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Hindu Sunday
Online edition of India's National Newspaper
Sunday, Dec 05, 2004

NITHYANAND JAYARAMAN

A Bhopal in the making?

The 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster may have passed on December 3, but it shouldn't make us forget the emergence of potential Bhopals, says MURALI N. KRISHNASWAMY, focussing on the `SIPCOT story' in Cuddalore.

How the children react -- a depiction of a poisoned Cuddalore.

THIS is an environmental story that has a familiar ring to it. It could be set anywhere in the world as it is about the conflict between man and the environment and about man versus man.

But it makes us sit up when we link it to the dangers revealed by Bhopal and the misery this world's largest industrial disaster still inflicts 20 years later on its hapless victims and the generations to follow.

This story, about a mini-Bhopal in the making, revolves around the slow destruction of Cuddalore, a port town about 200 km from Chennai, and 25 km from Pondicherry. And it is a lesson about the consequences of industrialisation and a lack of accountability, and the use of the "jobs or the environment?" bait dangled before a community — in this case, delineated on the basis of caste.

Fringed by the sea and with a fertile soil and numerous rivers and estuaries, Cuddalore is an idyllic agricultural belt. Fishing and a natural resource-based cottage industry complete the picture in this 27 sq.km. district.

But, in 1982, things changed with the setting up of the State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamilnadu (SIPCOT). Ever since, life for the villagers of Pachaiyankuppam, Thaikal, Thiyagavelli, Eacchangadu, Kudikadu, Karaikadu, Sonnanchavadi, Sangolikuppam, Nellikupam and Pondiyankuppam, who live around SIPCOT, has been one of dealing with methanol, acetaldehyde, formic acid, ammonia, toulene, nitrobenzene, methyl mercaptan and vinyl acetate monomer, compounds of a part of a chemical concoction, that they have to contend with everyday.

In terms of their health, it is about a constant irritation of the eyes, nausea, acute dermatitis, coughing up pink frothy sputum, muscle fatigue, changed reproductive effects, narcosis and cyanosis .... The list is incomplete.

It has also meant lamenting a deeply poisoned watertable, air and soil and a sick sea life.

Now, their anxiety, made worse by official apathy, has increased with their learning of the intended setting up of a new unit (Pandian Chemicals) to manufacture "rocket fuel".

But is all hope lost? Not quite, it would seem for the villagers are fighting back.

The anniversary of Bhopal — (December 3) — 20 years later, is to be observed as the Global day against corporate crime (Action is planned in another 20 countries), says Nithyanand Jayaraman, environmental activist associated with the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, as there are a thousand other Bhopals waiting to happen in India.

"There is a high level of secrecy, insensitive governments, `accidents' that have almost become routine, a downplaying of crises and complaints by the community around such installations, about pollution and a lack of information on the nature of the industry and the chemicals used."

While the problems in Bhopal created by the erstwhile Union Carbide India Limited continue even today, says Jayaraman, it is the initiative taken by the women affected that keeps the movement for justice going.

But the important point is that Bhopal is all about culpable homicide. Union Carbide has skipped bail and has not returned since, with no effort being made by the Government to nail it. Union Carbide has now merged with Dow Chemicals Company which has been permitted to return to India to manufacture chemicals. If this is the case with the agents responsible for the greatest industrial disaster and a case where justice is still elusive, what hope is there for people around smaller industrial units, asks Jayaraman.

The answer is to be active and be aware of the Bhopals waiting to happen.

In Tamil Nadu, Tuticorin, Ennore, Ambattur, the Mettur Dam belt, the Ambur-Vaniyambadi belt, and even the nuclear installation at Kalpakkam are mini-Bhopals.

In the case of SIPCOT, when the ambient air quality report was released in September this year, the Supreme Court swung into action. Its monitoring committee was to monitor air quality and then set national standards in this area. As far as the Central Pollution Board is concerned, air monitoring is done with the consent of industry, so there is a conflict of interests, Jayaraman says.

"SIPCOT," says environmental activist and coordinator, Environmental Monitoring project, Shweta Narayan, "deals with pharmaceuticals, dyestuff, paints and plastics, and for the 20 years or so of its existence, has had the people complaining of extreme pollution. They can tell you of particular smells at certain times of the day from certain industrial units. Examples are a public toilet smell associated with a petrochemical unit, and a chikkoo-like smell from a paint unit.

