Fishy Tales: how industry is destroying a river, a way of a life and a community's health in Cuddalore

By VK Shashikumar
Murthy, a fisherman from Sonanchawdi village in Cuddalore despairs over the chemical influx in the Uppanar River. “Our fishing activities have been grievously affected and the children in our community show signs of chemical poisoning. They complain of breathing disorders and nausea. The children are not growing properly and there are many who have stunted growth. It seems there is something wrong with their bones. A 14-year-old girl looks like she is 7 or 8. Many of our community members also complain of infertility.”
But the most damaging impact has been on the fishing trade. “Even Germany is not buying our prawns any more because of the chemical contamination. The prawns that we catch can find no market and are thrown away. There’s no bottom life in the riverbed any more, no algae, nothing for the fish to feed on. Earlier when we caught the fish they would be alive for 5 minutes, now they don’t even survive for 30 seconds,” says Murthy.
The fishermen say that during the rainy season the water level rises and washes away the contamination in the water and the silt in the river doesn’t have many contaminants enabling survival of bottom life on the riverbed. At this time the prawn catch is good. Pollution has made fishing dependent on the rainy season.
Sukumar, a fisherman from Thaikalthunithorai village says that people
have generally stopped eating fish in this region because there seems to be direct relation between consumption of toxic contaminants in the fish and health problems like headaches and blisters on the body. “We have a dug a 300 feet bore well to draw out drinking water. But this water can’t be stored beyond a day because it begins to smell and we have also noticed that an oily film on the surface of stored water.
Vasanta from Eechankaadu village bemoaned the cancer of pollution that
has destroyed the Uppanar River. “The chemical in the water corrodes
kitchen utensils,” she said. “The Uppanar was beautiful earlier. The
children would go there, so would the cattle. Now it’s filled with
sludge. If you step in it you will instantly develop skin rashes.”
Read this account of Bhopal survivors’ leader and Goldman Prize winner Champadevi Shukla’s visit to Cuddalore in 2002
Twenty years ago when SIPCOT industrial estate was set up in Cuddalore it was done without taking environmental degradation into account. Like most project planning in India, planners of industrial estates ignored the heavy price that communities and the eventually the country pays when the sustainability of the ecology is not factored as the key element of any industrial development plan. “First they started building big companies. For the first few years we couldn’t tell the difference but soon we realised that our lives would be changed forever by the pollution emanating from the industries,” said Vasanta.
According to Nityanand Jayaram, a writer and environment activist who
took an active part in training the villagers to monitor analyse and
document environment pollution, “chemical odours are an indicator of
gross pollution and that the release of toxic gases from industries
represents a case of hazardous waste dumping into the atmosphere.”
Currently, no regulatory agency requires or monitors the air for toxic
gases such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and sulphur compounds.
Fed up with the degrading quality of their lives the villagers in
Cuddalore helped by Jayaram and other activists resolved to make their
habitats safe for future generations. The villagers in Cuddalore now go on regular pollution patrol exercises. They collect air samples and
analyse them for pollutants. This grassroots movement has even attracted the attention of the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee.
SIPCOT Area Community Environmental Monitors are the first to have
conducted a study on toxic gases in ambient air in India. The findings of the report confirm that residents in SIPCOT have been exposed to toxic gases for at least 20 years. The report’s findings corroborate the persistent complaints by residents about pollution-related health effects and bear particular relevance to the health of women, children and the elderly who spend all their time within the polluted confines of the SIPCOT villages.
In fact, the SCMC has referred to the ‘Gas Trouble’ generated by the
villagers of Cuddalore. The Committee also said that such studies ought to be carried out by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB). “The Board ought to seriously respect the ‘data’ provided in the complaints by human beings and the living sensors of human ears, throats and skin to industrial pollution,” stated SCMC.
The TNPCB has yet to come out with authentic information regarding the
nature and levels of toxic gases in the ambient air in the residential
areas in and around SIPCOT. The ‘Gas Trouble’ report has indicated
presence of 22 toxic chemicals that are harmful to eyes, respiratory
system, central nervous system, skin, liver, heart, kidney etc. Some of these chemicals are even known to cause cancer. Air quality measurements conducted by village monitors at different locations have reportedly shown concentration of toxic gaseous compounds far in excess of standards permissible under the United States Environment Protection Agency (USEPA). For many of these compounds there is no Indian standard as yet.
The SCMC has set an ultimatum to the TNPCB that “If the air pollution
around Cuddalore is not reversed within three months, from the date of
this Report, that is, by December 31, 2004, the entire Cuddalore
industrial estate shall go for closure and units will be allowed to
reopen only if they meet the currently available standards (applicable in this case) laid down under the USEPA for volatile organic compounds or CPCB (central pollution control board) standards if made available during this period.” However, the three-month deadline has gone by and in Cuddalore its business as usual.
This article is published under the fellowship programme of the National Foundation for India

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