Bringing polluters to book

  • 14/02/1993

Bringing polluters to book SINCE 1991, the Balotra municipality has been levying a tax of Rs 15 for every bale of cloth coming into the town for processing and dyeing. The levy was started by the State Pollution Control Board (SPCB) on complaints by farmers downstream about groundwater pollution and will be used to fund a common effluent treatment plant to be built by the Rajasthan State Industrial Development and Investment Corporation Limited (RIICO). The fund-collection should be over in a year and construction in another year.

However, factory owners are unhappy about the high amounts they have to pay. Unit owners estimate they pay on an average Rs 1.5 lakh per annum per factory. Municipal council member D S Chauhan says the municipality collected about Rs 2 crore in the initial 18 months. The plant will cost twice that amount. Two years ago, while the government was still planning to introduce the tax, there was fierce lobbying by owners of dyeing units to include cloth traders and owners of washeries in the targeted group for, otherwise, the levy on them would have been much higher.

Balotra, together with Pali and Jodhpur, forms the dirty triangle of the Rajasthan desert where effluents from dyeing units have polluted water sources far and wide. Caustic soda and acids are used to process the cloth before dyeing. Therefore, the effluents in the region are multicoloured and highly acidic and alkaline.

The 200 dyeing and processing units in Balotra's industrial estate discharge their waste and sludge into storm-water drains that flow into vacant plots in the estate. While Prithviraj of Pokhraj Parasmal Mills proudly explains that the sludge lining these cesspools and the drains does not allow the water to percolate into the soil and contaminate the groundwater, SPCB's M M Goel contends the groundwater is already unfit for human use and, if used for agriculture, can affect crops. Industrialists point to the fact that no human being or animal has died after drinking the water as proof of no pollution.

Factory owners in Balotra are unhappy about the proposed plant and cite the failure of a similar plant constructed by RIICO in Pali in the early 1980s. RIICO managing director S P Gupta points out that the difference between the two plants will be in their management. The Pali plant was administered directly by RIICO; the Balotra plant will be managed by a board of municipal councillors, headed by the district collector. Gupta believes this high degree of local involvement will ensure the smooth running of the plant.

The Pali plant will handle just the wastes from the industrial area. Any further expansion of the industrial area will take in only non-polluting units. But here the scheme falls short of the town's pollution control requirements. There are many illegal washeries that are situated outside the town and do not pay the levy. These washeries discharge their toxic effluents into the nearby Luni river and pollute the river and wells along it for several kilometres downstream. The Luni river receives an estimated five million litres of effluents every day.

Even though the state electricity board has not sanctioned them power, the irrigation department on whose land they stand has not given them occupancy rights and the SPCB has not cleared their projects, there is little the district collector can do to wind up the washeries because they are supported by local politicians. The district administration thus finds itself caught between the farmers who complain their agricultural yields are dwindling because of polluted groundwater, and a potential labour problem in the event of the washeries closing down.

The result of all this is that Balotra now faces an artificial water scarcity. Hand pumps cannot be used in most parts of the town because the water is polluted. Exploitation of deeper aquifers is expensive. Water quality in the region is worsening. The situation is a damning indictment of local politics -- it is the politicians who have to be controlled; merely setting up an effluent treatment plant won't do.

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