Miseries galore

  • 29/04/1996

Miseries galore It is not just the land that has turned barren in Bichhri - the cattle have also been badly hit. Initially, when effluents flowed through the village, residents were alarmed to see the skin peel off their cattle after they had wallowed in contaminated water. Several families lost their cows and buffaloes. Today, the cattle often drink th6 contaminated water andgraze on contaminated plants. As aresult, says Sukh Ram Dhuda, a trained veterinary assistant in Bichhri, out of every 60 attempts at artificial insemination, only 10 cows finally calve. The production of milk has been affected drastically. While earlier, every 10 families contributed 150 kg of milk to the cooperative, they have nothing left to sell now, and barely meet their own needs.

Perhaps the worst hit in Bichhri and the villages around it are the adivasi bastis (settlements). With the income of the land-owning Danghis falling and their lands turning barren, the adivasis, traditionally agricultural labourers, have even less to live on. Wali Bai, a middle-aged adivasi woman from Nora basti in Bichhri needs no prodding to talk about how the factories ruined her life. "I have a plot of land, but no water to grow anything on it," she says. "Grain is Rs 10 per kg in the fair-price shops. How can I afford to buy anything to feed my family? Nobody even wants to buy my land." There are seven members in Wali Bai's family. She has a cow and four buffaloes, but does not get enough milk to sell to the cooperative. The cattle cannot even eat leaves, she says, because gases from the factories have killed most of the trees long ago.

The people have been driven to eke out a meagre living by breaking stones, but even for that they cannot go to work for days and loose out on a badly needed wage of about Rs 35 per day, waiting for Hindustan Zinc'stanker to come. "If I complain to anybody, the tanker driver stops bringing the water altogether," says Lali Bai, the sarpanch (head of the panchayat).

Lali Bai says she has made several representations to the collector to improve the water supply, but nothing has been done. The collector, Ashok Singhvi, seemed remarkably ignorant of the villagers' travails. When told that the tankers are irregular, he was incredulous, Then where do they (the villagers) get their water from? They get it from somewhere, don't they? He claimed that the administration "will be supplying water to Bichhri soon", but could not say how soon. The sc, in its first 'considered order', way back in 1989, had asked the state government to provide the affected villages with clean drinking water. Not only has that order not been implemented so far, but even the sc, in its latest and final order, has forgotten to either examine whether the first order has been implemented, or remind the state of its duty.

The groundwater in the immediate vicinity of the factories continues to be a shocking dark brown in colour. But the wells further away have begun to loose the colouring. Although this may seem to be an easing of the problem, it is actually presenting a potentially more dangerous situation. Thinking the water had become all right, Daulat Ram, another inhabitant of Bichhri, says that one day he drank the water from a well and fell ill immediately.

No study has been conducted on either thepeople or cattle of Bichhri. Skin diseases seem common and many of the villagers relate themto contact with the contaminated water. K M Bansali from the department of preventive social medicine, Udaipur Medical College, admits that a study has been in the pipeline for several years now, but has not been cleared by the RPCB. This agency is appallingly callous about the whole affair, saying it cannot act as the case is sub-judice. The sc, strangely,does not hold either the RPCB or the state government responsible for the tragedy. The verdict holds no lesson for the PCBs in other states like Gujarat, where as many as 17H-acid units are still functioning. So far, even the CPCB has shown no intention of coming down heavily an the other H-acidplants, or asking the PCBS to cancel their NOCs. Ordering disorder
The February 13 verdict of the Court has to be seen in this context. The salient points in the verdict are:
The secretary, MEF, is to determine the amount required for remedial action in consultation with the ministry's experts

The polluter's factories, plants, machinery and all other immovable property are to be seized and the money be used to carry out remedial measures

The plants and factories of the polluter in Bichhri to be shut down

They can only be allowed to reopen after Court directions are complied with and the requisite permission and consent from relevant authorities is obtained

The villagers or any other organisation on their behalf are free to institute Suits ill appropriate Civil Courts

If they file the Suit Or suits in forma pauperis, the state of Rajasthan shall not oppose their application

Rupees 50,000 should be paid by the polluter by way of costs to the petitioner, who has fought the litigation over a period of more than six years with his own means

All chemical industries, big or small, should be allowed tobegin operations only after taking into consideration all the environmental aspects and their functioning should be monitored closely to ensure that they do not Pollute the environment around them

Even existing industries should be subjected to Such a scrutiny and if they are found to be polluting, action should be taken under Sections 3 and 5 of the Environment Act.

