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Stink of development'

Print edition : May 20, 2011 T+T-
The channel that carries effluents from the Nandesari industrial estate in Vadodara to the sea. The channel's interiors are a shambles, leading to seepage of effluents into bordering fields.-LYLA BAVADAM

The channel that carries effluents from the Nandesari industrial estate in Vadodara to the sea. The channel's interiors are a shambles, leading to seepage of effluents into bordering fields.-LYLA BAVADAM

LUNA village is in Vadodara district. The road to Luna runs alongside fields of bajra, drumstick and vegetables. Separating the road and the fields is a channel 2.5 metres deep and 1.5 metres wide. This is the main channel that carries industrial effluents from Nandesari industrial estate in Vadodara to its final destination in the sea, after passing through 24 villages on its 55-kilometre journey. It is lined with brick and plaster, but its walls are in a state of neglect. In effect, it is an unlined channel. The opening is covered with slabs of concrete, which are again broken in places. Children and animals fall in with unfailing regularity and generally suffer skin ailments ranging from chemical burns to rashes, depending on how long it takes to rescue them. The government says the effluents have been fully treated before release.

A distinct chemical odour rises from the deep red liquid in the channel. According to Rohit Prajapati of the Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti (PSS), this mixture of heavy metals like chromium, lead and nickel as well as persistent organic pollutants flow untreated into the ocean. It seeps into the adjoining fields through gaps in the broken plasterwork. Sometimes farmers pump it into their fields because they do not want to pay for irrigation water. The harvest is usually good plump brinjals with not a blemish on them, large cauliflowers with not a single worm. My wife would be delighted to see such vegetables in the market, says Kantibhai Mistry, a social activist who assists the PSS. Except that I would tell her how they have grown. Even the insects know better than to attack these vegetables. They are so full of poison.

While the laal ne peeru ponni (local residents refer to the polluted water as red and yellow water) seems to act as a temporary insecticide, farmers are only too aware of what it does to their soil. Once the liquid evaporates, the heavy metals remain in the soil. Ghanshyam Ramanbhai Patel, a farmer, said: It makes the soil hard and lifeless. We have to soften the soil with gypsum, add in extra natural fertilizer, but soon this will make no difference.

The channel is not the only problem that Luna lives with. Worse is the presence of chemical and dye factories in the midst of an area that is so fertile that it is referred to as the vegetable basket of Gujarat. Drumsticks, especially, grow prolifically here and have a huge export market.

Luna's problems started in 2004 when chemical factories started getting permission to set up business there. Luna was an attractive destination because of its closeness to Vadodara. The fact that it was largely agricultural land did not dissuade the factory owners who seemed to know that getting it converted for non-agricultural use would not be difficult. It is a disconcerting but common sight to see chemical factories in the midst of fields. It was not possible to verify what the factories did with their effluents, but the presence of polluted groundwater gives credence to the accusations of the villagers that the factories indulge in reverse boring, that is, they dig a dry bore and get rid of the effluents by pumping it underground. Ghanshyam Patel was the first farmer in Luna to be affected by polluted water. In 2004, he switched on the pump of his borewell, which for 40 years had yielded clear water, and a yellow liquid gushed out. That is how it has been ever since. In fact, says Patel wryly, we are even privileged to get different colours. Sometimes we have blue or red water.

As the pollution spread underground, other farmers were also affected. Ghanshyam Chhotu Patel's borewell threw out yellow water a month ago. The Collector and the local official of the Gujarat Pollution Control Board held a public hearing in Luna in February. Hearings are held when a new factory has to open or if an old one wants to increase production. It is just a natak [farce] to get the NOC [no-objection certificate] issued. No one will hold a hearing if I tell them I have suddenly started getting laal ne peeru ponni.

Water polluted by chemicals is a part of life in Luna now. Villagers try and make light of it by discussing the colour and shade of the day. But there is a more serious side. Ailments like severe skin rashes and constant itching, mouth and stomach ulcers, blood in stools, and miscarriages are common. Even among animals miscarriages have become frequent, especially among buffaloes. Farmer Anil Valand says, Our cows and buffaloes drink red water. I wonder what will happen to the people who drink this milk over many years. Luna sells about 2,000 litres of milk every day to private distributors in Vadodara.

Luna has been fighting what it is now resigned to accept as a losing battle. Ghanshyam Ramanbhai Patel said his correspondence and files from 2004 were enough to fill a well. He believes that the pollution is being allowed to happen with the connivance of the government. If an educated IAS [Indian Administrative Service] man is not moved by 50 letters saying the same thing over and over again what does it mean? It means he has no intention of solving the problem.

The belief that the government is aiding the polluters seems to have some substance. Common effluent treatment plants (CETPs) are meant to be run by industrial estates. In Gujarat, the government has taken these over under the guise of monitoring them effectively. This, clearly, is not happening. There is an impression that Chief Minister Narendra Modi and the industrialists have come to a cosy arrangement.

Yogesh Patel expressed it thus: Modi must have told the industrialists that he will take over the CETPs so that they do not need to bother with pollution control. They are only too happy because now they can say they are sending the effluents to the CETPs and they do not know what the government is doing with it. And since governments are known to shirk their work, everyone is resigned to accepting that the CETPs will not function. This way Modi allows them to pollute as long as they keep up production. This is the way we have a Vibrant Gujarat.

Lyla Bavadam