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Burnt paddy and dead fish

By Manipadma Jena

Five years ago the fishermen of Kharnasi, near the Oswal fertiliser plant in Orissa used to catch 10 quintals of hilsa fish per trip. Now, the catch is down to a quarter of that. 50% of the fishermen have stopped taking their boats out. Following a gas leak, 3,500 hectares of paddy turned yellow overnight. This report shows the extent to which livelihoods are being eroded by industrial pollution

DAWN is still an hour away. Bishwesar Haldar picks his way in the dark to the riverbanks. These days he hardly ever goes fishing. Completing his ablutions early, however, has been a habit since he was 13 and began accompanying his father in the dinghy. The air outside is thick and moist and the haze is hugging the earth. Lights from the factory across the rivulet from the Mahanadi river gleam wickedly through the mist like huge eyeballs with giant orbs. As the mist curls around him, Bishwesar’s lips begin to tingle. Then the delicate tissues inside his nostrils sting as when his wife puts too much red pepper in the fish curry. Floating in the still dark morning air, unseen by the fisherman, are microscopic acid droplets, which splash against the moist film protecting the eyes, burning them and making them water; he curses aloud. The full impact of the noxious smog hits him now and he squats on the grass, choking and coughing. As the constriction in his upper chest eases a little and he can breathe, he traces his way back. And waits for the acid haze to clear.

Since April 1999, Bishwesar and more than 100,000 people of 25 gram panchayats in two districts around the plant of Oswal Chemical and Fertiliser Ltd (OCFL) at the port town of Paradip in Jagatsinghpur district of Orissa, have been getting used to such ailments. What they find difficult to get used to, however, is the slow erosion of their livelihood base, eaten away like an acid attack by the pollution of OCFL. Fishermen, paddy cultivators, vegetable farmers and cattle owners find their livelihood base severely impacted by the air and water pollution; they find their own and their family’s health slowly impaired.

OCFL is a Rs 2,000-crore fertiliser plant, producing 2 million tonnes per annum (mtpa) of Di Ammonia Phosphate (DAP) fertiliser – one of the largest producers in India . It was set up in 1999 just 5 kilometres from the deep sea harbour in the port town of Paradip in Orissa. Since production began in April 1999, OCFL has faced a host of complaints and agitation from local people over water and air pollution. It has a case for pollution pending against it in the Orissa High Court. Despite three major accidents, a number of ammonia gas leaks and a few Orissa State Pollution Control Board (OSPCB) raps, the industry has carried on with seeming impunity.

The joint inspection by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and the OSPCB in February 2002 and their indicting report followed by two months of closure, has not reined in the polluting industry. In August 2003, 3,500 hectares of paddy crop were burned yellow by a massive gas leak. Two hundred people, mostly children and the aged, were affected by respiratory illness. In 2003, around 20 head of cattle and an equal number of goats died after grazing on grass and foliage contaminated by what the villagers say is a white powder. Often, delicate plants like basil and others just shed all their leaves and stand nude in the morning.

BISHWESAR’S village Kharnasi, with 14,000 families, is in Kendrapada, on the border of Jagatsingpur district, 2 km across the Mahanadi river from the OCFL plant as the crow flies. A few kms away the river opens out into the Bay. Ninety per cent of Kharnasi’s population draws its livelihood from fishing and allied activities. The Jaya Durga Marine Fishermen’s Co-operative Society was set up in 1986 with 900 members. Till the OCFL started operations in April 1999, Basant Sikdar, 35, says they would catch up to 10 quintals of hilsa (an expensive variety of mullet) fish in a three-day haul; today their catch has dwindled to 25% of that. Their fathers used hand-rowed dinghies; Basant Sikdar and every other fisherman has at least a 5-15 horsepower diesel motor fitted to his dinghy. On one fishing trip they spend 100-150 litres of fuel. Since the last four years their catch does not even cover their costs. They cannot venture into new fishing fields because each fishing community has an unwritten ownership over these.

As a result, nearly 50% of the fishermen have stopped taking out their boats, informs Narayan Haldar, president of the Cooperative.

While the fishermen sit idle their debts are mounting. Nabarana Burman had taken a loan in 2000 of Rs 50,000. “Earlier we would repay substantial loans in just the three months of peak hilsa season,” he says. Now he has not been able to repay any of it and the loan stands at Rs 80,000. The only way he can repay his loan is by selling his boat, as Bishwesar has done.

Nabarana Burman had 2 acres of cultivable land. Fishing was booming business here in 1997, and he sold an acre to buy a 15 bhp boat for Rs 1,00,000. Then OCFL came and by 2001 he was forced to sell his boat. Today he earns daily wages of Rs 40, when he gets hired that is, by repairing nylon fishing nets. His remaining one acre in a single crop year gives just 700 to 800 kg of paddy. If sold at the government support price he gets a paltry Rs 2,500. Earlier Burman would get 1,200 kg of paddy from that one acre.

