JULY/AUGUST 1995 · VOLUME 16 · NUMBERS 7 & 8
I N D I A : O P E N F O R B U S I N E S S
BARODA, GUJARAT - A sign at a chemical factory in the west Indian state of Gujarat reads, "Bhopal gas tragedy was the worst industrial accident caused by man. Inadequate practice of safety was the cause of the accident." Underneath the sign, foul-smelling industrial waste lies in a runoff ditch, clogging drains. Near the plant, piles of solid waste lie scattered about, both inside and outside the plant gates, without any warning markers or means of containment. Nauseating smells waft through the area, some from invisible sources, others from occasional bursts of black or yellow smokestack gases. Cattle roam in and around the industrial waste, and children from nearby villages wander through the area. Workers whose whole bodies are dyed blue or green file out of the factories. Hard hats are rarely seen.
This is Ankleshwar, Asia's largest industrial estate, and one of 190 industrial complexes in Gujarat's "Golden Corridor." The Golden Corridor, so called because of the money brought by rapid development, is an industrial belt running from Vapi at the southern end of Gujarat to Mahesana, about 270 miles to the North. Most of the companies in the Golden Corridor are Indian, but recently foreign companies such as Shell and General Electric have opened up shop in the region.
If inadequate safety practices caused the Bhopal accident, then the Golden Corridor is a disaster in the making. Routine toxic emissions and haphazard waste-disposal practices at Ankleshwar, Nandesari, Vapi and other chemical centers are contaminating the environment and taking a toll on the health of the residents for generations to come. Yet, India's development plans call for billions of dollars in new investments for the chemical industry in Gujarat by the year 2000, while authorities cannot even monitor current chemical use and waste disposal. The Golden Corridor is well on its way to becoming a toxic sacrifice zone. Its environment is being forfeited for the sake of industrialization, chemical consumption and a competitive position in global chemical markets.
Ankleshwar consists of some 3,000 firms, about half of them chemical units, which operate in a 40-square-mile complex. Hazardous substances used in production processes and manufactured at Ankleshwar include pesticides, paints, fertilizers, dyes and pulp and paper. The Ankleshwar Industrial Association estimates that its members generate about 55 to 60 million gallons a day of liquid hazardous waste, and about 50,000 tons of solid hazardous waste annually. In 1988, the state government ordered the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC) to develop solid and liquid waste treatment plans for Ankleshwar, but little progress has been made.
The GIDC and the Ankleshwar Industrial Association have not finished choosing a landfill site for solid hazardous waste. Association President Kamlesh Udani says they are also considering a common incinerator for solid and liquid wastes. In the meantime, sludges and solid wastes lie in the open, waiting for the wind and rain to disperse them or to leach into the groundwater.
For liquid wastes, most of the 50 or so multinational plants or national plants with more than 500 employees have their own waste water treatment plants. Though they cannot remove most of the toxic chemicals in the waste, they can neutralize acids, separate solids from liquids and perform other simple treatments.
The Association estimates it will take five or six Common Effluent Treatment Plants (CETPs) to service the rest of the estate, most of whose tenants are small- and medium-sized enterprises. But the estimated price of using the CETPs, about half a U.S. cent per liter, is considered excessive for most smaller firms. For the moment, their liquid wastes are simply dumped into storm sewers, canals and ditches.
Some of the effluent goes directly to the Amlakhari River, which provides drinking water to the villages it passes through. To bypass the villages, however, the GIDC built five pumping stations to channel the waste water directly to a nearby estuary. But the pumping stations often break down and get flooded in ponds of industrial waste, sometimes oozing out onto nearby roads. When the pumps work, six effluent outlets carry both treated and untreated waste through the countryside to the mouth of the Narmada River. At one village between Ankleshwar and Bharuch, this industrial waste passes just a few yards from houses where barefoot children play. Ironically, this village has the relative luxury of a sewage pipe that disposes human waste at a safe distance from the settlement, even as chemical wastes are channeled through town in an open ditch.
