Travelling graveyard

Ankleshwar: Nandini Oza, The Week, 17/06/07
People resist move to dispose of Bhopal gas tragedy’s toxic wastes in Gujarat
A drive down National High-way 8 linking Vadodara and Mumbai exposes one to the gravity of pollution in and around Ankleshwar, one of the main chemical industrial estates in Gujarat. More than one lakh people live in Ankleshwar, Panoli and Jhagadia industrial estates, inhaling life-threatening gases.
Ismail Bhaiyat, 73, a resident of neigbouring Sanjali, struggles to breathe and the very mention of pollution makes him hysterical. His wife, too, is ailing and weak and their home is stacked with medical reports.
The Gujarat Ecology Commission, an autonomous body of the Gujarat government, in a report five years ago, dubbed Ankleshwar a “toxic hotspot” as its air pollution “was not monitored regularly”. Now the danger level is set to rise, fear environmentalists. The Madhya Pradesh government is taking 346 metric tonnes of toxic waste from the Bhopal gas tragedy-which killed over 3,800 people and affected over half a million on December 3, 1984-to be disposed of at Bharuch Enviro Infrastructure Limited (BEIL) in Ankleshwar.
One Alok Pratap Singh had filed a petition in the Madhya Pradesh High Court in 2004, demanding that the waste be disposed of. The High Court had set up a task force and recommended that the wastes be taken to BEIL. The wastes contain traces of semi-processed pesticides, naphthol, excavated wastes and reactor residues. The decision has sparked off environmental and health concerns.
Dr Ranjan Pasricha, a neuro-physician in Ankleshwar, said: “I have been seeing several cases of cerebral tuberculosis and these can be directly and indirectly linked to pollution. Pollution weakens lungs and other body parts.” He is currently treating a 12-year-old girl.
Pollution has already killed natural water resources, leaving the farmers in trouble. “In the past, a monitoring committee of the Supreme Court had taken note of the pollution and said that the ineffective practices of entrepreneurs and laxity of authorities in implementing environmental regulations had exhausted the groundwater supplies,” says Rohit Prajapati of Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, a Vadodara-based group of environmentalists.
The Samiti has raised doubts about the incinerating capacity of BEIL, quoting a German technical cooperation study that highlighted several shortcomings in the BEIL incinerator. However, the director of BEIL, Ashok Panjwani, rubbished all allegations and claimed that the plant had state-of-the-art technology created as per the guidelines of the Central Pollution Control Board. “Ours is the best place in the country to incinerate the waste,” claimed Rajjubhai Patel, chairman of United Phosphorus Limited, a major equity stakeholder in BEIL.
Dr P.N. Parmeshwaran Moothathu, senior general manager (environment) of UPL, said there would not be any air pollution. Sanjiv Tyagi, member (secretary) of Gujarat Pollution Control Board-which has given a no objection certificate for one-time disposal of the toxic waste-did not rule out air pollution, but said it was within “permissible standards”.
The Madhya Pradesh government will pay Rs 90 lakh to BEIL for the job. The company said the process would take only a few days and that the waste would be brought in a covered vehicle.
Environmentalists are not ready to buy these arguments. They are against the very move to dispose of the waste in India. Said Madhumita Dutta of International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal: “Survivors of the Bhopal tragedy want the waste to be sent to the US, and Dow Chemicals, which took over the Union Carbide Company, to pay for it.” They have, in fact, sought an intervention in the ongoing case.
“Why should the people of Ankleshwar or any part of India suffer?” asked Ziya Pathan, a lawyer in Ankleshwar. The increasing pollution has already made youngsters and children prone to diseases like bronchitis. (None of the doctors say it on record.) Prajapati pointed out that the government had not carried out a comprehensive health check-up of residents. Gujarat Health Minister Ashok Bhatt disagreed, and claimed that the workers were covered under Employees’ State Insurance Scheme and health camps were conducted.
Hard to believe, considering the plight of the residents of the region. Mohammad Phaiyad, sarpanch of Kharod village near Ankleshwar, said, “People suffer from skin diseases and breathing problems. The eyes burn. The troubles increased in the last decade. How can we permit more wastes to be brought in?” People also suffer from scabies, a skin disease, said Dr Anwar Kanuga. “This is because of water pollution caused by the industrial wastes dumped into wells,” he says.
Sixty-year-old Balu Sita Vasava’s family of seven was orphaned when he succumbed to tuberculosis a fortnight ago. “He was a healthy man. But in the last six years, he had developed breathing problems,” said Balu’s widow, Chanchalben. One of his daughters is suffering from tuberculosis.
Tuberculosis, though, is not a direct consequence of pollution. It is common knowledge that any type of pollution affects the lungs and weakens the immune system, leaving the person susceptible to various diseases. Dr A.K. Patel, a surgeon in Ankleshwar, said smoking is another factor, but admitted that pollution had to be controlled to improve health and environmental conditions.
Although the 200-plus industries in the region are supposed to release their treated effluents into a 44-km pipeline project of Bharuch Eco-Aqua Infrastructure Limited, a sister concern of BEIL, for pumping them 9.4km into the sea, this does not happen.
With the hearing still on, it is uncertain when the Bhopal wastes would reach Ankleshwar. Said Panjwani, “It may take a week, or maybe even six months. The decision itself took 23 years.”
The local people are hoping the day never comes at all.

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