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'Hema Chemicals has left its mark on everything'

By Freny Manecksha

Several former employees of Hema Chemicals in Vadodara, Gujarat, whose health suffered from constant exposure to chromium and other chemicals, continue to wage a legal battle against an industry that has exploited its workers and violated labour and environmental laws, endangering not just the workers' lives but that of an entire community

We are sitting in an open space under a tree in a Vadodara residential colony. Ram Kailash Saroj is talking about the 14 years he spent working at Hema Chemicals. He recalls the long hours spent working with hazardous chemicals, with insufficient protective gear, breathing in chromium dust and other chemicals. The chemicals have marked not just his life, he says, but everything around him. Forty-three workers at the unit were diagnosed with nasal perforations. Several suffered from dermatitis. Ram Kailash himself got gangrene and had to have his toe amputated. His poor health cost him his job and, at 40-plus, he is left with a bleak future.

“ Hema Chemicals ki nishaani sub jagah par hai,” (“Hema Chemicals has left its mark everywhere”) he says pointing to telltale yellow streaks on the ground. This, he says, is hazardous chromium waste illegally dumped around the Gorwa industrial estate. The waste was sold by truck drivers and others to the residents of Vadodara, as earth. The waste has seeped into borewells and contaminated water bodies. Unsuspecting villagers used the toxic mass to level roads, even to build their homes. 

Hema Chemicals illustrates how, even 20 years after Bhopal, a company can exploit its workers and violate labour and environmental laws, endangering not just the workers’ lives but that of an entire community by polluting the water, the land and the air.

After a long and protracted struggle, on August 13, 2004 , the Supreme Court’s Monitoring Committee (SCMC) directed Hema Chemicals to inspect the site where it had illegally dumped over 45,000 tonnes of extremely hazardous hexavalent chromium waste. The order directed the company to have the waste removed by an expert body. It instructed the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH) to conduct a medical study to evaluate the impact of unattended waste on the health of people living at the site, with a view to awarding damages. The court ordered Hema Chemicals to deposit Rs 17 crore towards the initial remediation work.

To date, however, Hema Chemicals has reportedly not deposited a single rupee.

The SCMC also indicts the Gujarat government and the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) for not moving expeditiously to halt this “careless, irresponsible and indiscriminate” dumping.

The orders have come five years after the Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, a Gujarat-based environment and health group, and the People’s Union of Civil Liberties highlighted the grave risks to Hema Chemical’s workers and the public at large through some 40 letters and phone calls to the GPCB, the ministry of environment and forests, the Central Pollution Control Board and the Central Vigilance Commission.

Despite several orders by the GPCB, Hema Chemicals continued to dump toxic waste and made no effort to remove, encapsulate the waste and shift it to the Nandesari hazardous waste landfill. The company also ignored the nine criminal complaints filed by the Factory Inspectorate, between 1996 and June 21, 2001 , for violations regarding the health and safety of its workers.

Kantibhai Kristian, a trade union activist and a former electrician with Hema Chemicals, explains working conditions at one of the two units that were eventually ordered to be shut down by the Gujarat Pollution Control Board in August 2001.

The company manufactured potassium and sodium dichromate, chromium sulphate and other chromium-based chemicals used in alloy and metal plating, and manufacturing of a variety of products like dyes and paints.

The production process involves crushing the chromate ore, mixing it with soda ash and then roasting the mixture in a furnace at temperatures ranging between 1,100 and 1,200 degrees Centigrade. After the recovery of sodium chromate, the solution is put into water tanks to get basic chromium sulphate (BCS). It then becomes non-recyclable solid waste (yellow sulphate) which is turned into sodium sulphate.

Chromium is widely known to be a toxic substance; bichromate, which is a hexavalent, is a human carcinogen.

Jagdish Patel of the People’s Training & Research Centre, a chemical engineer who for over two decades has been working to safeguard the health of industrial workers, elaborates on the health risks. He lists the following chromium-related morbidity (signs and symptoms) and its effects on the body.

Chromium causes nasal irritation leading to perforation of the nasal septum. Those exposed to chromium develop slow-healing ulcers (known as chromium ulcers) and suffer allergic dermatitis. It can cause major damage to the kidneys and lungs and bring about pulmonary oedema.

