Poisoned beach

Published : Aug 13, 2010 00:00 IST

Chemical waste from the nearby industrial estate being emptied onto the beach at Tadgam.-

Chemical waste from the nearby industrial estate being emptied onto the beach at Tadgam.-

Effluents from an industrial estate destroy the coastal ecology and deprive local people of their livelihood at Tadgam in Gujarat.

FAR from urban influences and pollutants, the beach at Tadgam in Valsad district in south Gujarat should be bustling with life. Gulls, sandpipers, stints and egrets should be foraging for shrimps, crabs, mudskippers, cuttlefish and other creatures that live under the shingle or in the small rock pools that teem with life when the tide is out. And the nearby fishing village of Tadgam should be a living example of coastal prosperity. But one look into the baskets of the fisherwomen and it is clear that this idyll is history. A single small crab and three tiny shrimps crawl about forlornly inside. This is what we get after being on the beach for more than an hour, says Parvatibai, a fisherwoman. It has been a long time since Tadgam had signs of normal sea life.

The beach is thick with a stinking, toxic sludge. The steaming effluent pours out of a pipe with a diameter of two feet (0.6 metre). It flows day and night throughout the year, says Parvatibai. The 13.34-kilometre-long pipeline originates at the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation's (GIDC) industrial estate in Sarigam town and has been discharging the toxic brew onto the beach at Tadgam since 1999 when it was laid. The pipeline traverses four villages Tadgam, Saronda, Nargol and Maroli with a population of about 30,000 people. Leaks and the consequent seepage into the ground and the dumping of chemicals into small streams would have affected an estimated 25,000 more people.

The untreated chemical effluence has resulted in a huge loss of earnings to the local people, and in some cases resulted in skin and respiratory ailments. We believe it has affected our health. The polluted water and air has given us rashes, fevers and digestive disorders. When we complain we are asked for proof. What more proof do they need than the fact that we have seen the difference in our lives before and after this pipeline, says Yatin Bhandari, sarpanch of Nargol village.

An informal observation made by Dharmesh Patel, a local health worker from the primary health centre in Maroli, is that 60 per cent of the population in the three villages has skin and respiratory problems, of which most cases are from Tadgam. Dashratbhai Rathod, a former sarpanch of Saronda village, said: The pipeline leaks and poisons our crops. Even the water we draw using the hand-pump is reddish. Dal and rice do not cook easily in it. About 15 wells are spoilt. The water stinks of chemicals.

Prakash Arekar, who has campaigned against industrial pollution in Sarigam for two decades, says he has seen mango trees go barren because of the pollution. The sickness is permanent in some neighbourhoods, he adds. The claims do not seem exaggerated. A few minutes near the outlet at Tadgam cause nausea and shortness of breath, which the residents of Tadgam village and Lord's Seaside Cooperative Housing Society too experience when the breeze blows inland.

Drop in fish catch

According to the Directorate of Fisheries, the fishing industry of Daman and Diu (close to Tadgam) has seen a drop of 64.3 per cent in the catch over the past decade. This has been attributed to the effluents from the industrial estates in Vapi, a more established and larger industrial town than Tadgam. Though no direct study has been done for the smaller fishing industry at Tadgam, its proximity to Daman and Diu could mean that the same findings can apply.

Dashratbhai Rathod recalled how until recently Tadgam, Saronda and Nargol together had a fleet of about 400 fishing boats. He said: The catch was enormous even in shallow waters. ravas, pomfret, prawns, lobsters, crabs, Bombay duck. Lobsters were so plentiful that we caught them with our hands. Now it is a dead sea. For eight months of the year the men go all the way to Porbundar, Veraval, Dwarka and Okha to fish and the women work in the local GIDC estate.

Says Kusumbai, a fisherwoman: In two hours of fishing we could catch huge amounts of fish with our hand nets. When the men went off the coast they came back with so much fish that we sent them all the way to Mumbai.

Today it is a different story. Says Raju Katu, who lives in Tadgam: People who were earning around Rs.200 a day now do subsistence-level fishing and on some days eat only one meal.

The Mitna community has been particularly affected. Its earnings came mainly from catching, selling and eating mudskippers. With the beach in a toxic condition, there are no more mudskippers and those that do exist have mutated dangerously with extra fins, and have skin diseases and external tumours. Earlier, mudskippers were like a carpet on the beach and people used to wade through them, picking them up by the handful. Now, says Yatin Bhandari, the sight of one mudskipper air hole gets us all excited.

The residents of the villages say they were not informed when the pipeline was laid. It crossed our fields with no authorisation, recalls Dashratbhai Rathod, and so we protested. But the protest, according to Bhandari, died out when the leaders of the movement were bought over by the big companies. After that the poor fishermen and farmers could not put up a fight. So, for 10 years we had no protest and all this while the sea continued to be fed these heavy chemicals, says Bhandari.

