A Supreme Court-appointed committee comes down heavily on the Kerala State Pollution Control Board for its failure to stop industries from polluting crucial river systems such as the Periyar.in Thiruvananthapuram
Implementing pollution control norms in industrially backward Kerala is like opening a can of worms. But as communities in the toxic shadow of industrial units have been saying, `the sooner, the better'.
In late August, a Supreme Court-appointed committee startled a recalcitrant State Pollution Control Board into action, to try and reform erring industries. For the first time since the Hazardous Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, 1989, came into force, the Board issued closure notices to 198 of the 400-odd industries generating such wastes.
A three-member team of the Supreme Court's Monitoring Committee on Hazardous Wastes and Hazardous Chemicals that visited the State recently found "to its shock" that Kerala had no treatment, storage and disposal facility (TSDF). Several industrial units did not have authorisation as required under the Rules, and they openly flouted the provisions of the Air and Water Acts. Pollutants from their premises had also contaminated ground water supplies. The committee found that near the Udyogamandal Industrial Area in Kochi, the Periyar river, the "lifeline of Kerala", had been converted into a "vast, illegal TSDF" because of the dumping of huge quantities of hazardous wastes. The large-scale, illegal dumping of wastes into the Periyar by hundreds of industries in the Eloor-Edayar industrial area had been consistently opposed by the people, citizens' groups and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). After conducting surveys, for example, in 1999 and 2002, Greenpeace, the international environmental group, had declared Eloor a "toxic hotspot of global proportions".
The committee said that several industries, many of them owned by the government, which "should have long been closed because they are still relying on obsolete technology and obsolete products", were in operation, "not only impacting negatively on the environment but losing crores of public money". " It looked as if the State had pushed itself into a time-warp from which it was unable to extricate itself," the team's report said.
In April 2004, the committee had asked the State PCB to take steps to ensure that no industrial unit would function without authorisation beyond May 31, 2004, the deadline set by the Supreme Court, and warned the Board of contempt proceedings if it failed to make this certain. It had also wanted the Board to monitor whether all industries displayed information at their gates about the hazardous chemicals and wastes they handled. It had asked the PCB to find sufficient land to be notified as the site for a common TSDF by May 31. The Chief Secretary was asked to ensure the PCB's compliance with these directions. Yet, the committee pointed out, the PCB had continued to disregard the court order.
At the conclusion of its visit, the committee issued a slew of directions to "reverse this terrible situation in the State and to ensure compliance of the court's orders." It directed the State PCB to order the immediate closure of industrial units that have no authorisation to operate under the Hazardous Waste Rules until they installed proper facilities to dispose of the wastes. Based on the `polluter pays' principle, it imposed a collective fine of Rs.2.5 crores on all the units in the industrial estate of Eloor and Edayar. The fine is to be utilised "to monitor the health of the river, to create conditions for the re-entry of life in the river and to restore its ecology". The committee said it could think of no other way "to raise an appropriate alarm and to jolt the industrial units into doing something drastic about the present state of affairs". The PCB was also asked to set up a Local Area Environment Committee (LAEC) to conduct an environment audit, within six months, of all the 247 industries near the Periyar and in the Udyogamandal industrial estate.
The committee has warned that should it find that these actions do not turn the situation around and reverse the pollution of the Periyar within six months, "it will have no hesitation in directing the closure of the entire Udyogamandal industrial estate and ordering a special audit of the area. Units will be allowed to re-open one by one thereafter only if they are able to convince the KPCB that all measures have been installed to ensure discharge as per EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) standards and HW (Hazardous Wastes) Rules."
The three-member team had visited several industrial units from Thiruvananthapuram to Kochi in southern Kerala, and the controversial Coca Cola and Pepsi plants in northern Palakkad district. The committee directed many industries, including Hindustan Coca Cola unit, Plachimada, the Binani Zinc Limited, Binanipuram, Edayar and Hindustan Newsprint Factory, Velloor, Kottayam, to provide water supply "through pipelines" to the residences of all members of the affected communities. It also asked the PCB to set up four committees under its Regional Officers "to create a register of persons affected and to ensure that the above companies install piped water supply to the residences of all the persons so affected" within six months. It issued directions individually regarding many industrial units it had visited. For example, it said that the Hindustan Insecticides Ltd., Eloor (a Government of India enterprise manufacturing insecticides, where a major fire had engulfed the endosulfan plant in July) should be closed down and that the area "should be allowed to recover from the various toxic materials and chemicals used by the company and discharged by it into the environment over the decades." It said that the company "should be allowed to reopen only if it can shift to clean technology and a new product mix." It also ordered the closure of Cochin Minerals and Rutile Ltd, Edayar, "until and unless the pollution of the Periyar is brought to a complete halt". It found that Fertilizers and Chemicals Travancore Ltd (FACT) had discharged its gypsum wastes in the open environment and recommended that the Government of Kerala direct the company "to hand over five acres of the land degraded by such gypsum disposal for the construction of a TSDF which could be used to handle the wastes generated from the entire Udyogamandal area".
The committee said that the public sector Kerala Minerals and Metals Ltd., Chavara (near Kollam) should not be allowed to function until it solved the serious problem of acidic iron sludge from seeping into the neighbourhood wells making the water useless. Perhaps the most significant direction of the committee was to the State government asking it to institute an inquiry to find out why the PCB had "wilfully and callously" disregarded the directions of the Supreme Court Order of October 2003 and identify the officials responsible for it. The Secretary (Health), Government of Kerala and the Chairman, KPCB, were both mentioned for contempt proceedings "for their wilful disregard and non-compliance of the order of the Supreme Court". It said that "given the current deplorable scenario of hazardous waste management in the State", the State government should "revamp the KPCB as necessary to inject dynamism, courage and foresight in its functioning and to make it a really performing Board."
At a meeting of trade unions and industry managements convened by the State government in Thiruvananthapuram on September 14, management representatives said they were willing to implement the directions of the committee but demanded more time to install facilities for effluent treatment and safe disposal of hazardous wastes. Considering the disruption that might be caused by the sudden closure of so many industries, the government has agreed to take up their demand before the monitoring committee to avoid closure and to find adequate land for a common TSDF near the industrial areas.
Allegations of corruption are rife within the corridors of the State PCB as explanation for its shocking inaction. The officials of the Board are a divided lot - those who had failed to take action under the Hazardous Wastes Rules all this while and those who were "in the dock for the inaction and misdeeds of the others". There have been strange coincidental instances where the PCB ordered the closure of a few erring industrial units when competing units with the same product mix came up in other States. Trade unions leaders too have asked the government to "stem the rot" within the PCB.