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6,000 kilometres on the toxic trail

By Nina Subramani

A filmmaker's notes and observations as she travels through seven states of India, from the chemical factories of Eloor in Kerala to dust hills and ash ponds in Orissa, and the uranium mines of Jadugoda in Jharkhand. Everywhere her camera encounters crippled children, sick adults, filthy water, foul air and dead lands.

 At first sight Bhopal was not at all what I expected. It was December 2002 and I was visiting the city for the first time. To me, Bhopal was a silent prayer at school assembly, a project report on the gas tragedy and, later on in adulthood, photographic images in a Raghu Rai book.

I expected therefore to see a city shrouded in haze, its people wearing sick, beaten expressions.

And so on a beautiful December day, after a night of driving from Nagpur, the bustle and cheer of Bhopal a day before the 19th anniversary of the gas tragedy seemed inappropriate.

In retrospect I shouldn’t have been surprised, for the one lesson I learnt from my journey was that life does indeed go on. I was filming a trip by Greenpeace campaigners who travelled almost 6,000 km (60 days by bus) through the four southern states and Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal . The film we made on this long journey is titled Miles To Go.

First stop, Tamil Nadu. This is a state that is struggling to supply water to its people, yet it’s doing nothing to prevent its rivers from dying. At the basin of the Palar river in Vellore , construction activity is going on at a frantic pace. The only water in sight is what is being discharged from huge, foul-smelling pipes. No points for guessing where the pipes come from: the common effluent treatment plant (ETP). At the plant we were taken through all the processes and assured that the water being released was clean. Why then was it muddy, smelly and red? The manager at the common effluent treatment plant in Ranipet insisted that the effluent was being treated according to international standards.

That obviously wasn’t good enough for Kuppanga, a farmer whose field borders the ETP: “All the stuff goes into a pit where it is sieved and goes into a septic tank…Then it leaks out and affects my crop…Look at my field…the plants are drying up…one in five does well. I told them your effluents are spoiling my crop, but they don’t care. I’ve been here since my childhood -- all this was fertile land and now even weeds don’t survive. When the water comes out and there is a heavy flow you can’t see the chemicals in it. But once it goes into the earth you can see the residue, like scum on a pond.”

The leather tanneries of Vellore are the main source of contamination. A few years ago the Supreme Court ruled that tanneries without ETPs would face closure. However, no one is analysing the released effluents. If they did perhaps they would realise that ETPs are not the answer.

Even when you see smoke billowing out of factories, as we did in the industrial area of Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu, or when you see fields lying fallow with pipes discharging effluents into them, it’s difficult to fully appreciate the scale of the problem.

On the banks of the Uppanar river in Cuddalore, farmers scooped up handfuls of dirty water. The groundwater is equally contaminated. Many of the residents here suffer from skin diseases.

With the river in distress, there has been a decline in fishing activities. Local communities told us about their letters and visits to the authorities. But instead of addressing their problems, new factories are being planned in the area.

In Cuddalore I attended a people’s tribunal for the very first time. We spent the day listening to testimonies from villagers who spoke in simple straight terms about the problems they face. Murthy, a fisherman from the village of Sonanchawadi, spent Rs 40 a day attending the three-day tribunal.

“There’s been a chemical influx over here,” said Murthy. “Because of this we can’t fish and we’re also physically affected, especially our children -- they have breathing disorders, nausea, etc. Even if we take them to the government hospitals, there’s no one to give them proper care. So where can we go? We went to the collector. He did nothing. We petitioned the government; that also didn’t do anything. So right now no one knows what to do. How will our children grow up? Study? We don’t even have faith in the fact that they’ll live. Anyway, right now the situation is such that children are not being born. Even if a man and woman get together they can’t have children. The children are not growing properly. It seems there is something wrong with their bones. A 14-year-old girl looks like she’s seven or eight. We’ve spent a lot of money, but doctors are unable to tell us what the problem is. It’s all because of the water -- the water’s not what it used to be.”

His testimony was brushed aside as if it were irrelevant.