Public Interest Petition

Finally, in 2009, the residents of Lord's Housing Society filed a public interest litigation (PIL) petition in the Gujarat High Court. They were later joined by the sarpanchs of the hamlets of Tadgam, Saronda, Nargol and Maroli. The petition was simple it asked that the pumping of effluence be halted until GIDC Sarigam and the Sarigam Waste and Effluent Management Company could ensure that the effluents met Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) standards.

One of the requirements for Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) clearance was that there should be a responsible authority to look after pollution control. And so the Sarigam Waste and Effluent Management Company came into existence. Prakash Arekar says its members are company people and it does not have a single ordinary citizen representative. Neither the GPCB nor the GIDC is following the rules, he adds.

The petitioners say their plea is supported with photographs, video footage, scientific reports and documentation. Furthermore, said a member of the Lord's Society, the legal representative of the Sarigam Waste and Effluent Management Company even admitted in court that his client had defaulted in monitoring the effluence. The onus of proving that the pipeline is legal also lies with the respondents. If procedure has been followed, then the pipeline must have received CRZ clearance. For this to have happened, an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) must have been conducted since this is a basic requirement for CRZ clearance. Though the petitioners have applied under the Right to Information (RTI) Act to the GPCB for copies of the EIA and other documents, they have received nothing so far. A request to the GPCB from Frontline for the same was met with no answer.

Adding to the evidence against the pipeline is the fact that the discharge from it is illegal (and not just that it is untreated waste). Time-bound permission is granted by the GPCB to industrial estates for allowing discharge. This is called Consolidated Consent and Authorisation, or CC&A. The CC&A given to GIDC Sarigam has not been renewed since 2004, according to the petitioners.

After the court heard the petition, it directed the GPCB to take action, and in response the GPCB sent a legal notice to 50 units in Sarigam. It is not clear on what basis these 50 units were chosen and why only 50 since the petition was about the discharge and not against individual units. The notice, dated December 4, 2009, was sent to the Sarigam Waste and Effluent Management Company under Section 33-A of The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974.

It said: [T]he consent granted to you vide order No. 1623 dated 12-2-2004 has lapsed on dated 31-3-2004 hence, at present you are operating industrial effluent disposal system without CC&A of the Gujarat Pollution Control Board under the provision of Water Act.

It further said: [D]uring the inspection of your plant on 18-11-2009 the analysis reports indicates that the concentration like SS, BOD, COD, Chloride, Ammonical Nitrogen, Phenolic Compound, Zinc, & Sulphides, are most of the time higher than the permissible limit specified by the Board.

Rohit Prajapati of the Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) fighting for clean environment, said: This clearly indicates that the treatment facility dumps the effluent at Tadgam village without proper permission and the effluent does not meet the GPCB's norms. Despite the notices issued by the GPCB there has been no result, which has led the petitioners to conclude that the the whole thing is a game with the Sarigam GIDC and the Sarigam Waste and Effluent Management Company hand in glove with each other.

Despite the overwhelming evidence, why has the discharge not been ordered to be stopped until the effluence is monitored and cleaned? the petitioners ask. To make matters worse, a new pipeline is being laid alongside the old one. While the old pipeline spewed 12 mld (million litres a day), the new one has a capacity of 25 mld and a diameter of four feet. Considering that the existing pipeline is under litigation, it is surprising that permission has been granted to lay a second one. The GPCB did not respond when asked to corroborate this.

Effluence treatment

There are over 300 units in the Sarigam industrial estate. Most of them manufacture chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and pharmaceutical drugs. Production happens 24x7 throughout the year. Each industrial unit signs an undertaking to clean' its waste in its effluent treatment plant (ETP) before sending it to the common collection well. At the common collection well, the effluents are supposed to be checked for quality twice a day and if found within limits, pumped into the pipeline that ought to lead out into the sea.

One big flaw in the system seems to be that there is no way of identifying the defaulting units and this is made worse because the prescribed process is not followed. At the primary stage, neutralisation takes place and the chemical oxygen demand (COD) and the biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) are stabilised (both are measures of the relative oxygen-depletion effect of contaminants). The secondary stage involves bioreactive treatment and is especially necessary for chemical effluence. At the end of the cleaning process, the waste matter is supposed to be completely free of all toxic matter. Some amount of variation is permissible in the BOD and COD indicators.

Even with this leeway, the effluence from the Sarigam pipeline is higher than the permissible levels. Under the GPCB's norms, fish have to survive for 90 days in the sample used in the bioassay test. In an effort to further their case, the petitioners sent a sample of the waste from the beach in March last year to the Central Institute of Fisheries Education (CIFE) in Mumbai for testing. The report of the CIFE said the toxicity in the sample was so high that fish died within 35 minutes in a sample with only 25 per cent effluence. In 100 per cent effluence (collected by the petitioners from the beach), the fish died in five minutes. The Gujarat Ecological Society had, in November 2008, sent a sample of the waste from the beach to the CIFE. The results indicated a high level of toxicity.