"Thus, the initiative was taken to translate the experiences of people with the help of local group — Federation of Consumer Organisations, Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry (FEDCOT), `Villagers First', the Village Monitors and Protectors, Community Environment Monitoring, The Other Media, Delhi, and U.S-based NGO, the Global Community Monitor.

"Starting last year, in December, there have been water monitoring training capsules that follow standards set by the Bureau of Indian Standards and the Central Pollution Control Board.

"In March this year, villagers have had air quality monitoring training. Called the `Bucket Brigade', they use an ordinary bucket fitted with a sampling bag, made of a material called Tedlar, to take air samples during intense odour incidents. These samples are then sent to a certified laboratory in California to test for a total of 89 toxic gases.

"Five samples have been taken so far and analysed for volatile compounds and sulphur. There has been no testing by the government as yet and there are no standards for this in India," says Narayan.

"The premise here centres around what the people have been narrating, as odours and smells are an indicator of something happening beyond permissible limits. There was a study done recently and the report showed 283 instances of different odours over 14 weeks," she says.

"I would also like to point out that all monitoring activities done by the villagers have a sound science which is translating into

action. The Supreme Court Monitoring Committee has indicated that the industry has to restore air quality. A PIL was also admitted in the Madras High Court.

"What is surprising is that with all this scientific evidence, there are more industrial plans in the offing such as this rocket fuel venture."

To S. Ramanathan, a resident of Cuddalore and a member of the SIPCOT Area Community Environment Monitoring, the deadline of the end of December 2004, set by the Supreme Court has shown mixed results.

"In these past 15 days, with news of a visit by a fact-finding committee, the air quality has improved dramatically.

"But," he adds "the proposed rocket fuel venture has only vitiated the atmosphere. Our demands are that we must know what chemicals being used in manufacturing and then released into the atmosphere."

But the suffering still continues.

"Cuddalore is a fertile area and its location near the sea was why it became an industrial belt. We were baited with the promise of a better standard of life and employment, but this kind of industrialisation has led to poor yields in every field. We are largely uneducated and didn't know how to react.

However, there is hope with our collective action," he ends.

Finally, there is perspective to the whole issue in what T. Arulselvam, environmental coordinator says. "We are looking at a long-term vision. It is not about conflict with industry, but about the need to co-exist and a recognition of rights. It is unfortunate though that disaster management solutions are thought of only after conflict as a result of a change in mindset of those affected."

Pugazhendhi
Engaged in fishing and owns a poultry shop Sangolikuppam, SIPCOT area.

"We have noticed lesions on and stunted growth of fish species like Eraal, Kezhuti and Seithaikandaimeen.

"We experience dermatological itching after fishing.

"Families engaged in fishing are unable to change professions as it would mean being uprooted. Where do we go?

"Drinking water has become salty and brackish. There are numerous instances of premature births, early puberty in girls, and deformities in children. When negotiating marriage proposals, we are tainted as we are labelled as being from the 'SIPCOT area'.

"Our demands are for good hospital facilities. There is nothing in the SIPCOT area and the government hospital is 12 km away.

"A pollution control board must come up in SIPCOT. Another point is that though most companies have effluent treatment plants, nothing seems to be improving or happening.

"As far as empowerment is concerned, we have been trained in water and air testing. We have been issued certificates to say we are trained, so we know what we are talking about."

G.K. Amirthalingam,
Businessman
Eacchangadu village, SIPCOT area.

"FOR 20 years, this has been a battle. Disease is rampant, We have had cases in the village of thyroid disorders, skin infection, gynaecological disorders, premature births, stunted brain growth and seizures in children. Personally, I have had episodes of tremors and migraine. My father, who was a security man at SIPCOT, has had respiratory problems.

"A friend who cleaned a chemical tank in an industrial unit without being supplied protective equipment has serious neurological problems.

"Jobs have been denied to us as we are seen as a source of trouble. As a result, there is a lot of contract labour. Seven memorandums have been submitted, pointing out the poor quality of potable water, the need for medical facilities and tests every week. We also want compensation for damage."

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