IN 1982, when the SIPCOT industrial project was started, there existed no guidelines for the control of pollution. Neither were any of the laws regarding soil and groundwater pollution in place. Effluents were discharged into open tanks that overflowed into the Uppanaar river or the sea.
In 1986, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) was formed and it identified deteriorating groundwater conditions as a major problem that needed to be tackled. Chemical content was high even in water from handpumps and obtaining potable water became problematic.
In 1997 the Federation of Consumer Organisations-Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry (FEDCOT) complained to the Tamil Nadu Human Rights Commission (TNHRC) about the worsening pollution. A committee was formed with retired Justice Nainasundaram as its chairperson. After an inquiry, the committee came to the conclusion that there was a pollution problem and recommended that no further industries be set up in the SIPCOT area.
FEDCOT invited the Indian People's Tribunal on Environment and Human Rights in 2003 to conduct its own survey. A four-member committee headed by a retired High Court Judge, Justice Kanakaraj, conducted a number of public hearings. The presence of pollution and its effect on livelihoods were acknowledged in the report, but there was no government response.
Subsequently, the SIPCOT Area Community Environmental Monitoring was organised with help from The Other Media and FEDCOT. Local community monitors were appointed and trained to take samples of the water and air to identify pollution scientifically instead of relying on ambiguous reports of `bad smells'.
Frontline met five such community monitors from the villages of Semmankuppam, Sangolikuppam and Eachangadu.
Semmankuppam supports a predominantly agrarian community. Shivshankar, Parasuram and Ramanathan, monitors from this village, attribute the almost halving of the yield from the land to polluted water. They say farmers in the villages now practise only subsistence farming. Villagers also complain of many illnesses believed to have been caused by pollutants in the air. Dizziness, breathlessness, headaches and skin diseases are the common complaints.
Sangolikuppam is a fishing hamlet on the Uppanaar river. Fishermen here complain that their income has decreased by half owing to pollution in the water, which destroyed many species of fish. S. Pughazhendi, a community monitor from this village, said that in December of 2002 more than 10 people suffered burns as a result of entering the polluted river. He further alleged that when the fishermen approached the Collector for assistance, they were told to go elsewhere to fish.
Apart from non-compliance with pollution norms, the industries have followed poor safety standards and often avoided meeting legal requirements. A contract worker, R. Radhakrishnan, was cleaning a chemical tank in one of the industrial complexes. On complaining of uneasiness, he was given a drink of water and sent home. As his condition did not improve, he was admitted to the local government hospital and then to the JIPMER Hospital in Pondicherry, where he died. The post-mortem report cites exposure to sulphuric acid fumes as the cause of death. The factory has not acknowledged his death. It did not even report the death to the Inspector of Factories, as required by law.
Frontline met Radhakrishnan's widow Anjali and young son, who subsist on a pension from the Employees' Provident Fund. Anjali complained that her husband had not been provided with the required protective equipment and that they were still paying off the loan sharks for the money they had to borrow to get the requisite paper work done. Till date, the company has provided no compensation, she said.