An award and despair

Published : Aug 03, 2002 00:00 IST

The people affected by pollution caused by tannery units in six districts in Tamil Nadu are left disappointed by an award that they see as having failed to assess the damage to the ecology and to determine ameliorative measures in a fair and sensitive manner.

ASSESSING damage to ecology and loss of livelihood is a task which needs careful balancing of various interests. Done arbitrarily and haphazardly, it leaves the affected people worse off. This is what has happened in Tamil Nadu's Vellore district, where lakhs of people are bitterly disappointed with the award given by the Loss of Ecology Authority, a body set up in 1996 on Supreme Court orders to assess the damage caused by industrial pollution in the districts of Vellore, Dindigul, Kancheepuram, Tiruvallur, Erode and Tiruchi.

The award leaves out two districts (Erode and Tiruchi), several badly hit villages in Vellore district and large tracts of farmland rendered barren, soaked as they were for decades in tannery effluents.

At the root of the problem is the method used for data collection and calculation, although the Authority took 42 months for the exercise.

The award, which covers the period between August 21, 1991 (when the Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum filed a public interest petition in the Supreme Court seeking the closure of all polluting tanneries) and December 31, 1998 (when production and effluent discharge data were sought from the tanneries), lists the amount to be paid by each tanner as compensation to the affected farmers and for reversing the damage caused to the ecology; sets the compensation amount each affected farmer should get; and suggests schemes for the reversal of damage to the ecology.

Under the award, tannery pollution has affected 17,170 hectares of farmland in Vellore and Dindigul districts (but not in the other districts) impacting 36,056 farmers; and 621 tanners in the two districts have to pay a compensation of Rs.30.75 crores to the affected farmers. In Vellore, Dindigul, Kancheepuram and Tiruvallur districts, 731 tanners are to pay Rs.3.98 crores to reverse the damage caused to the ecology. According to the Authority's assessment, neither farmland nor the ecology has been affected by industrial pollution in Erode and Tiruchi districts.

The loss to ecology and environment is assessed in terms of the use value of the groundwater (for irrigation) which was polluted in this case with high levels of inorganic TDS, or total dissolved solids, (the permitted TDS level is 2,100 mg/l). Still, significantly, an official of the Vellore unit of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) said: "All the functioning tanneries treat the effluents to TNPCB standards except in the matter of TDS levels." According to Abdul Rahman, the manager of Vanitec, the effluent treatment plant at Vaniyambadi which treats the discharge from 109 tanneries, the TDS level in treated effluents is way above the permissible level.

The award lists schemes to prevent further damage to the ecology. These include transporting salt-bearing, treated effluents from the tanneries through pipelines to the Bay of Bengal; relocating certain salt-discharging production processes; promoting saltless curing processes; and adopting cleaner tanning technologies such as recycling of treated effluents. The schemes suggested to reverse the damage already caused include watershed management for water and soil conservation, desilting of tanks, construction of check-dams, land reclamation, drainage works, roofwater collection, and reclamation and reuse of municipal waste water.

According to a 1996 notification from the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the cost of the schemes, estimated at Rs.122 crores, is to be borne by the polluters, and through the Centre's Environment Protection Fund and other sources of the Central and State governments. After several representations by the tanners, the Loss of Ecology Authority stipulated that 3 per cent of the total cost of the schemes (amounting to Rs.3.66 crores) is to be borne by the polluters.

ALL this, however, belies the hopes generated by the August 28, 1996 Supreme Court order in the over 50 lakh people living along the Palar river in Vellore district. Coming down heavily on the 900-odd polluting tanneries in the six districts, the apex court imposed a fine of Rs.10,000 on each erring unit and transferred the case to the Madras High Court, directing it to constitute a Green Bench to handle all issues relating to environment and pollution. It ordered the setting up of the Loss of Ecology Authority to assess the damage, identifying the "affected individuals, families and farms". It directed the High Court to follow the "precautionary principle" (to anticipate, prevent and attack the causes of environmental degradation), and the "polluter pays" principle.

