.

There are other grave violations. This correspondent found 14,000 tonnes of untreated waste, covered with tarpaulin sheets on Nicomet Industries's premises in complete violation of gspcb guidelines. Sanjeev Joglekar, member secretary, gspcb, admitted he had seen it. He blamed shortage of manpower for the board's delayed action. Anup Kumar Mishra, production manager at Nicomet Industries, refused to comment.

Bigger picture
Turning to the bigger picture, environmentalists say Goa needs to set up its own hazardous waste disposal site. At present, such waste is sent to Taleja near Mumbai in Maharashtra. As per the directions of the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee on Hazardous Wastes, the state government had to set up such a site by June 2006. But the deadline has already been missed. Joglekar claims two such sites have already been identified and for one the environmental impact assessment has also been completed. By December this year such a site should become operational, he claims.

Whether or not that happens, what is clear is that it will take a long time to reverse the extensive damage that has already been done, even if the relief offered by the court and the board actually materialises. The light at the end of the tunnel is at the moment extremely dim.

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