Several questions arise in the wake of the judgement. Firstly, did the sc - while issuing the final orders - apply itself sufficiently to the problem at hand? It is one thing to issue orders for cleaning the environment through money taken from the offender; or order the payment of expenses to the petitioner. But what about the people? Is environment a thing in itself, or does it encompass the whole gamut of man-nature relationships? Can we have nature sans humans? Rice fields sans the cultivators? Clean wells sans the people who need the water? Why have the people's miseries been blackballed in the sc order? It is appalling to think that the Court'senvironmental perspective is biocentric which leaves humans out, but what other conclusion can one draw?

Secondly, without doubt, Bichhri's environment needs to be cleaned up, but where is the money coming from? The SC has not made this clear. It merely says, Agarwal's property has to be attached and the money recovered from it. But it is Linclear as to which property is being alluded to. The Bichhriproperty? What is it worth? Even a casual investigator would say: who will buy the poisoned land on which the factory shed still stands? The only Way the money can be recovered is by attaching all of Agarwal's moveable and immovable assets.

The Court's judgement has attached only the 'immovable' assets of Agarwal's companies, leaving out the movable assets. No assessment has been done of the immovable assets; therefore, there is no Way of knowing whether these would be sufficient for meeting the expenses to be incurred for the restoration of Bichhri's environment. Rather, the fact that these companies have filed for bankruptcy indicates that their assets are insufficient to meet their liabilities.

Moreover, the Court's order places the claims of the secured creditors above those of unsecured ones - which means whatever money is generated by the sale of the immovable assets may not accrue to the PCB. It is possible that these judgement's limitations arise from the Court's insufficient knowledge about the financial status of these units. But that does not absolve the Court of its responsibility in calling for all information in this respect and passing appropriate directions to protect the interests of the villagers.

Thirdly, does the Court even remotely know that the repair of the environment that it is talking about may just not be possible? The sc has based its observations on a report by NEERL Unfortunately, as we have seen many times in the recent past, NEERI'S reports themselves remain suspect (Down To Earth, Vol 4, No 22). In this case too, as environmentalist G D Agarwal has shown, NEERI'S suggestions do not hold water.

Another basic issue, this one in the realm of jurisprudence, needs to be raised. The Court has seen the devastating impact of H-acid production in Bichhri. In its order, the sc has restricted itself to the case pertaining to Bichhri alone. But what about the other units producing H-acid elsewhere? The Court has been merely reactive in its approach to a crucial environmental issue. It has studied, to whatever unsatisfactory extent, one case and issued orders pertaining to that only. But O P Agarwal is still producing H-acid. And so are many others. Will the Court wait for each such case to be complained against, while Bichhris mushroom all over the country? Or should it not have been proactive and issued blanket orders against production Of H-acid anywhere in the country? After all, the manager of Agarwal's Vapi unit himself admits that H-acid has been banned in the West precisely because no measures have been found to render the effluent fully benign.

Environmental cases, as the honourable Court itself once remarked, are burgeoning. One way of solving the problem of justice being delayed, and therefore denied, is to take this proactive stand. It might call for a radical shift from the one-case-one- 'judgement philosophy. But today, Vapi's environment is being polluted mercilessly.

Finally, one is tempted to ask the original question once again: why is the Court silent about the 400 families who have been suffering for so long, pitting all their hopes on it? Bichhri is crying out for help. It is time the honourable judges thought about whether they should congratulate themselves on this order in which justice has been half-denied, or whether they should reopen the case for the benefit of the people waiting for that justice. There are scientists and NGOs ready to help with technical and mass support. The need of the hour is to think beyond issuing orders which in no way alter either the environment or the human conditions.

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