By ordering the closure of certain high-polluting industries and giving others time till December end to shape up or shut down, the Gujarat High Court has blown the lid off a sordid tale of avarice, incompetence and neglect, which leaves all parties concerned tainted.

In the dock are 1,500 industrial units in the four industrial estates of Vatva, Odhav, Narora and Narol around Ahmedabad. They have been found to be principal violators of pollution parameters set by the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB), and of these 756 have been identified as highly polluting. While closure orders have been issued to 318 units, 185 have had their power and water connections cut. Also to be axed are the units spread across other industrial estates in Gujarat, including 26 in the Nandesari industrial estate in Baroda, 22 in Vapi and over 1,200 textile printing units at Jetpur.

The principal polluters are the dyestuff, dyestuff intermediates and chemical manufacturing units. Gujarat and Maharashtra account for more than 90 per cent of the Indian dyestuff manufacturing industry, with their exports (worth around Rs 4,000 crore last year) having grown more than 30-fold over the last decade. Says S.P. Chandak, director, pollution control, at the National Productivity Council (NPC): “We cannot compete with Germany in the area of machine tooling, or against Japan in electronics. But the closest we could get to a level field is in chemicals. Growth potential for India in this area is tremendous.”

But at what cost? Agricultural yield in the Kharicut canal area around the industrial estates has fallen from two tonnes per acre to less than half a tonne. The effluent discharge from the Ahmedabad estates into Kharicut canal and subsequently into the Khari river has made the water unsuitable for agricultural purposes. Even at Vapi, the villages surrounding the industrial area are facing water pollution problems. Says Kanti Bhai Patel, sarpanch at Chadwad village: “Our groundwater is nearly gone. Nothing grows in more than 200 acres of our village land.” Of the seven open wells and 12 bore-wells in the village, only two open wells and three bore-wells have potable water. In neighbouring Chhiri village, residents call the local Bil Khadi rivulet the ‘chemical nadi’. There is no farming in the in village at all. And the rate of cattle deaths and miscarriages is abnormally high.

The Pandya Committee set up by the Gujarat High Court to assess the extent of environmental damage in the four industrial estates of Ahmedabad found that number of the units had direct conduits to dispose of effluents into the Kharicut canal, bypassing all primary and secondary treatment. Even units having treatment plants found it economical not to run them.

Though on the defensive, the dyestuff industry is trying to sell the virtue of being practical. Says Deepak Babaria, a functionary at the Gujarat Dyestuff Manufacturing Association and chairman of The Green Environment Services Co-op Ltd: “Closing down industry is hardly a solution. At stake are more than 30,000 jobs in these 756 units alone.” But whatever attempts have been made by industry and the Gujarat industrial Development Corporation (GIDC) over the last decade have been half-hearted.

Common Effluent Treatment Plants (CETP) involve a cluster of industries or an entire estate coming together to take care of their effluent, a job they would find impossible to do individually because of technical, financial and space problems. But in Nandesari, for instance, which has some 255 units of which 30 make highly polluting dye intermediates like vinyl sulphone and H-Acid, the CETP has remained unused for about 10 years. Says Babubhai Patel, former president of the Nandesari Industries Association: “The plant is a monument constructed by the GIDC. They made it without studying the nature of the effluent.” Underground pipes which carry the effluent to the CETP are blocked with sludge.

But these are dangers inherent in any CETP. Arbitrary mixing of individual effluent types could cause disasters like the one at Kalyan, near Bombay, a couple of years ago, where effluent mixing in an open drain resulted in the formation of hydrogen cyanide gas, killing 17 villagers.

However, posing the maximum problem is hazardous solid waste. In spite of the 1989 guidelines of the Environment Ministry, not one hazardous waste dumping site has been made operational in India. According to the NPC, the five districts of Ahmedabad, Baroda, Bharuch, Valsad and Surat generate more than 270,000 tonnes of hazardous solid waste per year. And the lack of any official, scientific landfill is forcing industry to dispose the waste on an as-and-where basis.

The court has specifically directed that industries should store hazardous waste on their premises till dump-sites are legalised. But few factory owners have the space. Add to that the high cost of land–around Rs 4,000 per sq m. Says Prakash Khatiwala, managing director of Arlabs Ltd, a dyestuff manufacturing unit in Maharashtra: “Even by conservative estimates, for every square metro of land you need to make any chemical, you need 5 sq m for treating the effluent.” Right now even GPCB authorities are apologetic about the problem. Says G.B. Soni, senior scientific engineer at the GPCB “With what face can we go to industry to tell them to dump solid, hazardous waste at particular dump-sites when we haven’t even begun work on one.”

As a result, it’s not surprising that a majority of industrialists remain sceptical about the parameters set by the pollution control boards. Says Ramesh Surti, president, Nandesari Industrial Association: “If industry were to observe all the norms to get NOCS, 40 per cent of the industries in Gujarat would close down.” Compliance with some of the high court’s orders may not even be possible. A.R. Garde, director, Ahmedabad Textile Industry Research Association, cites the Total Dissolved Solids value requirement of 2,100. Says he: “We should make a distinction between what is achievable and what is not.”

Others want the court to extend the December 31 deadline by more than a year. But there is little chance of that at the moment. The mess that greed has created over a decade has ended up hurting everyone involved.

November 1, 1995

Clean Up Or Close Down

The Gujarat High Court orders the closure of about 1,500 industrial units in the state for violating pollution norms