About 60 miles north of Ankleshwar, not far from the city of Baroda, is Nandesari industrial estate. Though much smaller than Ankleshwar, with about 300 smaller plants, Nandesari may be even more contaminated. It is a microcosm of the toxic chlorine industry. The backbone of the complex is the Gujarat Refinery, which opened in the mid-1960s. It was followed by India Petrochemicals Ltd. (IPCL), Gujarat Alkalis and Chemicals Ltd. (GACL) and Gujarat Fertilizer Company. GACL makes chlorine and caustic soda, which, in turn, are used as raw materials by much of the rest of the estate. About 50 to 60 plants produce chlorine-based chemicals, including about 30 chlorinated paraffin wax plants. Hoechst, one of Europe's three large chlorinated paraffin producers, has recently announced its intention to phase out all chlorinated paraffin production by the 1998 because of environmental contamination caused by the chemicals.
To M.L. Patel, the regional officer for the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) in Baroda, falls the herculean task of monitoring pollution and enforcing environmental law at Nandesari. The rapidity of growth in the Golden Corridor is one source of the challenges facing Patel. In 1977, Patel, then the regional officer for Bharuch, had 120 companies on file. Now he estimates there are about 18,000 files for the corridor running from Baroda to Vapi. Government regulation has not kept up with the growth.
The Gujarat state government has not implemented amendments to the Factories Act of 1987, which include provisions for training, community information, creation of safety committees and medical check-ups for workers. To keep up with monitoring at Nandesari, Patel says he needs at least 15 engineers; he has five. Patel also lacks authority: the GPCB must take companies to court in order to fine them. Under the amended Water Act of 1988, the GPCB can turn off electricity and water supplies to offending companies. According to the Delhi-based Times of India, this step has never been taken.
In Nandesari, the regulatory focus is on improving wastewater treatment. The pride of Nandesari pollution control efforts is the 30-mile Common Effluent Channel which carries industrial waste to the estuary at the mouth of the Mahi River. There, Patel says, the magic of dilution renders the waste "harmless." This faith in dilution, which is shared by many, is misplaced, according Pat Costner, a Greenpeace chemist. "Sending hazardous waste 10 or 20 or even 100 kilometers away does not render it harmless, it merely shifts the burden," says Costner.
"Certain toxic substances, such as heavy metals and nonvolatile organic chemicals, are not detoxified or destroyed by treatment, and will travel with the effluent to the final discharge point," warns Costner. Many of the substances used at Nandesari are persistent in the environment and tend to accumulate in the tissue of organisms. These toxic substances, rather than being diluted, actually reconcentrate as they travel through the food chain. Examples of such potent toxins include mercury and dioxin, both of which bioaccumulate in fish and humans. Estuaries, such as those where Nandesari and Ankleshwar wastes end up, are typically rich in biodiversity. Yet no thorough studies of the ecology of these estuaries and the impacts of effluent disposal there have been done.
Such a study would probably find that some of the effluent from Nandesari does not reach the estuary. On its 30-mile voyage to the Gulf of Khambhat, some of the effluent is intercepted by farmers and used for irrigation, a practice which Ramesh Surti, head of the Nandesari Industrial Association, calls "absolutely safe."
GPCB officials acknowledge that the practice is dangerous. But when asked what can be done about the problem, they just shrug their shoulders.
Estate waste service
Despite the constraints, M.L. Patel, and his counterpart H.J. Patel at Bharuch, point to improvements at the estates. But some of these advances are less than impressive, given the magnitude of the problems. For example, benzene dyes, which are known to cause cancer, have been eliminated from Nandesari and Ankleshwar. But closely related substances, which are also known carcinogens, may have been substituted. A pulp and paper mill at Ankleshwar, which was having major effluent problems, installed a new system and now meets requirements for chemical oxygen demand and suspended solids. However, the mill, which uses a chlorine-bleaching technology known to create dioxin and other organochlorine discharges, is not monitored for these emissions.
A few years ago, Gujarat Alkalies and Chemicals Ltd. replaced mercury cells with membrane cells at its chlor-alkali plant. Membrane cells do not eliminate chlorine leaks or the effects of downstream organochlorines, but they do eliminate worker exposure to mercury and significant mercury emissions. Even this improvement had its dark side, however. Instead of recycling the mercury in the cell, GACL simply scrapped it. Currently, a giant pile of solid waste, identified as mercury waste from GACL by a water treatment plant operator at Nandesari, sits in the open on the estate, and groundwater has not been tested for mercury contamination.
Ramesh Surti emphasizes that pollution at Nandesari "used to be much worse." His office is across the road from a small chlorinated paraffins plant. Referring to the smell of chlorine over the years, Surti says, "Five years ago it used to be hard to sit here. Now, there is practically no problem." Nevertheless, the strong smell of chlorine, ammonia and other chemicals still hangs heavily in the air.
