released into the air by some chemical units in the SIPCOT industrial
estate in Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu, continue to endanger the lives and
livelihoods of people in a number of villages in the absence of
At the SIPCOT
industrial estate in Cuddalore. Gases released by chemical units have
severely affected the air quality in the area.
VILLAGES in the
industrial area on the outskirts of Cuddalore town in Tamil Nadu are
increasingly being identified more by pungent smells than their names -
smells of rotten cabbage, burnt rubber, rotten egg, neem, detergent,
human excreta, decomposing bodies, mosquito coils, rotting bones,
decaying chikoo fruit, and nail polish. The smells come from toxic
chemical compounds that are manufactured or released as effluents by
the 18 companies in the industrial area and which have been damaging
the environment and the health of more than 20,000 people in about 20
Cuddalore, 25 km
from Pondicherry, is part of an intricate network of estuaries, deltas,
creeks, lagoons, salt-marshes, sanctuaries and coral reefs that serve
as a natural breeding ground and habitat for various species of fish.
This unique topography shelters and feeds lakhs of people through
fishery and agriculture. Fringed by the sea and with fertile soil,
Cuddalore is an idyllic 27 sq km town of verdant fields of sugarcane,
groundnut and rice, and casuarina and coconut plantations.
In 1982, the
State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT) set up of
a 200-hectare industrial estate 8 km away from Cuddalore town, on the
Cuddalore-Chidambaram coastal road. Financial incentives, uninterrupted
power and water supply and an excellent communication network saw
companies, big and small, setting up units to manufacture pesticides,
pharmaceuticals, chemicals, plastics, dyes and textiles. The success of
the first phase prompted SIPCOT to set up a second, 80-ha facility
with, among others, a large polyvinylchloride (PVC) manufacturing and
processing unit. Now 18 units operate in the SIPCOT estate, and four
just outside it. One unit in the estate was closed on May 18 after an
Ever since SIPCOT
set up the estate, life for the thousands of people of Pachaiyankuppam,
Thaikal, Thiyagavelli, Eachangadu, Kudikadu, Karaikadu, Sonnanchavadi,
Sangolikuppam, Nellikupam and Pondiyankuppam villages has been one of
dealing with hazardous effluents such as methanol, acetaldehyde, formic
acid, ammonia, toulene, nitrobenzene, methyl mercaptan and vinyl
acetate monomer. This chemical concoction has impaired seriously their
lives and livelihood systems. The people complain of constant
irritation in the eyes, nausea, acute dermatitis, muscle fatigue, and
pink and frothy sputum, and have been diagnosed with changed
reproductive health effects, narcosis and cyanosis. There has also been
a substantial contamination of the water table, the air and the soil,
leading to lowered farm production and dwindling fish catch. Many
studies have reported that the industrial estate has altered the
riverine ecosystem, even poisoned the river, affecting farm output and
killing fish. This has affected the livelihoods of farmers and
groundwater, which was earlier available at less than 30 feet (nine
metres), is now difficult to find even at 800 feet (244 m). The
industrial units used borewells to tap groundwater for all their water
requirements, amounting to more than 20 million litres a day. The local
people, who depend on groundwater, say that the National Bank for
Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) issued a circular last year
advising banks to stop granting loans for agricultural pumpsets in
order to stop the sinking of more borewells. But the industries
continue to sink borewells, the people say.
In 1994, the
Asian Development Bank (ADB) warned of saline water intrusion in the
area: "Since the aquifer in Cuddalore is close to the coast, there is a
danger of sea water intrusion if there is severe depletion of its
quantity without adequate recharge. Present data show the saline
intrusion has already happened in the Cuddalore area." In fact, in
Sangolikuppam village alone about 300 handpumps are not usable because
of saline water ingress.
odorous (sewer, metal or aromatic substances), coloured water (yellow,
red or black) that has an oily or burning taste - all indicating the
presence of chemicals.
A 2003 report on
Environment and Human Rights by the Indian People's Tribunal states
that "all villages within or in the immediate vicinity of SIPCOT suffer
from serious groundwater pollution. Handpumps between
Thaikalthonithurai and Semmankuppam have been abandoned. A handpump
behind one of the factories pumped out black water that smelled of
Dwindling fish catch
The fish catch
has dropped by nearly 80 per cent and fish varieties have disappeared.