The next day we listened to doublespeak by industry representatives who appeared shocked at the mention of pollution. One official countered: “If for the past 10 years nobody suffered any deformity, then I’m at a loss as to why it’s been happening now, in the last one-and-a-half years. I have 29 years of work experience with SPIC. I have worked with pure mercury, holding it in my hands. I’ve handled 10,000 tonnes of ammonia. None of us have died. We’re all very healthy and our companies are even monitoring the health of employees.”

I’m no expert on pollution or contamination. My rule of thumb is that if it smells so bad that I throw up, or if I can’t breathe, or if I suddenly get a rash (and these symptoms stay with me) then whatever I’m in contact with is definitely not healthy for me. Over the past eight years of filming, one thing I have noticed: the perpetrators of pollution are in denial. They insist that their factories are ‘eco-friendly’; that their employees are ‘healthy’. And why wouldn’t they be? The chairpersons and management of Cuddalore’s industries aren’t living near their factories. They wait for ‘lab results’. Do we really need to know the exact e-coli count of the Yamuna to know that we will never take a dip in that river?

THE 12 sq km island of Eloor , near Cochin (in the heart of god’s own country, on the banks of the Periyar), with a population of 40,000, is also home to 247 factories, 106 of them chemical factories. Every day and every night, the factories release chemicals into the air. They manufacture DDT, endosulfan and other persistent organic pollutants (POPs) that are banned in most countries around the world.

Local residents complain that eggs and coconut water taste of chemicals. Many suffer respiratory illnesses, and cancer is a frequent cause of death. They have been engaging with local government and industry officials over this issue for years. But to no avail.

Kumnibibatu, 62, says: “I’ve been living here for 30 years. There’s a lot of smoke now. Once the gas spread so much that people fled their homes thinking that death was imminent. We experience a lot of breathlessness…we feel ill because of that. The doctor says it’s because of the place…he’s told several others this. My grandson who is seven years old feels breathless often. It’s like a routine. He falls ill once a month.”

There are many industrial hotspots within the greater Cochin area. Take for instance the industrial regions of Binanipuram, Puthamthodu and Karimugal. The people of Karimugal, who suffer the serious effects of smoke emitted by a carbon black factory, march in a protest procession every evening. April 2004 marked their 1,000th march.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Every day new factories are being planned. Is anyone examining the implications on the environment and on human health? How does one explain the large number of children born with deformities in such regions?

In Kerala, the aerial spraying of endosulfan in Kasaragode every year, for more than 20 years, is causing the birth of deformed children. While the debate between local communities, activists and industry on the continued use of pesticide rages on, there have been no systematic health surveys, no unambiguous reports to explain the birth deformities. In Kokkada, near Kasaragode, on the Karnataka border, local activists lined up 25 deformed children for us to see in one afternoon. We stopped after visiting the third child. Now, two years on, I wish I had visited them all. It’s important to document such atrocities so that later no one can say they don’t exist.

Like a whole village of children in Jadugoda who scarcely exist.

The road to Jadugoda, on which we travelled, is made from uranium tailings. Here, after drinking crystal clear sweet water straight out of a well, we walked down a village street straight out of National Geographic. But, in house after house, children with swollen eyes and disfigured faces dragged themselves around on their haunches. They smiled at us and proudly called out their names: Duniya, Alobatti, Arjuna. Their parents stared at us coldly, reciting the number of years they had worked in the mines, when they quit, and when their problems began.

Radioactive tailings cannot be seen or smelt in the way gases had assaulted our senses in other places. But they were all around us. In the water, in the food, inside the children.

Vimla, a resident of Jadugora says: “We don’t really understand what’s going on. Yes, the mines are there but not everyone’s making money from them. In a tribal family of 15, perhaps one person is employed in the mines. And things like the uranium being dumped on the roads, we have no clue how this could affect pregnant women and children. Most of our children are born handicapped, crippled -- at least five in every village. We didn’t know why. See, many tribals like us even used the uranium waste to make our stoves, to build walls. We didn’t have any information on what this could do to us.”

Little or nothing has been done for the past 20 years to ensure that uranium waste does not contaminate Jadugora’s water supply. Now, plans are afoot to mine uranium in Nalgonda district near Hyderabad . The proposed site is just four kilometres from the Nagarjunasagar dam and the Akampalli reservoir, which will supply water from the Krishna river to Hyderabad .

