Pollution of Damanganga river

Gujarat: Lockdown used as an excuse by Vapi's industries to pollute Damanganga

Print edition : October 09, 2020

Reacting to complaints about the discharge of effluents into the Damanganga river, the authorities covered the discharge point so that the highly coloured discharge was not visible from land. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Reacting to complaints about the discharge of effluents into the Damanganga river, the authorities covered the discharge point so that the highly coloured discharge was not visible from land. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Industrial discharge flowing into the Damanganga river. Much of the effluents is untreated and, along with sewage, has rendered the Damanganga unfit to support life. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Industries in Vapi, Gujarat, which continue to release huge quantities of effluents into the Damanganga river, are seeking exemption from pollution control norms citing economic losses following the lockdown.

While travelling by road or rail, there is no mistaking the industrial town of Vapi in Gujarat as it approaches. The nostril-stinging vapours from a cocktail of chemicals make the eyes water and breathing a bit painful. High air and water pollution levels have become so integral to this industrial town that it is commonly referred to as the armpit of India.

Vapi lies at the southern end of what is known as the Golden Corridor of India—a 432-kilometre-long stretch that ends at Mehsana in the north of Gujarat. This industrial belt has generated vast amounts of wealth for Gujarat’s industrialists but at a heavy environmental cost. The Damanganga river has been so severely polluted that its environmental flow has been disrupted to the point where it cannot perform its ecological functions.

Now, citing the coronavirus-induced lockdown and the resultant economic losses as a reason, the industries of Vapi are seeking exemption from environmental laws.

Birth of the estate

The history of the region’s development and the resultant pollution go back five decades. The Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC) established an industrial estate in Vapi in 1967-68 along the Damanganga on about 1,100 hectares; it included factories and residences. The estate housed about 1,500 industries of which 70 per cent were focused on pharmaceuticals, dyes, and pesticides and the rest on paper, plastic and packaging. In 1971, the Vapi Industrial Association (VIA) was formed and the factories flourished under an industry-friendly State government.

The factories were motivated only by production and profit and it was inevitable that the environment around Vapi and the Damanganga would soon be highly polluted. But Vapi was considered a success story by the Gujarat government, which wanted to make it a model for other regions.

In 1993, a government-appointed high-powered committee analysed the industrial efforts of Vapi. It concluded that Vapi had a future only if environmental safeguards were put in place and that there was no option but to build a common effluent treatment plant (CETP) to treat the effluents. Thus, in 1997, a CETP was set up. By this time the Damanganga was heavily polluted: the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) had said in 1989 that it was categorised as unfit to support life and that Vapi was a “critically polluted area”. In 2009 the CPCB re-emphasised this status of the area but the river contamination continues unabated.  

Rohit Prajapati of the PSS said: “We have informed the authorities concerned repeatedly that the stretch of the Damanganga river along the Vapi Industrial Cluster is polluted 24x7 due to “treated effluents” from the cluster. Actually, we should not allow any discharge of even so-called treated effluents and sewerage into the river stretch where the river does not have adequate water.”

The Vapi industrial estate has more than 735 small, medium and large manufacturing units. Of these, 519 units discharge treated effluents through an underground GIDC pipeline that meets the drain called the Kalkada Khadi, where domestic waste water is also discharged, which finally joins the main Damanganga river. The main polluters are effluents from the industrial clusters of Vapi, solid domestic waste, sewage and open natural drains.

In 2012, Prajapati and others took legal recourse to stop the discharge of untreated effluents into the Damanganga and other rivers of Gujarat. In 2017 the Supreme Court ruled that no untreated effluents or sewage was to be dumped in any water body in the country. It gave the State Environment Secretary and the member secretary of the State pollution control board the right to close down a polluting company and initiate criminal prosecution.

VIA letter

Despite these rulings, the laws continue to be violated. Worse, as the PSS pointed out, the VIA had “openly demanded” that these orders de facto not be implemented. It was referring to a letter sent by the VIA to the GPCB on May 18. Citing the coronavirus-prompted lockdown as a reason, the VIA asked to be exempted from implementing the existing environment laws and notifications regarding treatment and disposal of industrial effluents.

