Plastic’s toxic trail: The curious case of India’s petrochemical refineries

India's legislations do not mandate it to create a baseline health assessment of the population before setting up factories with the potential of harming the environment and human health
The Panipat industrial cluster visited by Down To Earth. Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE
The Panipat industrial cluster visited by Down To Earth. Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE

Panipat houses a petrochemical industrial unit that is operated by Indian Oil Corporation Ltd (IOCL). In 2018, the then sarpanch (head) of a village named Singhpura Sithana had filed a case against the refinery in the National Green Tribunal (NGT), accusing it of causing groundwater pollution, air quality deterioration and negatively impacting the health of residents in the nearby villages.

A joint committee consisting of the Haryana State Pollution Control Board, Central Pollution Control Board and Council for Scientific and Industrial Research- National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (CSIR-NEERI) was formed for inspection. The joint committee submitted a report for consideration of the NGT. The analysis noted that the samples from the unit’s Effluent Treatment Plant (ETP) were found to be non-compliant. Untreated effluent was being discharged in green belts, ambient air quality was exceeding norms, volatile organic compounds (VOC) were causing irritation in locals’ eyes and the inspection team observed that there was a strong odour in the area.

The joint inspection team calculated and pegged the environmental compensation at Rs 659.49 crore. The CSIR-NEERI, in its report to NGT, calculated the health damage cost due to respiratory diseases to be Rs 6.45 crore. The report stated that the plant affected the human health of more than 7,500 people between 2015 and 2019. Of the total environmental compensation levied, IOCL has paid up approximately Rs 44 crore in four installments till date.

The former sarpanch of Singhpura Sithana (located 1 km from the refinery), told Down To Earth (DTE): “IOCL has not taken enough corrective measures to get their act together. Even today, the factory continues to emit harmful gases. We are forced to wake up from our sleep almost every day between 3 and 4 am due to rampant leakages and emissions from the plant that go unnoticed by the regulators. We don’t have a choice but to stay here because of our fields that provide us livelihoods and food.”

George Mohan, former senior scientist at the Delhi Pollution Control Committee, told DTE: “There are standards and measures to check the stack emissions. But the fugitive emissions that happen from the plants, continue to be an ignored area and are often overlooked.” Not recording fugitive emissions from plants can lead to misinformation about the actual emissions emanating from a plant.

The present sarpanch Satnam Singh, agreed that there are problems related to the operations of the plant and that they are affecting the health of the local population. He, however, added that “the plant is an asset for the state and each day of down time in operations leads to crores of rupees in losses. There was a lot of political pressure from the state and the Centre to withdraw the case and resume operations.”

Satnam added that health problems because of the refinery are prevalent in his village: “Children as young as 5 years have been advised to use nebulisers and some rely on the support of inhalers on a regular interval to relieve symptoms of breathlessness,” he said.

Ramkaran Sindhal, a general physician who has been practicing in Sithana for close to two-and-a-half decades, said: “I started my practice around the same time the refinery became operational. In the last couple of decades, cases of respiratory tract problems have gone up by at least 40 per cent, while skin problems have increased by over 80 per cent.”


The problem is not limited to Haryana alone. There are 21 petrochemical refineries spread across 13 states. The cumulative refining capacity of these plants is 29.16 million metric tonnes per annum. Private companies have control over 74 per cent of the production capacity. Reliance India Limited (RIL) accounts for 44.68 per cent of the total refining capacity of the country, while public sector undertakings control 26 per cent, with IOCL accounting for 10.6 per cent of the total refining capacity.

The plastic industry works in tandem with the petrochemical industry. Since the feedstock for making plastics comes from the petrochemical industry, they are always in close vicinity.

A state pollution control board official from the southern part of the country — a state that houses 3 petrochemical companies — when asked about any written report that continually monitors the emissions from the petrochemical companies, told DTE on condition of anonymity: “The report that regulators like the state pollution control board submits, is aligned with the expectations of the chemicals and petrochemicals department.”

This points to the opacity in the reporting mechanism that has been created for the petrochemical industry by the governments we have voted to power. It points out that the economic interests of our governments outweigh the human health (voter) concerns. The state pollution control board officials were only able to provide a preliminary Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report that was submitted by the plant when it became functional, adding that they do not have any other data with respect to the plant.

There is a dearth of studies in India that assess the human health impact. The country’s legislations do not mandate it to create a baseline health assessment of the population before setting up factories with the potential of harming the environment and human health. This should feature in the current Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) mechanism.

The situation is even more grave in Gujarat, where medical practitioners are not willing to talk about the health impact on the workers or the local population for fear of being slapped with legal charges of defamation by giant petrochemical refinery operators. None of them denied the impacts of the petrochemical operations outright, but also did not want to comment — even anonymously.

Where does available data point to?

The Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare recently released the fifth National Family Health Survey report (NFHS-5). The report provides a database of over 700 districts across 36 states and Union territoriess in India.

Researchers at the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment used this database to compare the cases of acute respiratory infection (a common problem reported during field visits and interactions with experts) in children below five years of age in those districts that have a refinery, to the remaining districts of the state that do not have one.

Sr. no. State/UT Average Acute respiratory infections (%) in the districts housing a petrochemical refinery (in children below 5 years of age) Average Acute respiratory infections (%) in the districts NOT housing a petrochemical refinery (in children below 5 years of age) Percentage increase/decrease
1 Andhra Pradesh 2.1 2.3 -20
2 Assam 2.2 2.53 -33
3 Bihar 3.1 3.52 -42
4 Gujarat 1.4 1.2 20
5 Haryana 4.7 2.19 251
6 Karnataka 0.9 1.75 -85
7 Kerala 2.6 2.4 20
8 Maharashtra 1.7 3.35 -165
9 Odisha 7.1 3.01 409
10 Punjab 9 2.72 628
11 Tamil Nadu 1.7 0.93 77
12 Uttar Pradesh 6.4 3.48 292
13 West Bengal 3.8 2.99 81
Source: National Health Family Survey 5, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, 2019-21

The data analysis reveals that 8 of the 13 districts have recorded a higher number of instances when the children below 5 years of age experienced cases of acute respiratory infection. In 4 states, the increase in such incidences in districts that house a petrochemical refinery is in the range of 250 per cent to over 600 per cent. While the remaining 4 states have recorded an increase between 20 per cent to 80 per cent.

The health survey does not record data for skin-related diseases, something that the workers and populations around refineries in Panipat have been complaining about.

This is the second in a 5-part series. Read the first, thirdfourth and fifth parts.

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