Where to start: polluted site inventories in India

Meeting Promila from the Blacksmith Institute is a real privilege. Not only has she facilitated so many of my visits here, she’s also been working with the organisation for around ten years, and had been instrumental in their inventory project to identify contaminated sites throughout the country. Initially they were asked to detail 100 sites, but in the end they finished with 400. At the moment they’re preparing their next phase of activity, concentrating on lead battery recycling.

It’s been really helpful to chat through what I saw in Kanpur, and hear her experiences. She’s seen this, and probably far more, and I really value her viewpoint. It is good to talk about what has been tried in the past, and what the future might hold. She tells me that Modi plans to dip into the National Clean Energy Fund (NCEF) for some of the remediation operations. Kanpur may well get a chance to become one of the legacy sites selected.

To explain the NCEF briefly – since the 2010-11 budget, India has levied 50 rupees on every tonne of coal produced, and on every tonne imported. Since then, it has doubled to 100 rupees per tonne. It is an interesting idea, and is a step towards getting polluters to pay at least. Estimates suggest the fund has collected Rs.10,127 crore (about £1 billion if I’ve got that right: 1 crore is 10 million). Not a bad kitty to have, although critics have stated that using this to pay for clean up is defying the original plan for the fund, and displacing responsibility from others who should be paying for remediation.

Meeting Promila and the others in Delhi

Meeting Promila and the others in Delhi

Promila introduces me to Anuj, a consultant who has been picking up the baton from the Blacksmith team on the contaminated site inventory. They use a protocol for identifying the risk posed by particular sites based on public health concerns, land use, volume of pollutant, as well as taking water and soil samples. Together we look at photographs taken from a location in Gujarat. Prior to the eighties there had been no hazardous waste plan for Naroda. On empty sites, previously used for waste disposal, shanties sprung up as workers migrated to the city. These dwellings turned into permanent homes, exposing residents to high levels of contamination from the sludge buried beneath. A tell-tale yellow tidemark of chromium rises up the wall in one picture.

The types and effects of pollution that they’ve documented are are myriad and dizzying. We look at evidence of mercury, oil spills, mountains of sulphur, dye effluent, gypsum sludge leaking fluoride from silos; chromium, chromium, chromium – in fields, boreholes, leaching from dumps and forming ugly rough crusts on puddles. Dirty secrets always reemerging.

Even with permission from the Ministry, Anuj tells me that some landowners are reluctant to allow him on site, along with the familiar story of polluters becoming mysteriously bankrupt, or changing business names and moving elsewhere to evade responsibility. I ask Anuj how he came to do work on this project. He trained as a chemical engineer, and in his previous job he worked for a tyre manufacturing company. Due to exposure to dust, he contracted silicosis and could no longer work at a plant. We’re probably about the same age, so I find this really shocking. He found this job, where he can use his engineering background for good.

We’re also joined by Dr Haroon, a public health specialist, and it is interesting to hear his opinion from the medical side. While India has made significant progress towards making the Millenium Development Goal (MDG) of reducing infant and maternal mortality, he points out that making changes to the primary healthcare system is a huge task, with each state having different priorities. He underlines how difficult it is to quantify the health effects of pollution as by the time patients present with a catalogue of symptoms, or a trend is noticed in a village, their problems are often chronic and life-long. For him, awareness is the priority, so people can make a link between a source, and the health effect. This is something echoed by Anuj when he shows a photograph of a lady washing vegetables in canal water contaminated with landfill leachate. As the MDGs will be replaced by the new UN Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, cleaning up pollution surely must figure in achieving a number of these.

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