Though the GPCB says that each unit has its own ETP, an informed source at GIDC Sarigam said that most of the units considered straining the effluence as adequate cleaning and that no other treatment is done. Apart from the ETP, there is also supposed to be a common effluent treatment plant, or CETP, where further cleaning is carried out before discharge. The GPCB is supposed to monitor the CETP on a monthly basis. Judging by the highly polluted quality of the discharge on Tadgam beach over the years (as proved by the reports of the CIFE, the GPCB itself and the Gujarat Ecology Society), either the ETPs or the CETP is not working properly and the GPCB certainly does not seem to be monitoring the process.

According to the GPCB, there are 13 members in the CETP run by the GIDC. A privately run CETP at Sarigam, called Perfect Enviro Control Systems Pvt. Ltd, has seven members, of whom three send effluents for treatment. S.V. Rao, director of the plant, which was built 10 years ago at a cost of Rs.1.6 crore, said the others had zero discharge. Only 0.4 mld of the total of 12 mld that is spewed out onto the Tadgam beach goes through Perfect Enviro's CETP. Thus, of the 257 functional units in Sarigam, only 20 are linked to a CETP.

Responding to a query on how often it monitored the units for pollution control, the GPCB said it checked the performance of the environment management systems of each unit as per its own guidelines. These ranged from sampling the effluence once in three months to once in three years, depending on the size of the industry. The GPCB admits that the GIDC's CETP Sarigam is not meeting the norms. On date 23/2/2010 GPCB issued closure to CETP in Sarigam for not meeting the norms. At present CETP is under upgradation and the closure order is revoked on 17/5/2010 for upgradation. But this still does not answer the question why the units have been allowed to continue production for so many years.

Asked why it had not stopped the discharge of effluents onto the beach for so long, the GPCB claimed that over the years it had taken actions on every complaint and that it had issued closure notices regularly to various units. The GPCB said, GIDC Sarigam pumping station L-2 was in damaged condition hence waste water from this pumping station was discharged in Tadgam Beach. GPCB issued directives for stoppage of discharge into pumping station to 32 units in this regard. The answer still does not explain why the discharge of effluents continues.

The discharge of untreated effluents is just one of a series of equally serious violations. GPCB rules say the pipeline should discharge 2 km into the sea, that is, 2 km after the low tide line. Thus, at no point should the mouth of the pipeline be visible or out of water.

Broken pipeline

At present, the pipeline discharges right onto the beach. Initially it did go into the sea (though not up to the prescribed distance), but the pipe broke in 2006. Apparently, the diffuser at the mouth of the pipeline was blocked and the chemicals started flowing back down the pipeline. Local people say that it had to be cleaned, but someone broke it instead. Though it has not been possible to verify this story (the GPCB did not respond to the query), there is no doubt that the pipe at Tadgam is broken. The severed section lies somewhere under water while effluents flow continuously from the broken mouth. The GPCB's rules also specify that the pipeline must be anchored firmly in cement saddles and that it should be buried at a depth of six feet. The Sarigam pipeline has broken loose from its cement saddles at a number of places and moves in a wide sweep with the tide. Dragged about by the tidal action, the unanchored pipeline traverses the beach, fanning the effluents wider.

Said Yatin Bhandari: When we complain, we are told that this is development. On the one hand they say this is a green belt and that the tourism industry will flourish here, and on the other they poison us. Is this Modi's vibrant Gujarat?

The GPCB's official stand does not subscribe to the fait accompli that pollution is a necessary evil of development.

Its website says, The laws stipulate that all development should be carried out with minimal occurrence of pollution. Technologies are available for controlling pollution as per the norms prescribed for different processes. Therefore, the perception that pollution is the price for securing fast development is erroneous.

Apart from the blatant disregard of pollution control laws, there is another aspect to the problem. Parvatibai sums it up well: For the chemical companies we are nothing. They have the law in their hands and we are nothing. I won't say their aim was to destroy us we are too small for them to target us. Their aim was just to get rid of their dirty chemicals from their factories and for them the sea is a kacchro no dabbo (rubbish bin) so they dump it here. That we are affected is of no concern to them. They know they can get away with this because we are poor.

There is no doubt that the GPCB is fully empowered to deal with the situation. The FAQ (frequently asked questions) section on its official website states: The important enforcement powers vesting in GPCB are laying down standards and securing their compliance, inspection and monitoring of all sources of pollution, issuance of notices with time limit to comply with the legal requirements, closure of the defaulter unit in grave cases and prosecution in cases of serious violation.

The norms for pollution control are also very clear as is the fact that a series of no objection certificates and clearances, including those for environmental reasons, have to be obtained. The website also emphasises that the polluter has to pay for cleaning up.

Despite such stringent rules, the ground reality is glaringly different.

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