Kristian says the work of roasting the material in the furnace was carried out in the open, and there were practically no safety rules. The pay (in 1985) was meagre -- Rs 8 per day -- forcing people to work overtime, sometimes 14 hours a day, and thereby exposing them to greater risks from the chemicals. Since the workers were paid daily they did not take leave even when fumes from the furnace made them sick.

Ram Kailash, who was made supervisor of operations in the liquid tank, says that though they were given gumboots the boots did not last long. And the protective gear proved ineffectual in preventing the liquid from affecting parts of the body.

“The heat was terrific because of those furnaces and the workers were forced to take off most of their clothes. The grinding of the ore was done in the open. The air was full of chromium dust. It went into our hair, our nostrils, even the food we ate,” he recalls.

Rule 102 of the Gujarat Factory Act says that the manufacture of chromium products is hazardous and that a certifying surgeon must visit the factory regularly. For years this did not happen at the factory’s two Gorwa units. Nor was there any monitoring apparatus in place to monitor chromium levels (the legal tolerance level for chromium in the atmosphere is 0.05 mg per square metre).

At first, the workers, engrossed in a struggle to demand decent wages, did not relate their symptoms of loss of appetite, dermatitis, irritation in the nose and wounds that continued to ooze for days as being work-related. Even when they went to doctors, under the ESIS (Employment State Insurance Scheme), they were not examined properly or told that their problems were a result of the work they did.

Ram Kailash, who become firmly entrenched in the trade union movement although both his father and his uncle had been close to the maalik (owner) and had ended all attempts to form a union, says that in 1985 he and two other workers attended a camp organised in Mumbai by a non-profit called PRIA. Here they met Jagdish Patel and decided to include considerations of health and safety in their charter of demands. They called for an inspection of the premises by the factory inspector, but the inspector refused to admit that anything was wrong.

In 1996, Ram Kailash had to have his toe amputated after gangrene set in. The amputation became a kind of watershed in the history of the struggle.

A demand was made to the Factory Inspectorate for an examination of the workers. In his report dated March 27, 1998 , Dr S K Varma the certifying surgeon, factory inspection, found that as many as 43 workers at Hema Chemicals had nasal perforations. There were 27 cases of dermatitis.

A study conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Health, Ahmedabad, (‘Report on Biological & Environmental Monitoring and Health Surveillance of Chromium-exposed Workers in Chemical Industries’) also indicated that the blood chromium levels of 14.80% of workers exceeded the permissible levels and that in some cases it was as high as 27 micrograms/100 ml.  

In 1999, Ram Kailash and two other workers were sent to the ESIS Special Medical Board where they demanded relief under the Workman’s Compensation Act. They were awarded compensation for 15% disability. (Kailash refused, saying his health had been permanently damaged and that he wanted long-term relief. His case is still being heard.)

However, when another batch of workers with nasal perforations were later sent to the board they, curiously, were refused any compensation although their earning capacity had been severely impaired. They have since appealed to the medical tribunal.    

It is believed that at least nine workers may have died from chromium-related illnesses between 1999 and 2001.  

Although the Factory Inspectorate filed several criminal cases against Hema Chemicals for breaching the health and safety rules for workers, the owners have offered little assistance to the workers.

In a travesty of justice, Ram Kailash was sacked after Abhiyan reported his plight. The owners of Hema Chemicals alleged he had brought disrepute to the company. Kailash filed a case that is still pending in the labour court.

The 250-odd workers should have greeted closure orders for Unit 2, and later Unit 1, by the GPCB in August 2001 with sighs of relief. But they find themselves in a sort of limbo. They have received no wages from the company despite a Gujarat High Court order saying that closure of the units due to their non-compliance with pollution control standards would not result in the denial of wages to workers.

While the SCMC has pegged Rs 17 crore as the amount Hema Chemicals must pay up to clean up water bodies and the area where it dumped hazardous waste there is no mention of recompense for workers in whose bodies the toxic chemicals played havoc. 

For Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, the People’s Training & Research Centre and the Vadodara Kamgar Union the battle is far from over. They are demanding that workers be given extraordinary wages and compensation as many eke out an existence even as they struggle with various ailments.

Even if the workers try to seek some other employment they are branded, as it were. The publicity surrounding their case has meant that companies are reluctant to employ them, as they know they are in poor health. Their only solace is that their long struggle may in some way contribute to a less toxic tomorrow.

(Freny Manecksha is an independent writer and editor based in Mumbai.)

InfoChange News & Features, December 2004