For the last few years, the locals in Aregudem village in Choutuppal mandal in Telangana's Yadadri Bhuvanagiri district say that they are unable to get a good night's rest. A pungent smell settles over the area each night, making it impossible to even crack open a window.
"The smell is not our only issue. Our groundwater is completely polluted, our crops have failed and our cattle are dying. Those who use the water suffer from skin infections and joint pains as our bones have gone weak," says Rajashekar Reddy, a social activist from the village, who has taken up the cause.
"All this can be attributed directly to pharmaceutical companies near our village, who indulge in indiscriminate pollution by releasing effluents into our water sources, without properly treating it," he alleges.
Locals allege that the biggest polluter is a pharma company based out of Hyderabad, which set up their factory in the early 90s at Lingojigudem village.
"Initially, they made lots of assurances that we would get jobs and said that we had nothing to worry about. But after 2000, the smell began entering our village and the water began changing colour. Since then, our lives have been completely disrupted by the pollution," one local says.
Water flowing under a culvert near Aregudem
The locals say that when the water began frothing, they had complained to the Pollution Control Board (PCB) but no concrete action had been taken so far.
After they staged protests earlier this month, a team from the PCB visited the spot and collected water samples.
Speaking to TNM, PCB Executive Engineer B Rajender said, "We have recieved several complaints from locals, especially farmers. A team from the PCB visited the villages last week and collected water samples from borewells and other sources. We have sent it to the lab and we are awaiting the results."
Ex-Sarpanch of Ankireddy Gudem, located in Choutuppal, Mallesh Goud said, "We did not get jobs and around 16 villages in our area have been completely polluted. The bore wells are depleting and we have to buy water for consumption. We have complained to everyone including the Collector, but no action has been taken. Under the guise of development, our villages are being destroyed."
Speaking about the situation in Gandhinagar in Choutuppal, Damodar Reddy, an environmentalist said that they took samples from two water bodies in the area, and found a total dissolved solids (TDS) level of over 3,000 mg per litre of water. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the number needs to be under 300 mg per litre.
But it isn't Choutuppal mandal alone. For decades, several villages in Telangana have also complained of similar issues.
Take the case of Edulabad, located in Ghatkesar mandal, at the outskirts of Hyderabad.
It is here that the Musi river hits the first out of 23 weirs (locally known as kathwas) in the state, after passing out of the city. For years, water can be seen spewing froth even as a pungent smell hangs in the air. This is attributed to industrial effluents, mainly let out by pharmaceutical and bulk drug companies, in and around Hyderabad.
Batte Shankar, the former sarpanch of Edulabad, says, "I have been fighting on this issue for 20 years. The Musi river which flows through our village was our lifeline. Now it has been polluted completely. One-and-a-half lakh acres of cultivable land is under threat as we are unable to grow crops. Our lives are at stake," he said.
At present, Telangana is gearing up to establish a 'pharma city', an industrial park in Mucherla near Hyderabad spread across 19,333 acres.
A detailed design for Phase-1 of the project, covering 8,400 acres, has already been completed and granted environmental clearance by the Union Environment, Forest and Climate Change Ministry.
As the state goes ahead with its plans, victims of pharma pollution from across the state are planning to organise and stage agitations, to oppose the plan. This includes locals from villages that have complained of pharma pollution for decades -- like Digwal, Sangareddy, Patancheru and many other areas.
A meeting was held on January 9 under the aegis of 'Citizens against Pollution', an environmental action group, that saw several victims speak up, besides renowned environmentalists and scientists.
Despite where they hailed from, locals clearly observed a common pattern. Pharmaceutical companies would set up their outlets on the promise of jobs, violate environmental norms and bribe local leaders with Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds, alleged residents.
The issues as a result were also similar - crop failures, depleting groundwater, cattle deaths, and an increase in the prevalence of diseases, especially among women and children.
Venkataiah, a resident of Mudireddypally village in Pollepally mandal in Mahabubnagar district said that many in their area had staunchly participated in the Telangana agitation for separate statehood, but feel cheated now.
"We thought that things would change after the formation of Telangana but that is not the case. No one is opposing the industries themselves, but the pollution that takes place as a result. They must follow environmental law and guidelines," he said.