This is largely attributed to the contamination of the river where
fish-kills are apparently common. According to the local people, they
no longer catch bottom-dwelling fish such as kezhangan, udupullati and
Falling farm incomes
From three crops
a year, farmers now harvest two or, in some places just one, and
productivity has also fallen drastically. For instance, farmers now get
less than 50 bags of paddy a hectare as against 100 bags earlier.
Dwindling margins have pushed the net income (accounting for family
labour) into the negative.
devastation has been coming in for many years now. In 1999, an analysis
of groundwater around Eachangadu and Kudikadu by the National
Environmental Engineering Research Institute showed that three-fourths
of the water samples were yellow or brown, had disagreeable taste and
had total dissolved solids exceeding limits that could have a laxative
effect if consumed. In more than half the samples taken from
Eachangadu, chloride and manganese levels were present far above the
permissible levels. Excess manganese can damage the brain, the liver
and kidneys, as well as foetuses.
The IPT report
wanted the "polluter pays" principle enforced strictly, to hold
industries accountable for environmental damage and to compensate
victims. "More than 25 chemical industries, including pesticide,
dyestuff and pharmaceutical plants, operate along a 4-km coastal strip
without appropriate infrastructure to deal with toxic effluents or
hazardous wastes," the report said.
The IPT, headed
by J. Kanakaraj, retired Judge of the Madras High Court, observed:
"SIPCOT industries have polluted the environment, and continue to do
so. We are also convinced that adequate and appropriate steps have not
been taken by regulatory authorities, particularly the TNPCB [Tamil
Nadu Pollution Control Board], to prevent pollution and health damage.
Neither has the government paid any attention to the concerns and
complaints of villagers."
The IPT echoed
the recommendation of the State Human Rights Commission that
water-intensive or polluting industries should not be set up in the
SIPCOT region. "SIPCOT Phase II should be restricted to non-polluting
industries that are not water-intensive," the IPT recommended.
The IPT issued a
20-point recommendation covering various aspects, including land
acquisition claims, health and environmental remediation, financial
compensation for damage to health and livelihood, and relocation of
pollution-impacted people who choose to move out. The IPT also asked
the government to take action against polluting units and facilities
operating without a valid licence from the TNPCB.
all the evidence and the frequent complaints by residents, the TNPCB,
which is supposed to monitor effluent discharge from these units,
continued to deny that these industrial units caused any harm to the
apathy and the setting up of a new unit to manufacture "rocket fuel"
has increased the anxiety of the local people, but they continue to
keep up the pressure on the authorities. For years they have complained
about the intense chemical odour that assaults their homes at all
times. "At night, the stench engulfs us. We just can't breathe. There's
nothing we can do except go indoors and shut all the doors. We can't
bear it. Our eyes burn. We feel like somebody is tearing us apart, and
our chests feel tight every time the wind brings the smell," says a
resident of Eachangadu.
reliable sources, The IPT members who visited SIPCOT reported a
noticeable stench of chemicals in the air. Chemical odour can be an
indicator of serious chemical pollution. Air pollutants are
particularly dangerous because unlike water- or food-borne toxins, many
of them enter the brain directly upon inhalation.
reliable sources, neither the TNPCB, which keeps a check on the quality
of the environment, nor the Factories Inspectorate, which ensures
safety in the workplace, has presented any scientific study of the
odorous chemicals or the health problems that may have been caused by
Indian regulators have treated chemical odour merely as a nuisance and
dismissed the people's complaints off hand. However, the local people,
using an innovative device called the `bucket', collected samples of
air at people's nose-level and sent them to a laboratory in the United
States, for want of a testing facility in India. The U.S. laboratory
found 22 dangerous chemicals in the samples, and that too way above the
limits for air pollution in the U.S. Some parameters were found to be
more than 21,000 times the permissible level.
As for the
standards set by the authorities in India, there are none. Says S.
Pugazhendhi, a local resident who is also an environmental monitor:
"There are no standards in India to regulate these things. They say
they are working on it."