The Green Bench was set up on September 13, 1996. The Loss of Ecology Authority was notified on September 30, 1996, but was set up only two years later, on September 28, under the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests.

The Supreme Court order forced the Tamil Nadu government and the TNPCB to get their act together. The TNPCB closed down nearly 135 tanneries which neither had their own effluent treatment plants nor were connected to a common effluent treatment facility.

But this hardly made any difference on the ground as the tanneries had been discharging effluents for several decades; thousands of hectares of farmland remained unfit for cultivation, farm yields were at their lowest, people suffered from ailments and potable groundwater was irreversibly lost. For instance, the tanneries in the Vaniyambadi-Pernambut-Ranipet belt of Vellore district, which had been functioning for over 100 years, used to process more than 700 tonnes of leather everyday in the last two decades, accounting for 80 per cent of the State's and 40 per cent of the country's leather exports. The industry earned over Rs.2,000 crores worth of foreign exchange annually.

In the early 1980s, ignoring warnings about pollution, the industry pursued business growth as the demand for leather increased worldwide. The Central government helped it along with its export policy. To meet the demand, tanners switched from the traditional eco-friendly process using tree bark and vegetable extracts to a chromium-based process using over 200 chemicals that reduced the time and space required for tanning. The use of chemicals generated toxic effluents. Only 40 per cent of the chemicals were absorbed. The rest was let out into the open, untreated.

Apart from the chemical effluents, 385-545 kg of solid waste is generated for every tonne of hide processed. No technology is in place to handle the solid wastes. Solid wastes, including sludge and animal fleshings and hair, are either dumped into the Palar river or buried in trenches.

Over time, the damage caused by such untreated effluents worsened. When agitations and dharnas by the affected people proved ineffective, the Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum went to the Supreme Court.

After a study that stretched for over three years and after examining oral and written submissions by tanners, environmental groups and government officials, the Loss of Ecology Authority gave its final award on March 31, 2001. This was contested by three tanneries from Vellore district and the All India Skin and Hides Tanners and Merchants Association (AISHTMA) in the Madras High Court. The Green Bench under Justice P. Shanmugam dismissed the petitions.

AISHTMA then pleaded before the Green Bench to allow the tanners to pay in instalments. The Green Bench came out with a scheme of payment. Tanneries that had to pay up to Rs.2 lakhs could do so in six bi-monthly instalments; those that had to pay up to Rs.20 lakhs could do so in 12 bi-monthly instalments; and those that had to pay over Rs.20 lakhs in 18 bi-monthly instalments. In case of default, the District Collector - who is empowered to collect the payments and distribute it among the affected individuals - can recover the remaining amount fully, withdrawing the concession.

According to Vellore district Collector A.C. Mohandas, of the Rs.30.48 crores payable by 547 tanneries in the district, Rs.3.98 crores (two instalments) has been collected. This amount, to be distributed among 29,193 farmers in 186 villages, is yet to reach the farmers as only 13 per cent of the payment is collected from the tanners. According to the Authority, the district administration will begin disbursements after 25 per cent of the payment is collected. According to Mohandas, disbursements will begin in November, after the next instalment is collected.

The Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum and several farmers' organisations in Vellore district have come out against the Authority's award.

According to G. Balaraman, President of the Vellore District Environment Pollution Control Tannery Effluent Affected Farmers Association, none of the three major issues - providing compensation, reversing the damage to the ecology, and preventing further damage to the environment - has been addressed by the Authority. The Authority, according to Balaraman, relied solely on the data obtained from the Revenue department and the TNPCB. Says Balaraman: "The members, in the 42 months of the study, did not interact with even one farmer in the district." The award, according to Balaraman, will cause more problems for the farmers because of its arbitrariness.

According to the Association's secretary D. Muthukumaran, people have lost lives, livelihoods and health for over several decades owing to the tannery pollution in Vellore district but this fact has not been taken into account in the government's amelioration measures. "We just have to take what is doled out to us," he said.

