Fighting for a cause

K N Narayana Pillai, 75, is an ordinary citizen who has been suffering because of pollution from an industrial unit operating beside his house. He has been running from pillar to post for justice for the past two years but to no avail. He also wrote to Anil Agarwal, chairperson of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), asking for help. Down To Earth sent a team to investigate. The findings. You cannot get more lonely in a country in which its government could care less

By Janakiraman Saravanan
Published: Wednesday 31 January 2001

-- The rashes and burns on his scaly skin are not due to his advancing years. With red patches on his limbs and torso, this aged man is literally suffering from a two-year itch. His frail body stoops, overburdened not just with age but also the agony caused by his recalcitrant neighbour since 1998 and the apathy of the powers that be. Seventy-five-year-old K N Narayana Pillai is a victim of pollution and complete indifference to his plight on the part of the administration, the watchdog bodies and the bureaucracy.

Narayana Pillai resides at 3, Fourth Street, Radhakrishnan Road, Mylapore, Chennai, a primarily residential area. He has as his neighbour one A Subbarayalu, who runs a unit that prints and polishes sarees at 2, Fourth Street. The chemicals used for the purpose have caused pollution. The State Pollution Control Board, on its inspection, has found the trader discharges effluents into the metro sewer line untreated. Narayana Pillai has been persistently suffering from allergic dermatitis as certified by various doctors and has been under medication since mid-1998. "I have rashes and scars all over my body," Narayana Pillai writes. "This is caused by the pollution arising out of the activities of the unit."

Other residents in the area, including children of a nearby school too, suffer from skin rashes. The director of the school, who was very reluctant to talk about the problem, said the compound wall adjacent to the unit was raised and since then the rashes had subsided. This was corroborated by the school secretary. Another neighbour sold off his property and moved out because of the pollution that caused weals to appear on his skin and took up residence some distance away. When Down To Earth met him, he confirmed that he had been suffering from skin rashes due to the pollution from the unit that forced him to move out. However, both him and the school director were afraid to be named.

A textile printing unit could cause both air and water pollution. "It depends on the chemical dyes they are using," says K K Saxena, senior scientist with the Central Pollution Control Board. "Azo dyes, which are banned in our country, are often used by unscrupulous traders. They cause radiation that is aggravated by ultra violet rays and those working in units using such dyes are affected." Though such radiation is very mild, yet prolonged exposure is bound to create skin and eye ailments, she said. Professor H B Mathur of Delhi College of Engineering says, "Textile colours contain lead that causes radiation in the sun, leading to weakening eyesight." Or metallic dyes could be the cause of Narayana Pillai's skin rashes, opines Professor B K Guha of chemical engineering, iit Delhi.

But no one knows for certain the exact source of pollution as the authorities who are supposed to investigate have not done so. Fighting for one of his most basic rights -- the right to life -- Narayana Pillai has run from pillar to post for justice the last two years. And it has been delayed so long that it amounts to being denied. He has appealed to the State Pollution Control Board, prayed for justice at the Human Rights Commission, written to the chairperson of the pollution board, met the secretary of environment, been in touch with the board's inspectors, collected samples of pollutants from the unit and written to various newspapers.

The state pollution control board, in a directive issued on August 4, 1998, ordered closure of the unit, an order that was brazenly violated. It even directed that power supply to the unit be stopped. But the owner of the offending unit managed to get it restored within a couple of hours.It is interesting to note here that though the board officials were generally reluctant to investigate the matter, Narayana Pillai's letter to the editor published in The Hindu on December 4, 2000 brought board officials for an inspection the very same day. However, the unit was shut as it was raining. Narayana Pillai believes there might exist a nexus between the board officials and the owner of the unit as they always seem to arrive when activities at the unit are at their lowest.

The state human rights commission, on the other hand, left him with the advice of seeking relief in court while the chairperson of the pollution control board was too hard pressed for time to meet this grievously wronged citizen.

He has also written extensively to the chairperson of the Centre for Science and Environment, Anil Agarwal, who extended his advice and guidance in helping him seek redress to his problem. But he still struggles on. A lone warrior.

Excerpts of the letters exchanged between K N Narayana Pillai and Anil Agarwal clearly show the indifference on the part of the authorities:

K N Narayana Pillai: May 16, 2000: These days even residential areas are not spared by money hungry persons, who are out flouting rules and all canons of decency and discipline. To give an example, in a posh, residential locality like ours, a former executive of a premier oil company started a saree polishing and printing unit a year ago using chemicals. All the work was carried out in his open terrace facing my adjacent bedroom. Apart from the air pollution caused by the chemicals, the radiation from the sarees hung out in the sun in his open terrace converted my room into a furnace. I cannot spend a minute in my room. The plants and trees grown in abundance all around my residence cannot protect me from the pollution. I am suffering from skin rashes for the past year now.

My neighbour also got affected. We sought the help of Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB). After inspection they issued a closure order to the owner of the unit and also disconnected power supply. But within a couple of hours, the owner managed to get it restored. He assured the TNPCB that he would close the unit in writing but that remained on paper only. The board did not bother to confiscate his equipment and machinery used in the business. The unit continued to operate with impunity. Four doctors have tried to treat my skin rashes but in vain. I also sought the help of our chief minister in a letter. But that has been in vain. I moved to Madurai in end of August, 1999 and was treated there by a skin specialist. I was completely cured and I returned to my house mid-November. The unit's operations had stopped then. Unfortunately, it resumed again from December 1999. The front portion of my house has been encroached upon by unauthorised constructions and his vehicles. The walls of my house have also been defaced.

