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Back: the long arm of the law

C Surendranath
30/09/2004

When industry captains say “abiding by the law is our primary goal,” it sounds like a truism. But it was exactly what several high profile corporate CEOs and MDs in Kerala were heard agreeing in one voice during a recent workshop in Kochi. Their voices were grim, reflecting the threat of closure several industrial units not only in Kerala but also all over the country are facing on account of failing to abide by a law adopted way back in 1989, the Hazardous Waste (Management and Handling) Rules.

Thirty-two industrial units in Kerala that have already been served with closure notices are now making hectic parleys to buy time for evolving a proper process and adequate technical systems for burying the hazardous wastes hitherto callously dumped in open, often leaking, landfills in the backyard of each factory.

Hazardous wastes are the special class of highly toxic industrial waste requiring separate ‘Treatment, Storage and Disposal Facility’ (TSDF). The Basel Convention signed on 15 March, 1990 makes it mandatory for the country to minimize generation of hazardous waste and their degree of hazardousness and to dispose of them close to the source, reducing their trans-boundary movement. Though 89 sites in different parts of the country were identified for TSDF and out of which 30 notified, only 11 had been put into operation by September 2003, leaving the bulk of hazardous wastes being dumped in improper landfills. The High Power Committee (HPC) set up the Supreme Court of India had guesstimated that every day close to 12,000 tonnes of hazardous wastes were being generated in the country.

Toxic hotspot

What set the ball rolling was the Kerala State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) slapping closure notices on 32 industrial units, mostly in the Eloor-Edayar industrial belt on the banks of the river Periyar, south Kerala’s lifeline. Over 200 industrial units including many owned by government that relied on obsolete technology and obsolete products are in operation in the area, using the river as an illegal disposal facility. No wonder then that the area is now stamped by Greenpeace as one of the 26 toxic hotspots in the country.

The closure orders had spared none; both big government sector companies such as the Fertilisers and Chemicals Travancore (FACT), Hindustan Insecticides Ltd (HIL) and Hindustan Newsprints Ltd (HNL) and several medium and small private sector units were ordered to down the shutters until proper steps for disposal required by the law were taken. But “the PCB had only cleverly passed the buck” according to Chandran Pillai, trade unionist. Pillai was right because the PCB had flung into action only when its officials were threatened with punitive action and contempt of court proceedings by the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee (SCMC) on Hazardous Wastes. The SCMC was set up by the nation’s apex court in October last to monitor the progress in implementation of the HW Rules as well as a series of orders passed by the court since 1995. The PCB has “wilfully and callously disregarded the directions of the Supreme Court’s orders,” the committee observed in its report which recommended closure within eight days of all industrial units that continued to flout the law.

The closure orders may have been precipitated by pressure from a Supreme Court committee, but they have since been allowed to be treated as ‘show cause notices’ by the High Court of Kerala. Nevertheless, time is running out for the industry as well as the workers because the one-year lease of time granted by the Supreme Court for setting up adequate TSDF for hazardous waste would come to an end on October 14.

The roadmap

In May 1997 itself, the Supreme Court had asked state governments to show cause why units authorised to handle hazardous waste operated without requisite safe disposal sites and why units operating without any authorisation should not be closed down. Again, in October 2003 last the court had set a time limit of three weeks for closure of all unauthorized units, and had given one year for the PCBs to set up proper landfill sites in each state. But neither the industry nor the PCB in Kerala made any move for setting up adequate TSDFs, forcing the SCMC to describe the ground situation existing in the state as “terrible.”

The Supreme Court Monitoring Committee said it would have “no hesitation in directing the closure of the entire Udyogamandal industrial estate and ordering a special audit of the area.” • Unchecked pollution on the Periyar Earlier, a Greenpeace study had established that with most of the fertiliser, insecticide and chemical manufacturing plants in the Eloor Edayar region dumping toxic waste into the Periyar, the incidence of almost all diseases, whether respiratory, dermatological or mental, was “two to five times higher in the region” compared to the less-polluted Pindimana village in the same district. Due to the presence of waste, the temperature of the river had risen abnormally and the water contained high concentrations of organochlorines including DDT and its metabolites, endosulfan, cyanide, BHC and heavy metals including mercury, lead, cadmium, chromium and zinc.

After site inspections, the SCMC team chaired by Dr. G. Thyagarajan recently observed that most factories in the region had contaminated ground water supplies of neighbouring communities and nothing had been done to remedy the situation. The SCMC found, for instance, pollution of groundwater “everywhere outside the jarosite ponds of Binani Zinc Ltd,” that the waste disposal practices of Hindustan Newsprint Ltd were “completely unacceptable”. The committee was firmly convinced that “Hindustan Insecticides Ltd (HIL) should go for closure,” the area occupied by the company allowed to recover from the impact of discharges of toxic materials over the decades and the company should be “allowed to reopen only if it shifted to clean technology and a new product mix.”

The Committee said Kerala was more than a decade behind the process improvements in other states: it looked as if the state had pushed itself into a time warp from which it was unable to extricate itself. Apart from ordering closure of all unauthorized industries, the SCMC recommended an inquiry into the omissions of KSPCB, warned state authorities of contempt of court proceedings, sought measures for ensuring water supply through pipeline to the residences of affected communities and decided to levy a heavy collective fine of Rs.2.5 crores on the entire industrial estate of Eloor-Edayar based on the ‘polluter pays principle’.

All these were meant as actions intended to “raise an appropriate alarm and jolt the industrial units into doing something drastic about the present state of affairs.” If these actions “did not turn the situation around and reverse the pollution of the Periyar river within six months,” the SCMC said it would have “no hesitation in directing the closure of the entire Udyogamandal industrial estate and ordering a special audit of the area.”

Transparency and participation

In a bid to inject the spirit of openness and participation in the entire process of pollution control, the SCMC also directed KSPCB to set up Local Area Environment Committees (LAEC) with representation of KSPCB, industry associations or industrial units and local environment groups. The LAEC in Eloor-Edayar region was granted powers to conduct an environment audit of all the 247 industries in the area and to report to the Supreme Court on the units’ compliance of all environmental laws including the HW Rules.

Three LAECs have started functioning in the state, in Eloor-Edayar region, one in Vellore near HNL’s waste dumps and the third in Palakkad district where Cola companies had reportedly depleted drinking water sources. Local self-government institutions, workers unions and people’s representatives have started demanding representation in these LAECs. Industry associations such as Chamber of Indian Industry (CII) have come up to moot a transparent, participatory process for pollution control and even concepts such as ‘zero effluent discharge” and “preventive environment management.”

Getting out of the time warp, several industry managers as well as officials of the PCB have begun to view their predicament as an opportunity rather than a crisis. The writings on the wall are clear: escaping the long arm of law is no more a solution.

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