These chemical smells are but a reminder of air emissions that are afflicting workers and residents near the industrial estates. Even the Ankleshwar Industrial Association, in its 1993 to 1994 annual report, admits that "the biggest problem is of air pollution in the estate. [U]nless we tackle this problem, life will be difficult in the years to come."
There have been no health studies of workers at either Nandesari or Ankleshwar. According to the People's Training and Research Center in Baroda, in 1993, there were 36 documented chemical worker deaths in Gujarat as a whole. For that year, the Center reports, there were 68 total occupational deaths and 437 occupational injuries. Jagdish B. Patel, an occupational safety officer at a large firm in Nandesari, says that the true numbers are much higher, because "many workers do not go for postmortems or police reports." He says that sometimes a worker will fail to show for work, and their family reports that "he died automatically," that is, suddenly, and without obvious cause. Also unknown is the incidence of chronic occupational disease. One doctor working in a Nandesari blood drive discouraged workers from giving blood, saying that 80 percent were anemic.
Workers have little support for improved safety conditions on the job. According to Jagdish Patel, only 20 to 30 percent of Gujarat's 100,000 chemical workers are unionized, and most of the unions do not have health and safety officers. Firms of more than 250 workers are required by law to hire a health and safety officer, but that does not necessarily increase management's commitment to improving safety conditions, according to Patel.
Aside from worker colonies, the population around Ankleshwar and Nandesari is sparse. Still, women, cattle and children wander casually in and around the industrial waste strewn throughout the area. At Nandesari, small settlements of maldharis, or cattle tenders, have grown up at the edges of the estates, while across the road, a few families eke out a living scavenging scrap metal from discarded 55-gallon drums. The families do not know what the drums contained before they were dumped. No health studies of these communities have been done. According to Patel, workers at Nandesari report that their childrens' health improves when they move away from the estates.
Other industrialized areas in India have much denser populations, and therefore a greater potential for a Bhopal-like catastrophe. In Thane-Ballapur near Bombay, 200,000 people live within one and a half miles of an industrial belt which includes a dozen or so multinational companies. These companies, afraid of liability for accidents, sued to move these residents further away from the plants. M.C. Mehta, a Supreme Court lawyer (see interview, page 29) who defended the residents, says the companies "wanted them to move, but didn't want to compensate them." Pointing out that some of the 200,000 residents had been there before the companies came, Mehta also questions the justice of moving the people at all. "Who should move, a handful of plants or thousands of people?" he asks. The people remain, living in the shadow of these hazardous plants, hoping they do not explode, but often ignorant of the long-term harm chronic exposure to chemicals can cause.
More toxins in the pipeline
Though eager to point to their successes, GPCB officials seem to understand the limits of their approach and authority, given the quantity and nature of chemicals being produced. "The best solution is not to generate waste and then treat it," says M.L. Patel. "The best is not to make it."
Not only wastes, but some of the products themselves made in Ankleshwar and Nandesari are inherently dangerous and unnecessary. "What is the use of Paraquat? There is no need," says Patel. Yet the GPCB officials are resigned to their plight. M.L. Patel summarizes it bluntly: "Once we have produced chemicals there will be pollution. Where there is development, there will be destruction."
If that is true, the people of Gujarat had better prepare for a renewed cycle of destruction. An onslaught of investment in the Gujarat chemical industry, estimated at $7 billion to $8 billion, is expected by the end of the century. Industrial estates at Panoli, Vagra, Dahej and Vilayat, all near Bharuch, will get much of the new investment.
In addition to the intensive development planned for the Bharuch area, Gujarat is the proposed host for the giant Indian-owned Reliance Refinery slated to be built in Motikhavdi, near Jamnagar. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, this project, with its pipelines, construction and potential spills, threatens to destroy the Gulf of Kutch Marine National Park and Sanctuary, a 120-mile stretch of coast which is home to 800 species of flora and fauna. The refinery is likely to attract a new group of "downstream" petrochemical industries to the area.
This projected explosive growth in the chemical industry is a continuation of recent trends. Agricultural chemical sales, for example, went from $168 million in 1987 to $392 million in 1991; the value of agrochemical exports by Indian firms almost tripled in the same period.
