Sunday, February 22, 2009

Raising a stink on the toxic peninsula

Raising a stink on the toxic peninsula - ExpressBuzz

G Babu Jayakumar
First Published : 21 Feb 2009 10:45:00 AM IST
Last Updated : 21 Feb 2009 10:55:10 AM IST

Marital alliance with outsiders is a difficult proposition for these villagers. Cocking their noses, prospective in-laws just take to their heels if at all they land in any of the 20 villages with a marriage proposal for their son or daughter, as the stench is just unbearable. It hits even those cruising along the highway (NH 45-A) all through the 8 km stretch, on which the Cuddalore SIPCOT Chemical Estate is located, and the local people have been living with the strange and pungent odours since 1984 when the factories started springing up.

However, for the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB), there is nothing amiss with the environment nor is there any reason for penalising the factories for polluting the air, or for the matter, water and land. It is a diffe­rent matter that the TNPCB office, which was originally located within the estate, was shifted one fine morning to Cuddalore town, a few km away — reportedly because the staff could not put up with the foul smell.

But the cavalier attitude of TNPCB officials spurred the people — whose real troubles began in 1982 when land acquisition for the industrial estate project was launched — into action and they started making noises, of course, to no avail.

With the foul odours drawing the attention of social and environmental activists like Nityanand Jayaraman, they raised a stink by inviting the Indian People’s Tribunal in Mumbai to hold a public hearing when yet another factory was proposed to be set up in the estate. That was in 2002.

It was then people like Shweta Narayan realised the local people, despite raising their voice against the managements of the factory, were not able to present their cases to the authorities, particularly TNPCB, with proper scientific evidence. Since instances of toxic waste release into the air and the Uppanar River on the estate’s eastern periphery were not documented methodically, the factories got away with them, what with the TNPCB not evincing interest in pulling up the big firms that owned these industrial units.

So, the environmentalists took upon themselves the task of training local activists, who had been waging a war without a focus, on various aspects of ecological protection. A batch of 35 people was first given training in water sampling in December 2003 and then another 12 persons were taught about air sampling in March 2004. The interaction between the local people, who found themselves caught in a ‘chemical peninsula’ (as one of them described it) and unequipped to fight the might of the corporate world, and the environmentalists led to the formation of the Community Environmental Monitoring group.

The barefoot environmentalists, having gained knowledge in the scientific aspects of monitoring the ecology, declared a war against pollution with Shweta providing them supp­ort from Chennai, 200 km away. Day and night, the monitors kept a vigil, looking for violations of environmental norms and also deliberating the release of waste into the river, which is still used by the people for fishing, and also in the air. They also evoked the provisions of the Right to Information Act to know the actions taken by the authorities.

Though only six of the trained persons are fully into monitoring — they eke their livelihood through other means — now, the others who underwent the training also help them out in the work with the entire local community providing them tip offs and alerts.

In January 2005, the six persons, G K Amirthalingam, T Arulselvam, J Parasuraman, S Pugazhenthi, S Ramanthan and S Sivasankar, along with Shweta, presented a comprehensive report ‘Groundtruths: Status of Hazardous Wastes and Pollution in SIPCOT Chemical Estate, Cuddalore’ to the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee with a view to throwing light on the functioning of the factories. The report highlighted the various violations of hazardous waste regulations and Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

Subsequently, the local monitors made repeated representations pointing out specific cases of violations to the TNPCB, police and the district collector, besides the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee. However, nothing was done to change the ground situation in the chemical estate, where every law is flouted with impunity, the monitors say.

Despite having the feeling that they are waging a losing battle against the polluters of their environment, the community soldiered on without letting down their vigil and the report ‘Goundtruths II: Status of Hazardous Wastes and Pollution in SIPCOT Chemical Estate, Cuddalore’ was published in December 2008.

Groundtruths II, however, presents a frightening picture, detailing how the TNPCB is brazen and callous in its attitude. It points to the lack of political will to implement the law and how the industries continue to pollute the environment. Yet the green warriors have not given up their fight.


Vignettes of a protest

Shweta Narayan spotted a lorry carrying barrels of some substance passing through Cuddalore on January 23, 2008 during peak hours. The driver said he had no papers of the substance he was transporting. But company officials said it was Aldehyde.

IIT Madras and TNPCB tested samples of the substance and reported it as ‘toxic waste’, highly inflammable. Where was the toxic waste dumped? How many people’s health it affected? No one knows. No action has been taken so far by the authorities against the company officials, she says.

Recalling that evening at the Cuddalore police station, Shweta says not a single government official was sympathetic to her. In fact, the way they looked at her for being a woman was degrading, she says.

Some ground truths

Of the 34 industries, now in operation inside the Cuddalore Chemical Estate, at least eight do not have a valid ‘Consent to Establish’ and 22 of them are operating without a proper license under Clean Air and Water Acts. At least 17 of them do not have a valid authorisation under the Hazardous Waste Rules and five of the seven units that require Coastal Regulation Zone clearance have not obtained it.

It is mandatory for certain categories of industries to conduct Environmental Impact Assessment and obtain clearances from the Central Government and TNPCB before commencing construction. In SIPCOT five instances of illegal construction was brought to the notice of TNPCB in the past two years but no action has ever been taken against the errant company officials.


Paman said...

Kudos! to you. You have rightly highlighted the situation prevailing in SIPCOT, cuddalore and the lethargy shown by the government officials towards environmental pollution.

I am working in a school located in the SH10 highway far away from the SIPCOT on the cuddalore-vridhachalam road. The chemical stink reaches here too. There are many schools mostly government elementary schools in the villages located around SIPCOT complex. The next generation (students) are constantly exposed to the polluted air and they often have respiratory disorders due to the chemical odours. I wonder whether you(environmentalists) have made any representation to the local public health department to investigate this health hazard.

Jean-Claude said...

Thanks for your comment and concern.

SIPCOT Area Community Environmental Monitorting (SACEM) members are working hard monitoring and reporting all kinds of violation to the authorities (TN Pollution Control Board and District Administration).

Authorities do not take any effective action. Since a larger section of the public is unaware or least bothered about these violations, it is easy for the polluters to escape with full impunity.

Please visit for more information.

Environmental activists need more volunteers to take this to public. Since you appear to be concerned, you can contact activists in the following link and contribute your time for the good work.