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Toxic Tours

Toxic Tours - V: Golden Corridor: The highway to hell

By Shailendra Yashwant

Mountains of toxic sludge, stinking, blood-red rivers, blue dogs, water that turns red on exposure to air and sunlight -- the chemical industrial belt between Vapi and Ahmedabad in Gujarat is a toxic nightmare.

Once again I was in Gujarat and once again I was snooping around industrial estates. This time my friends from the Paryavaran Surakasha Samiti (PSS), Vadodara, were giving me a guided tour of three south Gujarat rivers -- Damanganga, Kolak and Par -- that have the misfortune of passing through the Golden Corridor of Gujarat.

The Golden Corridor, a chemical industry belt set along the Western Express Highway between Vapi and Ahmedabad, a distance of over 200 kms, was created as a tax haven for the industry by the Gujarat government about 20 years ago. Financiers recovering from Bombay's textile strike quickly jumped onto the bandwagon and with a very limited understanding of the chemistry involved, set up units and factories to manufacture some of the most dangerous man-made chemicals. Today, even as individual units and factories are shutting down, the pollution of land, air and water by the release of chemical compounds over these many years, has left a trail of ecological devastation.

The Common Effluent Treatment Plant (CETP) on the Damanganga River at GIDC, Vapi, was our first stop. Although I am a frequent visitor to this region's showcase for environmentalists, this was the first time it occurred to me that we were on the border of Gujarat state and the union territory of Daman. Effectively, Daman received a toxic river from Gujarat and for the seven-odd villages along its banks, many of them dependent on the river for centuries, the last decade has been a bit of a toxic-shock. No wonder the famous lobsters of Daman took off for cleaner shores.

Trudging through a landscape littered with sticky, gooey, colourful and extremely dangerous chemical sludge from the CETP, I tried to shoo away a desperate clueless soul who was poking around with a stick for stuff he could recycle and sell. The tragedy is that this man didn't know any better. And he did not care that the mountain of sludge we were walking on was the deadly stuff the CETP had recovered from the liquid they eventually release into the river.

CETPs, the magic technology of the '80s, found an aggressive push in the early-'90s in India following the outcry over the release of untreated toxic wastes in the environment. With very few choices, even the NGOs succumbed to the well-advertised but untested advantages of CETPs and before anyone realised it, legislation was in place and industry had an opportunity to literally green-wash their wastes.

Common sense, corroborated by scientific evidence, has proved that CETPs have a very limited role to play in treating industrial waste from a complex variety of small-scale industries. Effluents from different industries tend to carry different poisons at different levels. Not only that, industrial wastewaters are often a complex cocktail of poisons, each of which would require different methods for removal or destruction.

If provided with effluents from industries using similar processes and chemicals, CETPs can effectively fix simple parameters such as Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), Total Suspended Solids (TSS), BOD, COD and PH, so that the discharge standards for these are met. But you cannot take for granted the fact that the effluents from CETPs will thus be rendered safe. Industrial effluents are dangerous to the environment because of the presence of life-threatening persistent organic poisons, volatile organics, and heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, arsenic, chromium and mercury. CETPs do not address these poisons, nor are they currently required to be monitored for cleaning any of these poisons.

Rather than get rid of the pollutants, CETPs merely redistribute the poisons from the liquid to solid sludge phase. This may reduce the immediate contamination of surface waters, but creates an additional contaminated waste stream -- of poisonous sludge -- that must be disposed of. The sludge under my feet was testimony to that.

Our next stop, Kolak, an ancient village that takes its name from the river that circumvents it, on the outskirts of Udvada, the site of the first Zoroastrian fire temple, was a face-to-face encounter with those who are directly affected by the pollution of the rivers. Villagers had gathered to tell us about the abnormal rate of cancer among residents. According to Kantibhai Makrani, a former sarpanch of Kolak, over 80 villagers amongst its 4,000 population are reported to be suffering from cancer of some sort or the other whereas complaints of skin diseases and stomach ailments had increased ten times in the last five years. In the last couple of years, the number of miscarriages had increased too. All classic symptoms of poisoning by Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)

When asked who or what was responsible for this abnormal rise in diseases, all fingers pointed to the factories on the Golden Corridor that had poisoned their air, river and groundwater.

To demonstrate the extent of poisoning that they face, some villagers filled a bottle of fresh water and left it out in the sun: the water turned red within ten minutes. This was no magic trick; it was the chemical content of the water oxidising when exposed to air. But what was more shocking was the trick that the helpless villagers have found to help them drink the water: they gulp it down immediately, before it has a chance to oxidise.

These villagers are unwilling to confront the State or take on the clout of the offending industries. The intervention by PSS and other local NGOs has at least brought their plight to the notice of the local media and the state administration. But beyond that, real corrective measures are zilch.

Driving through the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC) estate along the highway, littered with cadavers of huge trees that were being cut down for the expansion of the expressway, we encountered highly-polluted streams or khadis that carried their deadly contents to the nearest river or directly to the sea. Blue dogs, red cows and green men, although appalling, are such a common sight here that they merge into the electric background.

Our next stop was an indefinable community dwelling, a stone's throw from the river Par. I was brought here to inspect a recently-dug well, that was allegedly being used by some factories to inject their effluents directly into the groundwater. A classic Indian 'out-of-sight-out-of-mind' solution for waste disposal adopted by dodgy factory owners.

But more than the well, it was the colourful shepherd community that caught my eye. Men and women in traditional Kathiawadi clothes lived in decrepit houses amidst piles of dry and fresh toxic waste, with their cattle. Enquiries from the reluctant residents revealed that we were at a traditional camping site for the migrant shepherd community. But over the last few years factories have started dumping their waste and sludge, in the cover of night, on the nearest open, unprotected, unfenced land. Which is the state in which the shepherds discovered their traditional camping ground this year. Unfortunately, they have no title to the land and therefore have no legal standing to make complaints. They have little choice but to adjust to the changed topography and quietly continue their lives, grazing cattle, selling milk and surviving.

While my friends from the PSS started making detailed enquiries to enable them to make a case for the poor shepherds, I walked on to the banks of the Par. Blood-red and stinking, it flowed westwards, quite transformed after it hit the Golden Corridor.

(Shailendra Yashwant is a senior photo-journalist who has worked with The Hindu, Outlook and The Independent. He is associated with the toxic campaign of Greenpeace and has been documenting the subcontinent's ecological problems for several years.)