Stranger in his land

One man in a hopeless struggle against an environmental criminal. It could be you tomorrow

By Mario
Published: Wednesday 31 January 2001

A simple question: who governs this country? K N Narayana Pillai of Chennai cannot get the answer, two years of running from pillar to post notwithstanding. What he's got, instead, is more scales and rashes on his skin. His neighbour runs a saree printing unit, which pollutes the residential area. Pillai has written to almost every minister and official who can do something about the situation. The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (tnpcb) has issued two closure notices to the owner of the unit. The board has asked the state electricity board to disconnect the power supply. Yet the unit functions with impunity (see pp 55-57: Getting under the skin).

Pillai's problem is that his skin is not as thick as that of the politicians and bureaucrats, and that he doesn't have the money to fight a lengthy court case. Some neighbours have sold off their property and moved out of the locality. Pillai hasn't. What he demands is very basic. A clean environment around his house, free of dangerous pollutants. The law promises him just that. But Pillai can't get it. Even in a city like Chennai, where the environmental track record is a shade better than most other Indian cities. The chairperson of tnpcb has a reputation of being a dynamic official. But all to no avail. The polluting unit doesn't exist in official records.

How do you deal with this? Well, you don't. You can't. It is a lesson that the Centre for Science and Environment of New Delhi learnt about two years ago while responding to complaints of some residents of Peeragarhi on the northwestern fringe of Delhi. Several plastic recycling units operate in the locality. But they can't be closed because they don't exist. Officially, that is. There are bound to be several others like Pillai. Most don't know that their problems are related to factories operating in residential areas. What everyone does know is that factories are important for generating jobs. If you can smell the stench emanating from the 'system' and feel the tragedy that Pillai lives, the least you could do is write to him and to the administration of Tamil Nadu.

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