Kanubhai once eked out a living from the 65 quintals of bajri, 80 quintals of wheat and 55 quintals of cotton that he grew on his 8 bighas of land in Nandesari village, near Vadodara in Gujarat. But for the last 15 years or so, his farm's output has been zero. His neighbour Jashbhai recalls a bumper harvest many years ago, that produced some of the best-quality mangoes he's seen; now not a single tree bears fruit.
What made this land go so infertile? The chief culprit are chemical industries in Nandesari, an area which was notified as 'industrial' in 1968. Back then, the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC) simply allotted plots, and there was no concept of pollution control. The Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) was set up in 1974, but actual implementation of its policies began only in 1984. By then, however, much damage had already been done to the ecology of the area as chemical factories simply discharged effluents into the nearby Mini river, or dumped them in low-lying open spaces. Their solid waste and effluents seeped into the soil and groundwater, rendering fertile land uncultivable, and contaminating ground water sources. In 1989, common effluent treatment plants (CETP) were mooted, but even these became operational only in 1992. The Nandesari Industrial Association (NIA) took over the running of the CETP in 1995, and things got stabilized by 1998.
In short, from 1968 to 1998, the Nandesari industrial area was disposing off its hazardous effluents without treatment into the river or through a common effluent channel. Even today, the outflow of CETP and direct effluent disposal of big companies in the common channel is far from the desirable standard. In the surrounding 10-15 kms, nothing grows on land that was once famous for its high fertility and good quality foodgrains, cotton and mango.
The Nandesari village panchayat includes Nandesari, Damapura, Radiapura, Rupapura and Lalpura villages just adjacent to the industrial area. According to Kiritbhai Prabhatsingh, the deputy Sarpanch of Nandesari village, some 1000 farmers here who grew bajri, wheat and cotton on their 5000 bighas now have nothing left but wells that draw reddish yellow water unfit for human and cattle consumption. The crop just withers away, when fed with this well water. Even with the CETP, the groundwater continues to be reddish yellow; farmers allege that some 10-15 chemical factories in Nandesari industrial area are discharging their chemical effluents into concealed borewell holes within their factory premises to escape the costs incurred in treating their hazardous effluents. Villagers in Nandesari say, "our brethren working in the factories know that this (discharging effluents in bore wells) is happening but they do not speak out openly for the fear of losing their jobs. Besides, the companies "manage" officials visiting for inspection and investigation."
A little away from this "no crop" zone next to the Nandesari industrial zone and along the common effluent channel, you'll find standing crops in the fields. But the farmers say the grains taste bitter, and are fed only to the cattle. In the 1960s, when mega industrial projects Gujarat Refinery, GSFC, IPCL, Gujarat Dyestuff, and Indian Dyestuff came up north of Vadodara, their effluents were let out into the Mini river, causing severe pollution. Hence it was decided to convey their effluents through a common channel which was constructed in 1983 running 56 kms to meet the Gulf of Cambay at an estuary in Bharuch district. With this channel, the pollution problem that was localized at Nandesari got transported to 24 villages over 50 km! While CETP officials maintain that the parameters of the outflow conform to the standards laid down by the GPCB, the channel's flow is visibly brown and brackish. This channel also gets effluents from Gujarat Refinery and the other big factories of this area.
There are some "Zero Discharge" chemical factories in Nandesari but these are not part of the CETP, says Babubhai Patel, chairman of CETP & chairman of Pollution Control Advisory Sub-committee of Nandesari Induatrial Area. In fact these so called Zero Discharge companies produce chemicals like alpha blue, H-acid, vinyl sulphone etc. that are banned abroad, and create highly toxic effluents not accepted even by CETP. Hence this highly hazardous effluent is discharged into the river. Wells that get recharged by the Mini river have red-brown water. Worse, the effluent channel overflows during monsoons, spreading the polluted water into the fields nearby. So, even rainfed agriculture has come under serious threat. Says Ishwar Chatursi, sarpanch of Sherki village sandwiched between the Mini river and the effluent channel, "this area is famous for drumsticks and my farm gave me annually Rs.15000 once but now I hardly get Rs 700." Devendra Parmar lives along the channel and says they wake up suffocating at night because of gases emanating from the channel. At night, the factories discharge highly toxic effluents on the sly. Mornings are smoky and unhealthy, making people feel giddy and sick. The flowers from drumstick trees wither off."