'Criminal cases instead of penalties'
Many of those who had gathered at the Jan 9 meeting said that simple penalties against polluting industries were not enough, and demanded criminal cases and jail time for the management of companies who flouted environmental norms.
D Raja Ratnam from Digwal said, "We have been living in the same area for generations, but now we fear that we may have to leave. The law has not helped us and authorities including the Pollution Control Board (PCB) are not taking action."
In November last year, pharma giant Piramal Enterprises, located in Digwal, was fined Rs 8.3 crore as ‘environmental compensation’ for violating norms, after an inspection by authorities.
"Just a simple fine is not enough. Criminal cases must be booked and the management must be sent to jail, so that it sets a precedent for all companies," Ratnam said, as the gathering erupted into applause.
Backing this proposal, Batte Shankar said, "There is a need to change the law to ensure that those who indulge in pollution, which is nothing short of a criminal act, must be severely punished."
Those who gathered also spoke about the Telangana State Industrial Project and Self-Certification System (TS-iPASS), which was launched in 2015. They said that this had favoured companies unfairly, under the guise of 'ease of doing business' as it relied heavily on self-certification.
Development, but at what cost?
Senior scientists and environmentalists including Dr Narasimha Reddy, Dr Babu Rao, Dr Indrasena Reddy and Dr Purushotham Reddy were also present at the event.
"Pharma pollution is not a local issue. It is a 'disease' without boundaries and must be looked at as a global problem. There is a need to build pressure on the government to act, irrespective of politics. It is poison and affects all of us," environmentalist Dr Indrasena Reddy said.
Dr Narasimha Reddy, an independent policy expert, pointed out that the prevalence of antibiotic resistant bacteria or ‘superbugs’, has been increasing in water samples around Hyderabad and across Telangana and warned that it would soon become a problem that could not be contained.
"On the promise of health for all, the health of locals is being ruined. The state government says that this is development and boasts about the increase in the number of companies investing in Telangana, but who will take stock of the damage that is being done?" he asked.
The experts pointed out that while the companies promised jobs while setting up their plants, they often did not deliver on it, as they were turning to automation to cut down costs.
"Our approach to development itself is skewed. The government and the scientific community has begun working for the corporations, instead of the people. The government is only concerned about getting a better rank in 'ease of doing business' but not in bringing a material change in the lives of the people," Dr Babu Rao, a retired scientist from the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (IICT) said.
File photo: A pharma factory in Sangareddy
'No Pharma city'
The inception of pharma companies in Telangana began with the Indian Drugs and Pharmaceuticals Limited (IDPL), a public sector undertaking (PSU) that was set up in the 1960s in Hyderabad, to produce bulk drugs.
By the 1980s, many industries had come up along the Patancheru-Zaheerabad stretch. With each successive government granting sanctions for pharma companies to set up shop, Hyderabad and Telangana have become a global destination for such corporations.
With pollution becoming rampant, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) government needed to act fast to curb pollution, after taking charge of the state in 2014. That's when the idea of the Hyderabad Pharma City (HPC) surfaced. The HPC aims to be the "World's Largest Integrated Pharma Park" to promote domestic manufacturing of pharmaceuticals.
Municipal Administration Minister KT Rama Rao has said that several pharma companies would be shifted to HPC once it is completed, to reduce pollution. The HPC would include state-of-the-art infrastructure, and a Zero Liquid Discharge-based Common Effluent Treatment Plan. However, experts and locals aren't convinced.
"We do not buy it. We want to see the government run a zero discharge plant with at least one or two companies, before they make such a tall claim. They do not even have the technology needed for it," Dr Babu Rao said.
Rajashekar, a resident from Yacharam mandal, where the project is coming up, said, "We do not want the project to come up and we are here to register our dissent and opposition. Why should the government be so accommodative of pharma companies and acquire land from the farmers on their behalf?"
"If the effect of a single large company in an area is so severe, imagine if all the companies are concentrated in one place. It will be a disaster and a catastrophe is waiting to happen," Dr Purushotham Reddy, another noted environmentalist said.