Under India's economic liberalization program, the next round of investment is expected to come from multinational petrochemical corporations such as Shell, ICI, DuPont, Dow and Hoechst.
This influx of foreign investment by the multinational petrochemical industry poses an additional danger. As Western industrialized countries become more aware of the hazards of toxic chemicals, chemical companies are rejecting and phasing out certain products and processes, due to regulatory mandate and popular pressure. The United States has already banned waste disposal practices such as dumping liquid hazardous waste in landfills. Production and use of organochlorines such as chlorinated solvents and pesticides are in decline. These products and processes are now showing up in India and other developing countries. India is one of the world's few producers of DDT, which the United States banned in 1972 for environmental reasons. Endosulfan and paraquat, two highly controversial pesticides which are banned in many countries for human health reasons, are produced at Ankleshwar. United Phosphorus of Bombay recently bought a used chlorine plant from Norway to produce, among other pesticides, endosulfan and dichlorvos. Norway is phasing out both pesticides in keeping with the North Sea Declaration.
"The chemical industry has emerged as one of the sunrise areas of industrial investment in the country," says the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests. It is no coincidence that this "sunrise" in India coincides with a "sunset" of the same industry in the West.
Some observers feel that the sunrise in India will bring better technology to the area. But M.L. Patel says that the multinationals "are not transferring waste prevention technology. They are keeping it to themselves."
Moreover, with the Golden Corridor in a state of environmental chaos, there is a growing sentiment in India against the proposed onslaught of chemical industry development. According to The Times of India, an advisory team from the Ministry of Environment and Forests has said no new development work should be done until programs and infrastructure are established to control current environmental problems. Even industrial development advocates acknowledge that the situation is out of hand. The ruling party member of parliament from Bharuch, Ahmed Patel, who has encouraged chemical industry development at Ankleshwar, went on a one-day fast in November 1994 to call attention to the dangers of additional chemical industry development in the area. The horrific conditions in and around the industrial estates suggest that this form of industrial "development" is a step backwards for the environment and many Indian people.
At the end of July, a Bombay newspaper and news service will appear in court to defend themselves against charges of "defamation" by one of Gujarat's leading pesticide producers.
The story begins in Norway, where, from 1981 through 1992, the company Norske Skog operated a membrane cell chlor-alkali plant as part of that country's largest pulp and paper mill. In 1992, the company ended chlorine production, after three years of intense efforts by environmental organizations and signals from the government that if companies did not phase out chlorine bleaching of pulp on their own, the government would force them to do so.
After closing the plant, Norske Skog began looking for a buyer. It found one in 1994. In the autumn of that year, the company dismantled the plant and shipped it to the Bombay-based United Phosphorus.
United Phosphorus plans to reconstruct the plant in Jagadhia, an industrial estate near Bharuch.
The chlorine from the Norske Skog plant will be used to make chlorinated pesticides, including endosulfan, dichlorvos, paraquat and phosphamidon. All of these substances have been banned in some industrialized countries, with the Norwegian government slating endosulfan and dichlorvos for phase-out as part of its commitments under the North Sea Declaration. Yet the export of the Norske Skog plant will facilitate the production of these same pesticides in India.
In April 1995, Greenpeace published a report, "Norway to India: A case study in hazardous technology transfer" and distributed it to about 30 news outlets in India. MIDDAY, a Bombay daily, ran a story based on the Greenpeace report written by a reporter for Sanctuary Features, a news service. MIDDAY, Sanctuary, their editors and the writer of the article have all been named in the criminal lawsuit by United Phosphorus. The company has also threatened to sue Greenpeace, but had not filed papers by mid-July.
Chlorine is the basis for many of the most toxic and persistent synthetic chemicals. It tends to combine with hydrocarbons to form organochlorines that are toxic, persistent and bioaccumulative. Examples of organochlorines include dioxins, DDT, 2,4,5-T, PCBs and ozone-depleting CFCs. Their effects on humans include cancer, reproductive and developmental impairment, damage to liver and kidney functions, neurological impairment and many other health problems. In general, wastewater treatment does not detoxify or destroy organochlorines. Rather, these substances bind to particles and either travel to the final disposal area or volatilize to the air (ultimately to be redeposited on the ground or in water). In the United States, chlorine is the second most commonly released hazardous chemical after ammonia. The chlor-alkali industry is one of the most hazardous of all industries in the United States, with a high incidence of accidents and worker injury and death.