At the SIPCOT
industrial estate in Cuddalore, the people have formed their own
environmental monitoring committee and quantified their "gassing".
Most of the
residents, even children, can tell you the name of the company they are
standing downwind of just by the smell, says S. Ramanathan of
Semmankuppam, a member of the recently formed SIPCOT Area Community
Environmental Monitoring (SACEM), a community group that comprises
village volunteers trained in monitoring, documenting and taking
evidence-based action on pollution with help from the Cuddalore chapter
of the Federation of Consumer Organisations (FEDCOT), the
California-based Global Community Monitor (GCM) and environmental and
human rights groups.
Narayan, coordinator of the Community Environmental Monitoring project:
"Our project is aimed at equipping villagers with the ability to
convert their common-sense observations on pollution into a language
that regulators cannot ignore." For the first time in India, the air
that people living near industries breathe has been tested for toxic
gases, such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and sulphur compounds.
The monitors are
trained in the use of the "bucket" to take air samples, and in
monitoring, reporting and acting on pollution or occupational injury
incidents. The training in the "bucket" technology was conducted in
March 2004 by Denny Larson of the GCM, a non-governmental organisation
(NGO). Larson is one of the key persons involved in developing and
testing the "bucket".
Larson, who has
worked with the `bucket' for nine years around the world, has been
quoted as saying that in Cuddalore the "levels of some of the chemicals
are at least 1,000 times higher than what we saw in other developing
countries like South Africa, Thailand and the Philippines". Larson's
organisation is a partner in the Community Environmental Monitoring
2004, SACEM published its first report on chemical odour episodes at
SIPCOT. For the first time in India, the ambient air was tested for 89
toxic gases. The report, `Gas Trouble: Air Quality in SIPCOT,
Cuddalore', found 22 toxic gases, of which at least 13 were used as raw
materials by one or more of the SIPCOT units.
At least in the
case of 14 of the 22 chemicals, including trichloroethene, carbon
tetrachloride, acrolein, methylene chloride and hydrogen sulphide, the
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) safety levels are
violated. A cancer-causing compound 1,2-dichloroethane, which was found
in an air sample taken downwind of a chemical unit, exceeded safety
levels by a factor of 22,973. The levels of hydrogen sulphide, a gas
that smells of rotten egg, in the air sample taken downwind of another
unit was 874 times the USEPA safety level.
summarised the data gathered over 14 weeks between April and July 2004.
The monitors recorded 283 chemical odour episodes, of which 223 were
intense. They were able to discern 36 different odours and 30 immediate
health symptoms related to them. "Until recently, we would talk only in
general about pollution. But now we see and understand the details, and
this is helpful in communicating pollution as a problem," says
justifies the SIPCOT villagers' demands for continuous monitoring of
the air, including monitoring for toxic gases, an aggressive air
pollution elimination programme, long-term health monitoring,
specialised health care facilities for SIPCOT residents, and a ban on
setting up or expanding any polluting facility at SIPCOT.
magnitude of the problem, not a single health study has been conducted
till date in the SIPCOT area. The TNPCB does not monitor for toxic
gases in the industrial estate, and what basic data it has on air
pollution have not been released to the public. According to FEDCOT
general secretary M. Nizammudin, the TNPCB has set up an air monitoring
device inside the SIPCOT office but it is of no use. For, according to
him, the air sample has to be collected from the right place at the
right time, taking into account the wind direction. None of these
parameters necessary for air monitoring can be followed in this case.
The findings of
the report have very troubling implications, particularly for women,
children and elderly people, who spend most of their time within the
polluted confines of SIPCOT. Said Shweta Narayan, "Pregnant women,
foetuses and children are most at risk of exposure. These chemicals can
attack children at a very vulnerable stage of development and may, in
many cases, permanently damage their ability to fight diseases or
affect their mental, physical and sexual development."
triggered instant reactions from a number of agencies. The Madras High
Court directed the State legal aid cell to file a public interest
petition on the matter. The State Human Rights Commission, taking suo
motu notice of the report's findings, asked the TNPCB to respond. And
the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee ordered the Central Pollution
Control Board (CPCB) to set ambient air quality standards for toxic
gases, and directed the State Pollution Control Board to bring down by
June 2005 the levels of air pollution below USEPA-prescribed safe
levels or order the companies to shut down.