I am afraid for my life. Do I have to succumb to this pollution? Will any kind hearted lawyer take up my case in the green court?

ANIL AGARWAL: I was distressed to read your letter. I can well imagine the kind of problems you have gone through. I have repeatedly found that Pollution Control Boards pay very little attention to those affected by pollution. There is very little that I can do to help you from this distance.

The only recourse I see for you is to go to the courts. You can get in touch with Lawrence Surendra who has filed a public interest case related to pollution. He should be able to get you in touch with a pro-bono lawyer who can fight your case.

Meanwhile, is it okay if I send a copy of your letter to the Union minister of forest and environment T R Baalu?

K N: July 7, 2000 I complained to the TNPCB on May 20, 2000. Their latest inspection took place on June 1, 2000. The official saw my condition and watched the proceedings in the unit which engages child labour. I consulted a lawyer on June 6. When I came back home I fell unconscious. I am afraid of going to court. At the age of 74, I don't have the physical and monetary strength to fight a legal battle.

I met S Rajaratnam, secretary in the minstry of environment and forests on June 9. He took a copy of my petition to the TNPCB and its subsequent closure order and promised action.

You are at liberty to take up my matter with T R Baalu. I am grateful to you for your sympathy towards me.

A A: I am really sorry to hear that your problem has still not been solved. I will definitely write to T R Baalu. You could also try to reach Shekhar Raghavan, who is associated with the Centre for Policy Studies in Chennai and has initiated a major campaign for rainwater harvesting in the city.

A A: August 1, 2000 I am enclosing a photocopy of a letter I have just received from chairperson of the Central Pollution Control Board Dilip Biswas in response to my letter to minister for environment and forests T R Baalu. I would strongly suggest that you meet Sheela Rani Chunkath, the new chairperson of TNPCB. Please do meet her and let me know how it goes. In case you still have problems, I would suggest you meet a close friend of mine, Nirmala Lakshman, joint editor of The Hindu. She should be able to give some media publicity to your problem.

K N: August 9, 2000 I wrote to Sheela Rani Chunkath seeking her help on July 13. I requested her to release a press note stating that the unit is banned and anyone indulging in transactions with it will be liable for prosecution. The intention is to facilitate its natural death. I have been trying to meet the chairperson but her secretary says she is too busy to meet me.

I am afraid corrupt politicians are hand in glove with corrupt officials who encourage such illegal ventures taking law abiding citizens for a ride. My plight has been published in Mylapore Times and in Madras Musings. Meanwhile, in response to my letter the State Human Rights Commission, Tamil Nadu advised me to seek relief in court.

K N: September 11, 2000 The pollution control board order for disconnecting supply to the unit was forwarded to the wrong address of the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board. Another resident, who is also suffering because of the pollution, detected the error and used his influence to send it to the right address. The order is now finally in the hands of the assistant executive engineer of the electricity board in Mylapore. But he has not taken any action so far allowing the proprietor to resort to manipulations.

A A: I am sorry to hear that your problem has still not been sorted out. I would still strongly urge you to meet Sheela Rani Chunkath, the chairperson of the TNPCB. Please do go and meet her and, if necessary, give her our reference.

K N: September 19, 2000 Since no action was taken by the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board to stop power supply to the unit, I met the secretary of environment and forests ministry, Raja Ratnam, and briefed him in writing. A copy of the letter was sent to Sheela Rani Chunkath. They were further reminded by a letter dated September 15 when activities in the unit reached a climax that aggravated my rashes.

An affected neighbour rang the member secretary of the TNPCB and appealed to him to send an official for inspection. The joint chief environmental engineer came and inspected the unit. I showed him my rashes, told him about the radiation stemming from the hundreds of sarees hung out in the sun just a few feet away from my bedroom. I also told him about the nuisance arising from an operating unit in a residential area. I requested him to see my room for himself. But he refused and left without any assurance.

My neighbour and I suspect that contrary to the spirit of the letter dated August 7, 2000 for cutting off power supply to the unit, the TNPCB orally instructed the state electricity board not to stop power to the unit, thus giving a free hand to the owner to continue the illegal operations in the unit.

An old man like me depends on the rule of law and the authorities to implement it but I have been thoroughly disillusioned in this regard. I shall seek legal recourse in the courts.

A A: I am sorry to hear that you continue to have problems. I would strongly suggest that you see Sheela Rani Chunkath and giver her our reference. I am sure she should be able to help you out. We have found her to be an extremely serious person.

K N: October 25, 2000 I have forwarded copies of your letter to Sheela Rani Chunkath's secretary praying for a meeting. For the past three months I have been trying to see her but she has been evasive. As suggested by you, I have met Shekhar Raghavan. He has been narrating endless violations of court orders by criminals. He has also warned me of possible manhandling if I proceed further. An affidavit has been kept ready to be filed in the green court. Well-wishers have sent paper cuttings highlighting their woes. The message emanating from these is clear. The TNPCB is itself polluted. Hence, even if I go to court and win it may be futile.

Vandalism continues with the support of politicians who are hand in glove with corrupt officials. I am convinced that I have to take things lying down. I thank you for your support.

A A: I am really very sorry that you are going through so much trouble. It is sad what our country has become. All of us have become so helpless that nothing really happens.

K N: January 1, 2001 The Hindu published my letter 'Protection for whom' on December 4, 2000. The same day, an assistant engineer from the TNPCB inspected the unit. But there was no activity at the unit then as it was raining.

I suspect that there is an understanding between the unit owner and the board officials so that the unit stops working whenever they come for inspection. As a result, the entire inspection is a sham with the unit presenting a clean slate that leads to a false nil activity report.

... the story of his harassment continues.

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