Agriculture too has been hit by the OCFL. “Coconut produce has reduced by 75%; black spots appear on the upper portion near the stem. Bamboo produce is 50 to 60% less since the last four years. Cashew is badly hit. If the toxic emissions touch the plants during the flowering season they burn and shrivel and hardly give 20% of the normal produce; we know this because when the OCFL plant was closed during the flowering season we got a near-normal harvest after four years,” say Mrutunjay Mandal, sarpanch of Ramnagar.

Ramnagar is the largest daily vegetable market in Kendrapada district. Twenty gram panchayats depend on these ‘haats’ for wholesale procurement, so the vegetables find a ready market. But the women tell us that the local vegetables acquire black spots, which cause the vegetables to rot. “Pitapat village was the main supplier; today next to nothing comes from that village situated just across the OCFL, separated by the Mahanadi river,” adds former sarpanch Bijoy Shukla.

The worst destruction occurred in September 2003. Entire villages got up one morning to see their acres and acres of paddy had turned yellow overnight – nearly 3,500 hectares, the Mahakalpada tehsildar’s report later calculated. The tehsildar’s report just mentioned ‘Oswal gas’, but the gas that caused the damage could have been either sulphur-dioxide or ammonia fluoride emission. The people of Barakanda, Baulakani, Ramnagar, Bajrabahakud, Bahakud, Baradanga, Suniti, Gogua and Kharnasi villages, which were worst-affected, agitated. An FIR was filed. “We forwarded 60,000 complaints from the affected villages to the tehsildar of Mahakalpada block. The environment minister Surya Narayan Patra visited with a high-level team. There were heated debates in the state legislative assembly,” says Mahakalpada block chairman Balaram Parida, whom we met up with in Mangalpur village.

OCFL was shut down for three months.

OCFL obtained environmental clearance in July 1998 from the ministry of environment and forests under EIA notification, 1994, with specific conditions. The plant started trial production in April 1999 and obtained consent from the OSPCB to operate from 20.01.2000 to 31.03.2000 under specific conditions. After complaints from the people of some panchayats of Mahakalpada block, an OSPCB surveillance squad for surprise inspection and monitoring visited the OCFL factory on 11.10.2000 and found that the industry was violating a number of consent conditions: 20 conditions out of the 30 it had agreed to for controlling water pollution were not being met and 11 of the 28 for air pollution control were being disregarded.

OSPCB found that the industry was discharging untreated wastewater into the nearby creek and river Mahanadi . In November 2000 OSPCB/MoEF refused permission for OCFL to operate for 2000-01. Cases were filed subsequently under Section 25 and 33(A) of the Water (Prevention & Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 and Section 31(A) of the Air (Prevention & Control of Pollution) Act, 1981, to control and mitigate pollution. Directions were issued by the MoEF under Section 5 of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, to take adequate measures for the fishing people, who had reported that on several occasions dead fish were found floating, possibly due to occasional discharge of acidic effluents from OCFL. On 24.11.2000 the consent refusal order was issued to OCFL. On 6.12.2000 OCFL was allowed to present its case in person. OCFL was asked to furnish an action plan on implementation of various aspects of default. On 11.12.2000 OCFL submitted an action plan and resumed operations. Because of OCFL’s assurance the cases were not pursued.

In 2002, the Joint Committee found nothing much had changed since it had issued the above orders for OCFL to clean up its act. Their inspection revealed that Atharbanki Creek water, just adjacent to the plant and running into the Mahanadi river, indicated high pH levels of 2.16 and high concentrations of fluoride (318 mg/l) and phosphate (589 mg/l). Similarly, the effluent sample collected from another nullah leading to river Mahanadi (near the guard pond) indicated pH levels of 2.47, fluoride levels of 248 mg/l and phosphate of 559 mg/l. This indicated that the industry had been discharging untreated effluents into the creek as well as the Mahanadi .

Effluent discharged from the new gypsum pond area to the nullah leading to the Mahanadi found pH near neutral (7.13) but with very high fluoride content (793 mg/l). At a number of places HDPE liners (to protect groundwater contamination) were found to have been turned off or damaged and the accumulated effluent was highly acidic.

The team visited the Effluent Treatment Plant (ETP) installed by the industry a few months earlier for treatment of fluoride-bearing wastewater. The wastewater streams coming to the ETP are treated with milk of lime. The treated wastewater, OCFL claimed, was recycled and used in the phosphoric acid plant for rock phosphate grinding. The team however found that the ETP is treating only part of the effluent generated in the industry.

The wastewater was not segregated from the storm water before being discharged. The sample sediments from this drain were found to contain a very high concentration of fluoride (7.10 mg/g or 7100 mg/kg). This is indicative of discharge of untreated effluents containing very high concentration of fluoride into the water bodies.

The verdict of the team was serious: poor wastewater and sludge (gypsum) management in the industry has resulted in pollution of the Atharbanki creek and surroundings. Hazardous waste management is far from satisfactory and the industry has not been authorised for hazardous waste disposal. No monitoring system was in place.