Nizammudin, strangely, on October 11, 2004, when the CPCB was studying
the air pollution levels, it did not contact the Village Monitors whose
pollution patrols and sampling had resulted in the `Gas Trouble'
report. Instead, the CPCB team was taken around the SIPCOT estate by
The May 2005
report, "Gas Trouble II", by SACEM shows clearly that less than a month
to the deadline, the air continues to be polluted. Between October 2004
and March 2005, SACEM took four air samples in the "bucket". The
findings revealed the presence of 12 hazardous chemicals, of which
seven exceeded the USEPA's permissible level. For example, the presence
of trichloroethylene, a highly toxic chemical and a known carcinogen,
exceeded the permissible levels by a factor of 909, and acrolein by a
factor of 304.
The Local Area
Environment Committee (LAEC) set up by the Supreme Court Monitoring
Committee has expressed concern over the lack of progress by the TNPCB
in reducing toxic chemical effluents. After a surprise visit of the
SIPCOT industrial area on April 21, 2005, advocate T. Mohan,
chairperson of the Cuddalore LAEC, wrote to the TNPCB Chairperson: "On
my night visit to the estate, I was assailed by a cocktail of
malodours. It is clear that these industries are yet to address the
odour problem effectively."
"Even while efforts, seemingly to respond to the environmental crisis
in SIPCOT, are on, it is business as usual for the State government. At
least three new industrial proposals now threaten the residents of
Narayan: "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
public interest petition was also admitted in the Madras High Court.
But what is surprising is that with all this scientific evidence, there
are more industrial plans in the offing."
Shweta Narayan, the most frightening of the three new proposals is the
one for a 38-tonne-a-month ammonium perchlorate unit. The deadly
chemical is used as a fuel in spacecraft and missiles. Perchlorate is a
common and persistent groundwater toxin that can inhibit the
functioning of the thyroid in those exposed to it. Particularly at risk
are foetuses, nursing infants, children and pregnant women who tend to
have low levels of thyroid hormones to start with. Thyroid malfunction
affects the mental and physical development of children, impairs
vision, movement, hearing and behaviour, leads to enlarged thyroid
glands and possible thyroid tumours. Children born to mild-to-moderate
iodine deficient mothers can suffer from low intelligence quotient (IQ)
and impaired brain development, according to scientific literature. Add
to these problems the risk of an explosion. In Cuddalore, the same
chemical is being manufactured by a small industry. Worse, there was no
customary public hearing before the unit was started because the
project was a small unit located within a notified industrial area. The
assumption here is that a notified industrial area would meet the
safety norms and criteria such as distance from habitation and water
sources. Unfortunately, within 100 metres of this unit is a town bus
stand, a house, an Electricity Board office and the edge of
government cares for people, the project should be dropped. Only clean
industries that can provide safe jobs to villagers should be allowed in
SIPCOT," said Nizammudin.
Nithyanand Jayaraman, environmental activist associated with the
International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal and a researcher on the
pollution caused by industries in Cuddalore, there is a high level of
secrecy, insensitive governments, `accidents' that have almost become
routine, a downplaying of crises and complaints by the community about
pollution and a lack of information on the nature of the industry and
the chemicals used. He says: "There is a mini-Bhopal waiting to happen."
The local people have organised several protests against the expansion of the programmes of the existing polluting
as well as the setting up of new ones. Says T. Arulselvam,
environmental coordinator, who participated in the May 5 protest: "We
are looking long-term. It is not about conflict with the industry, but
about the need to coexist and recognise our rights, particularly since
the local economy, which had sustained us for generations, suddenly
seems to be going awry and we are helplessly witnessing our incomes
This is the
sentiment expressed by almost all those living in the villages in the
Cuddalore SIPCOT area. According to Pugazhendhi, many people have
planned to move to Chennai as labourers if the fish catch continues to
dwindle. He says: "We have no choice. It is something we detest doing
but would have to do just to survive."