From Walajah to Vaniyambadi, in village after village, the story is the same. Villages such as Kalanipakkam, Kandhanveri, Keelvilachur, Melvilachur, Vadaganthangal, Uthayendiram, C.V. Pattarai and Vadakarai have been left out. People of some 25 villages have complained to the District Collector that their villages do not figure in the compensation package. In villages such as Chetithangal, Navloc, Vanapadi, Puliankannu, Karai, Somalapuram and Govindapuram, more than half of the affected farmers have been left out.

The compensation awarded is very low compared to the loss suffered.

According to Loss of Ecology Authority member secretary Dr. K.R. Ranganathan, over 4,000 complaints have been received from farmers in Vellore district. The Authority is looking into these and would give its 'verdict' before September 30 when its term ends.

According to the Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum's honorary secretary P.S. Subrahmanian, the award estimates the damage only in terms of loss of agricultural production. This takes into account only the loss of crop and not the deterioration of the value of land. The Authority has considered only land that has wells.

According to Subrahmanian, the Authority does not seem to have taken into account the study "Assessment of Loss of Ecology along the Palar River", by the Department of Environmental Sciences, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore, which it commissioned. According to the study, tannery pollution has caused a yield loss of 75 per cent in paddy, 52 per cent in coconuts and 48 per cent in sugar cane. The income loss varies between 15 and 80 per cent.

According to Subrahmanian, even the period considered for compensation (1991 to 1998) is arbitrary. The tanneries had been polluting long before 1991 and continue to do so. Compensation needs to be given from the day the land was affected until such time when it is restored to at least close to its original value, he argues.

According to Thengal village panchayat president T.C. Padmanabhan, the Authority's award will not solve the pollution problem in the district as pollution by tanneries continues unabated. The tanneries are letting out effluents, mostly untreated, into the open. There is also the fear that the common and independent effluent treatment plants are letting out untreated effluents into the fields. According to Balaraman, even treated effluents contain high levels of TDS. Recently, treated effluents in Ambur tested by the TNPCB had TDS levels of over 5,000 mg per litre.

There is no solution for the disposal of sludge. Tanneries in Vaniyambadi taluk dump sludge and animal fleshings into the Palar. Some tanneries have bought adjacent lands, sold in distress by farmers, and bury the sludge after digging pits 50x50x50 feet.

THE tanners of Vellore district have their own complaints. AISHTMA president Rafeeque Ahmed says, "The award is not the best solution for us. But under the circumstances, we feel that it is best to be practical." To begin with, the tanners challenged the award on the grounds that only the tanneries, and not all industries that pollute, were considered by the Authority. The Authority replied that it would bring other polluting industries such as the Tamil Nadu Chromates and Chemicals in Vellore district as well under the purview of the award.

According to Rafeeque Ahmed, the industry has been hit hard and can take no more. It is taking all necessary steps to clean the environment and practise clean production. He says: "We are trying sewerage treatment (mixing sewerage with treated effluents) as a pilot project in Ambur. Several other projects that involve pioneering technology are being worked out. But our major problem is bringing down TDS levels." TDS levels in several tanneries are between 7500 and 10,000 mg/l. Rafeeque Ahmed is confident that the industry can settle the TDS problem in four years. Until then, he says, the TNPCB should leave the tanneries alone.

Disenchanted with the award and frustrated with the insensitivity of the Central and State governments to their plight, the farmers are now demanding the closure of all tanneries in Vellore district. They want the tanneries relocated away from water sources and eco-friendly industries started in the district. They also demand that the compensation scheme be worked out afresh. Regarding the loss of employment that would be caused by the closure of tanneries, Balaraman says: "What happened when 135 tanneries were closed? It will be difficult for a short time. But in the long run the advantages of prevention of land deterioration will outweigh any loss of employment. In the meantime, however, eco-friendly industries can be set up for employment generation."

The award has opened fresh problems. If the fight against tannery pollution in Vellore district is to succeed, three primary issues - compensating the affected individuals, reversing the damage to the ecology, and strictly monitoring the functioning of the tanneries and the treatment of effluents so that they do not pollute further - need to be tackled concurrently, objectively, and urgently.

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