The Team advised that the industry be issued closure directions till they had full-fledged arrangements for storing of gypsum, proper handling of gypsum, an adequate effluent treatment plant, adequate segregation of wastewater from storm water and proper recording facilities of the effluent and storm water discharged and stored in the guard pond. The industry should not be allowed to manufacture phosphoric acid till a fluorine recovery unit is installed by the industry. The extent of environmental damage caused due to fluoride contamination was to be evaluated by a third party. The cost of assessment of such damage would be borne by the industry. The Mahanadi river and Atharabanki creek/drain(s) were to be monitored at least once a month by OSPCB.

The Joint Committee’s recommendations have reportedly made little difference.

“After we agitated in 2000, OCFL promised us school buildings, drinking water, roads, a clubhouse for the youth and even temples for the village deity,” says Parida. “All we finally have is a dubious homoeopathy clinic at the cyclone centre.” With the company in the red since the last two years, nobody seems interested in employment with OCFL. “If you die in an accident they will not give compensation,” says an unemployed graduate in Kharnasi.

Meanwhile, OCFL’s gates are shut tight. But OCFL has not, according to environmental activists, built the Phase II Gypsum pond for which 275 acres are earmarked. “If OCFL is not flushing the gypsum slurry into the waterways where is the capacity overflow going?” asks environmental activist Biswajit Mahanty.

According to researches in the US , the manufacture of one pound of phosphate fertilisers produces five pounds of contaminated phosphorous slurry. According to these studies gypsum pile-ups are highly acidic and toxic. This combination makes for a poisonous cocktail which, when leaked into the environment, wreaks havoc with the fish population. A large spill in Florida , USA , killed up to 1 million fish.

“But for all this we don’t want Oswal’s to close shop. Let them just let us live in peace,” says Shanti Haldar, a Red Cross worker at the Kharnasi cyclone centre.

Chronicle of disasters

One morning in September 2003 entire villages woke up to see their acres and acres of paddy turned yellow overnight: nearly 3,500 hectares, according to the Mahakalpada tehsildar’s report. The report mentioned ‘Oswal gas’ as the cause of the disaster; the gas that caused the damage could have been either sulphur-dioxide or ammonia fluoride emission.

This was not the first accident. Gas leaks and fires on April 9, May 6, May 9 and May 28, 2000 had allegedly killed six workers and injured over 20, according to newspaper reports. Following this, the government ordered closure of the DAP plant and sulphur carrying conveyor belt for two months.

In November 2000, when an ammonia leak occurred, reportedly the sixth since OCFL began operations, people fled the area fearing a Bhopal-like disaster. Media reports pegged the number of affected at 10,000.

In 2001, Paradeep Phosphates Ltd, a Government of Orissa fertiliser industry situated a few kms from OCFL, filed a formal complaint that air pollution from OCFL was adversely affecting their employees’ and their families’ health

In March 2002 yet another fire broke out in OCFL’s sulphur godown, causing extensive damage but fortunately no casualties. An official inspection found violation of prescribed safety measures.

Polluting processes

TO understand the dangerously high polluting potential of Di Ammonia Phosphate (DAP), which is produced at the OCFL plant, one must understand the process of its production. Phosphoric acid is produced when a mineral called rock phosphate is mixed with sulphuric acid. The phosphoric acid thus produced is again mixed with ammonia gas, and DAP fertiliser is ready.

The ammonia gas is brought from outside and stored at the plant. Both sulphuric acid and phosphoric acid are however prepared inside the plant. To prepare the sulphuric acid, the sulphur is first burned to produce sulphur-dioxide gas, which is subsequently converted to sulphuric acid.

Sulphur-dioxide and ammonia are high-level environmental pollutants. But these are the basic raw materials of a DAP fertiliser plant, hence an in-built mechanism for recycling the effluents within the plant itself is a must. Gases like sulphur-dioxide and ammonia cause damage to the eye, skin and respiratory organs of human beings.

Fluoride has been and remains to this day one of the largest environmental liabilities of the phosphate industry. The source of the pollution lies in the raw phosphate ore, which contains as much as 2-4% concentration of fluoride. When the ore is processed with water soluble phosphate (via the addition of sulphuric acid) the fluoride content is vaporised into the air, forming highly toxic gaseous compounds – hydrogen fluoride and silicon tetra-fluoride.

The OCFL plant has four main units producing 1,60,000 metric tonnes/month of phosphatic fertiliser in the Di Ammonia Phosphate plant (DAP), 7,000 tonnes/day of sulphuric acid in the Sulphuric Acid Plant (SAP) and 2,650 tonnes/day of phosphoric acid in the Phosphoric Acid Plant (PAP). It also has its own 64MW captive power plant (CPP). It has two ammonia storage tanks of 20,000 tonnes each and a 5.5 km long conveyor system from the port to the plant.

The potential air pollutants generated from the OCFL are sulphur-dioxide emission, acid mist, fluorinated gas, and emission of ammonia fluoride fumes as well as particulate matter. The potential water pollutants are mainly leakages, spillages and washings from the three plants as well as effluents from the CPP. In solid waste, gypsum from the PAP is the worst because it has not been addressed; there is also sulphur muck from the SAP. Possible leakage from the ammonia storage tanks could lead to a large-scale disaster.

(Manipadma Jena is a senior development journalist and consultant working from Bhubaneswar, Orissa. She can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

InfoChange News & Features, December 2004