Thursday, November 10, 2005

The corridor to hell

The second part of conversations with Michael Mazgaonkar (the first part, rural innovations, can be found here)..

In addition to their technology innovations, Michael and Swati actively drive the Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti which works on environmental issues. They work with other groups in raising awareness, trying to work with the government. In addition, they inform people of their rights and try to ensure that unchecked misuse and abuse does not happen in the name of development.

Now, the region from Ahmedabad to Vapi in Gujarat is called the “Golden corridor”, and is Gujarat’s industrial hub. Though productive, with many industries, almost every single pollution control or environmental law has been flouted here, and now the effects are being felt, and these effects are very, very harsh. Polluted Places (A Blacksmith institute project) describes the (almost unbelievable) amounts of pollution in this region.

Scores of industries illegally dump toxic waste by the Damaganga river. This flows in to the river, polluting the water source, as well as seeps in to the soil, and contaminates the aquifer itself. Michale and co tested the pH (a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of water) in various water sources, and found the pH as low as 3 in one region, and 11.5 in another. To bring things in to context, the natural pH of water (neutral) is just below seven. A pH of 3 makes it as acidic as dilute hydrochloric acid, and a pH of 11.5 that of calcium hydroxide (imagine drinking whitewash). An effluent plant in the region callously discharged untreated water (green, thick and foaming) passing it off as treated water. This plant was going to be funded by the World Bank, but Michael took photographic, videographic and scientific evidence to the officials, who first dismissed it, then incredulously found out that it was all true.

A more publicized case was that of Hema chemicals, a small chemical manufacturer. This company was found to have illegally dumped 300 tons of chromium waste (yes, 300 tons) by water sources, severely contaminating it. It took a very, very long time (faced with typical government apathy) to even counter this problem. In Michael’s own words:

·Over fifteen letters addressed to Pollution Control Board between 30th August '99 and 28th Aug '01 drew blank responses.
·After constant following up by PSS with GPCB they ordered discontinuance of power supply to the company on 3rd August '01 but it was not executed.
·PSS, through letters dated 7th August, 8th August '01 and 16th Aug '01 to GPCB pointed out that the company would use all means to circumvent execution of the order to discontinue its power connection.
·The order dated 3rd Aug '01 for disconnecting power supply was executed only on 17th Aug '01 but the company continued its operations using its private diesel generators.
·The company managed to pull strings in the corridors of power and managed to get its power supply restored on 18th Aug '01.
·GPCB was forced to act only after political interference in the matter was exposed through newspapers.

The government pretends that the problem does not exist, and their stand is to:

·disregard the fact that 70 % of its groundwater is not potable,
·to hide that there are illegal hazardous waste dumpsites on private, government lands, and river banks as well,
·be oblivious to the fact that major rivers including Sabarmati, Mahi, Narmada, Kolak, Par, Damanganga severely polluted,
·remain blind to the clear and present health threat to communities in the vicinity of industrial estates due to pollution,....

Hema was a small chemical company. A mega company like Aventis was caught red-handed dumping toxic waste illegally (in drums which still contained the company name). There isn’t even talk of taking action against them. In some areas, water from 100 feet deep can be pumped out. It appears clear. Leave it in the open, and it turns yellow, then brown, in 20 minutes.
In some downstream villages, cancer rates have gone up to over 1% of the population (compared to average rates of 0.05 to 0.2% (hotspot rate)). Still, the water continues to be used to grow food, and feed livestock. Most people are aware of these problems, but are unwilling to compel the industries to conform to law or basic safety standards, because they fear a loss of their jobs and livelihood. But as time goes by, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the consequences.
According to Indian law, companies are supposed to hold public hearings, there is a channel to petition, and violations of laws can be taken to court. However, there is now an effort underway, not unlike some of the recent proposals of the Bush administration, to do away with all pollution control laws, and to allow industries to voluntarily adopt non-polluting technology or to clean up. The proposal also takes away the right to a public hearing, or any mandatory disclosures of the industry.
Michael and Swati, with other groups in India, are trying to raise public awareness of this issue, as well as make them aware of their rights, and the consequences.
I have seen pretty bad cases of industrial pollution, but these specific numbers, callousness for the law (with encouragement from the government, in some guise of “development”) and degree of impact affected me deeply.
I also have another question. Many people support allowing industry to voluntarily act. However, here we see that in spite of regulations and (a distant) risk of prosecution, industry remains utterly callous to any such efforts. How then do people believe that industry will voluntarily adopt measures that benefit the locality and their own employees?
A developing country needs to learn from the mistakes made elsewhere. These problems of massive pollution have been faced by industrial Europe, and the United States, and many regions solved these problems the hard way. The technology to prevent these problems exist, and the laws and safety standards also do. Should not a developing country leapfrog towards such technology, rather than cripple itself first, and then heal itself?


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