According to Dr K K Shah and Dr Maya Valecha, villages here have a high incidence of allergic skin, nasal and respiratory problems, lung abnormalities like emphysema, blood circulatory disorders and high blood pressures, heart diseases, gastro-enteritis, kidney and renal stones, impotency, infertility, etc.
At Sindrot, where the Mini meets the Mahi river, effluents get discharged into the broader stream. The common channel also pours out effluents some 20-25 kms downriver, near the estuary. During the high tide, these effluents flow back in reverse, jeopardizing aquatic life. During monsoons, king prawns lay eggs that settle down along the Mahi river basin. The chemical effluents carried back along with the high tide kill these juvenile prawns. During the last few years, fisheries cultivating this rare species of prawns have come to a standstill, taking away livelihoods of fisherfolk in some 50 villages along the Mahi. People suffer from vomiting and dysentery when eating the few prawns that remain. Water from the Sardar Sarovar dam now being released into the Mahi has helped wash away some of the pollutants, and fisheries have been revived to some extent, but despite this the catch is poor and of lower grade. Besides, people are scared to consume this "poisonous" fish. Even this cleansing water may be shortlived, because the tail end canal system has not been developed.
Avnesh Sharma's Ph.D. thesis on "Environment Impact Assessment Along the Effluent Channel from Vadodara to Jambusar and its confluence with Mahi Estuary at the Gulf of Cambay", establishes hard evidence about alarming increases in concentrations of zinc, chromium, cadmium, iron, mercury, nickel, lead and copper, chorides, sulphates, nitrates at J point (the confluence of effluent channel with Mahi estuary). Based on soil sample tests, Sharma found 100-250 times higher concentrations of these heavy metals in the top layer of soil when irrigation is done by channel water or contaminated well water. Vegetables such as chillies, drumsticks, grains like bajri, wheat, pulses and cash crops like tobacco and cotton grown along the effluent channel were tested to find high concentrations of these heavy metals. The thesis notes alarming changes in the contents of total dissolved solid and pH of well water along the channel, indicating seepages of channel effluents into underground aquifers.
Alarmed by over two decades of most disturbing ecological disaster, human right activists, lawyers, judges, NGOs came together under the banner of the Indian People's Tribunal in 1993 to investigate environmental degradation in above mentioned industrial areas. The IPT report now forms a basis for further investigations, local campaigning and public interest litigation. Their report - 'Who bears the cost?' on Industrialisation and Toxic Pollution in the Golden Corridor of Gujarat - has this to say about the overall scenario. "Without much concern for environmental norms, Gujarat embarked on a journey of industrialization with massive chemical estates coming up in the north to south corridor - Odhav and Vatva near Ahmedabad in the north, Nandesari near Vadodara, Ankleshwar, Panoli, Jhagadia, Valia, Vilayat near Bharuch, Pandesar ad Sachin near Surat, Sarigam and Vapi near Valsad in the south. Neither was proper environment impact assessment carried out nor was it considered important that the industrial centres were established dangerously close to human settlements and cities. Neither is the hazardous solid waste and toxic effluents that are spewed out being monitored properly nor is this disposal given any attention. Whatever little GPCB and GIDC have done all these years - thanks to judicial activism - has proved, at best grossly inadequate, and at worst, a total eyewash."
While the pollution itself can be ignored by the authorities, the resulting health and environmental costs aren't so easily bushed aside. While Gujarat has powered the industrial economy forward, its people appear caught within the web of unregulated activity that made this possible. Things will eventually have to change. The challenge for the area, and the state, is to clean up the land while there is still a chance of retrieving the days of old.