THE breathtaking beauty of Orissa is diminished by the anger and despair in the eyes of its people. The poverty and starvation hit you hard. In the background, night and day, black clouds emitted from factory chimneys block out the sunset over the river Brahminny.

In Angul we were met with the most surreal sight. Huge expanses of grey covered the land as far as the eye could see. In the distance, huge grey hills were covered in flying dust. Fountains of grey water set in ponds. Ash ponds and dust hills -- waste from thermal powerplants. Covering land that was once used for agriculture. In a state where people starve to death. Toxins from ash ponds leach into the soil, contaminating groundwater, food, bodies.

Bishan Sawan, an angry man we met, says:

“What was here earlier?

“Fields. Yes, even I grew crops here. When we gave up the land, people didn’t get even a third of the compensation they should have.

“In March this year there were winds, and the dust reached Talcher, 10 km away. There was a foot of ash in the town. There was a ‘kirtan’. All the food was spoiled. The stream got so choked with fly ash that no one could bathe there. There’s no drinking water here, our little stream is totally choked. If you come in February-March you won’t be able to stand here -- people can’t eat, there’s so much dust.

“The children’s health is affected – so many babies have TB. There are absolutely no medical facilities. You’ll see a pump house further up -- they’re supposed to be cleaning the water before releasing it but you’ll see effluents directly joining the freshwater stream.”

The villagers say the dust causes “breathing problems and coughs”. Most think they’re suffering from tuberculosis, though it’s actually silicosis.

Malaria is rampant in areas around the ash ponds. At night we stop at a village near Talcher to speak to the residents. Almost everyone in the village has malaria. Swarms of mosquitoes buzz around us. How do these people pay for treatment?

Even more surreal than the ash ponds are the stonecutters. Rocks are blown up, machines work ceaselessly cutting stone and spreading dust for miles. At night you can see the dust moving in beautiful ripples, hovering in lines above the ground. These stonecutting enterprises are located right above the villages.

Niti Das, resident of a village near Lokpal, says: “Due to the crusher units there is dust rain in the village. The blasting causes cracks in the buildings. People are injured by falling stones. A lot of people are laid up with TB and the flu; some are even dying. Most people have respiratory problems.

“We face so many problems but when we object we are taken into police custody and harassed. There is one pond and one well that the whole village depends on. When we drink the polluted water we are laid up with many illnesses. Sometimes we walk kilometres for better water.

“When we tell them of our problems they say leave -- go elsewhere. In any case, you’ll are tribals, you have no right here, go away like others have.”

Manoj, a seven-year-old child from the same village, says: “I have admission in a school but everyone is so scared of the blasts -- even our teachers don’t come. The asbestos roof is cracking. My throat and chest burn all the time.”

Do you remember even one day of quiet?

“No, we have no peace at all.”

If you could go elsewhere, would you?

“No.”

Why not?

“This is my birthplace. I will not leave.”

Another amazing sight was a tender fresh green leaf emerging from a jet-black plant. The trees in the forest are dark, with the sunlight blazing above them. Agapeeth Katkatta, a villager living near the forest in Sundergarh, holds up a plastic bottle of water from his pond. It’s black.

AS I read this piece over I ask myself: What is it that I really want to say? That the water is dirty, the air foul, the land dead, and the people dying. I guess that just about sums up my journey.

But it doesn’t, fully. Things cannot be all that simple or cruel. Not as long as there are people like Jose, Periyar’s river-keeper who has been fighting the pollution at Eloor for over 20 years; the community at Karimugal that has marched for 1,000 evenings in a row; the people of Kodaikanal who come by bus to Chennai to ask HLL to stop dumping mercury in their hills; the women of Bhadravathi who want to start a club to stop the red smoke in their bright blue sky; the little boy in Orissa who will not leave his village... People everywhere who said to us: “Enough of our troubles, now let’s sing some songs while your tea gets ready.”

Bhopal was not the first ‘ Bhopal ’. It was the first to explode in our faces.

(Nina Subramani is a documentary filmmaker based in Chennai. She is the writer and director of Miles to Go, a documentary film produced by Greenpeace. To order copies of the film or get in touch with the filmmaker, write to: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

InfoChange News & Features, December 2004