The VIA wrote: “.... there is a shortage of adequate skilled ETP personnel and that may cause non-compliance in discharge norms.... also in respect of finally treated water, air emission and hazardous waste management norms, as well as in handling of plastic waste under Rule 9.”

Do all industrial units have a shortage of ETP personnel? The letter seems to indicate that workers of this category were particularly missing during the lockdown. Prajapati said: “An obvious question that arises is about the functioning of the CETP and ETPs of individual industries.”

In the letter, the VIA said that currently, if any sample of treated wastewater from an industry’s outlet failed to meet the discharge norms for various parameters such as COD, or if the industry was guilty of any other lapses in complying with environmental norms, the industry would be penalised heavily and defaulting units closed down.

“This not only causes monetary losses to the unit but they also lose valuable customers and the supply chain gets destroyed. Considering the present market condition, we propose that instead of directly ordering closure of any defaulting units, the authorities should levy heavy financial penalty on industries defaulting for the first time. Any industry defaulting for the second time may be punished with a heavier penalty. Thereafter, if industries default for the third time, closure or any other harsh punishment may be slapped on them,” the VIA said. Prajapati said: “This makes it very clear that it is not just about the CETP but also about the ETPs of the individual industries.”

Yet another excerpt from the VIA’s letter cements the fact that the lockdown was being used as an excuse to not only evade certain laws but to ask for them to be abolished. It said: “Lastly, as per the present norm, any member setting up a new unit or going for expansion of the present unit within an industrial estate needs to do an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) and submit the report to Central authorities. In this regard, we wish to inform you that EIA is an expensive process and costs not less than Rs.5-7 lakh, which is unaffordable for small units.”

It added that the Vapi estate had already done the EIA for the CETP and that its members were situated within a 5 km radius of the CETP and were discharging their effluents only in the CETP’s underground drainage line.

The VIA said: “We propose to abolish the norm of getting individual EIA studies done for industries situated within an industrial estate and discharging their treated wastewater through the CETP. Instead, the EIA report of the CETP of that estate should be submitted for establishment of new units or expansion of existing units.” The VIA said relaxation of existing norms would rejuvenate the industries and help them generate sustainable growth.

Reacting to the letter, Prajapati said: “The audacity exhibited by the VIA is something that responsible entities would even refrain from discussing verbally, leave alone putting it on paper. This impudence raises many concerns about the stance of the departments concerned with environmental issues and pollution.”

Prajapati and his colleague Krishnakant responded with a strongly worded letter dated May 25 to the Environment Ministry, the CPCB, the GPCB and others, in which they registered their “strongest objections against relaxations demanded by the VIA, [and] also sternly demanded that associations such as these be penalised for even making such requisitions, thereby wasting time and energy, such that no other organisations dare to request such exemptions”.

The PSS said: “Demands such as these amount to an attempt to water down our well-thought out laws for the benefit of polluters.... If there is no labour to treat their industrial effluents, then where do they get labour to run their industry that generates effluents? The surrounding villages and their helpless residents pay a heavy price in terms of health and livelihood options. The industries are supposed to be job generators. They look good only on paper. The defaulting polluting industries make profits by degrading both the environment and human dignity.”

The PSS received a standard formal response to its letter—that their points are being looked into. It plans to respond with a contempt of court petition that will look into effluent dumping cases across Gujarat and India.

The Union Territory administration of Daman and Diu has also acknowledged the Damanganga pollution. Its April 2019 Action Plan for Damanganga River says: “The major industrial effluents discharged into the Damanganga and its estuary are the CETP, Vapi, Gujarat… It is widely observed that the river water downstream of the CETP, Vapi discharge location has a high colour intensity that persists further downstream till the confluence of the river with Arabian Sea. Dumping of solid waste on the bank of river and nearby open natural drains (which ultimately meets the river) is also a major problem.”

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