From Thoothukudi to Vizag, the location of projects is everything for industrial safety

Residential areas and hazardous industries cannot co-exist. Planning authorities must ensure that the two are never allowed next to each other.
Rescue operation after Vizag gas leak
Rescue operation after Vizag gas leak
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Two years ago on May 22, Tamil Nadu police opened fire on people protesting against Sterlite Copper’s polluting smelter in Thoothukudi. Thirteen people were killed. On 7 May, 2020, as Indian industries cranked up to restart production after the easing of lockdown restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a massive spill of toxic styrene gas from LG Polymers’ polystyrene facility killed 12 people in Visakhapatnam, prompting yet another national outcry against industrial hazards.

Vizag is the most recent addition to a long list of anniversaries  – Thoothukudi, Bhopal, Chernobyl, Seveso, Love Canal, Fukushima and Minamata – commemorating the lives lost to corporate negligence and in struggles of ordinary people against industrial hazards.

Anniversaries are not merely a time for mourning. Mary Higgins Jones, the early 20th century hell-raiser and American labour organiser, said “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”

After every controversy involving polluting factories, industrial apologists and environmental activists alike trot out arguments about the need for stringent laws and better technology. Such arguments ignore the fact that most technogenic disasters – like chemical spills, dam breaches and urban flooding – have their origins in “siting,” one of the central tenets of civil engineering. If the location is wrong, then all efforts taken to minimise risk will come to nought.

After the Vizag gas leak, allegations were made that LG did not have a valid Environmental Clearance (EC). The possession of an EC is immaterial, unless such licenses are preceded by due environmental diligence, and followed up with strict monitoring and enforcement.

Cultures that do not value safety, environment and the equal treatment of people are disaster-prone; they transfer risk to politically weaker communities. Here, due diligence is reduced to an empty ritual and “experts” serve as rubber stamps. The hazards born out of such decisions are compounded by regulatory neglect. First, dams, buildings and factories are located in sensitive locations that ought to be avoided. Then, they are inadequately monitored and public complaints are ignored.

Setbacks are the only insurance against damage to life

The Sterlite smelter was born into controversy. The then Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s decision to welcome an industry that was rejected by the people of Ratnagiri in Maharashtra did not go down well with local residents. As often happens, the ease of doing business trumped environmental considerations. The large, hazardous factory was allowed in close proximity to three villages, and less than 3 kilometres from the edge of Thoothukudi town in violation of the city’s masterplan.

During its operation, Sterlite has been accused of episodic and routine pollution. A gas leak in March 2013 suspected to be from the plant made thousands ill; the PCB shut down the factory. Sterlite appealed that decision and the matter is pending orders in the Madras High Court.

Polluting factories are permitted only in lands designated for “Special Industries and Hazardous Use.” Such zones cannot be arbitrarily carved out. They have to be away from vulnerable receptors such as residential areas and waterbodies. Such setbacks are the only insurance against damage to life when even the best precautions and technologies fail. Residential areas and hazardous industries cannot co-exist. Planning authorities must ensure that the two are never allowed next to each other.

The case of LG Polymers is curious. As per Vizag’s 2006-2021 masterplan, LG Poymer’s site falls within a zone for hazardous industries. But this zonation was an afterthought, done in 2006 to regularise what essentially was a dangerous siting. The LG Polymers factory sits cheek-by-jowl with a densely populated residential area. It does not matter whether the factory came first or the residential area. Allowing a residential area and a hazardous factory to sit next to each other exposes how poorly regulators value communities and underrate industrial hazards. The May 7 tragedy is evidence that compliance with a flawed masterplan will not protect the plant or its neighbours.

If disasters had parents, they would certainly be “experts,” probably civil engineers. “Experts” in the environment ministry’s appraisal committees seldom question a project on merits of its siting, especially if the promoter is a prominent player. 

Take the case of the megaport proposed by Adani in Kattupalli island near Lake Pulicat in Tamil Nadu. Studies warn that the coastline is erosion-prone, and that not enough has been done to tackle erosion triggered by the two ports already on the island. Worse, more than 1000 acres of wetlands will need to be filled up to create land for port facilities. Encroaching on wetlands is illegal; siting guidelines frown upon locating ports on eroding coastlines. But experts have responded to this application by prescribing terms of reference that require the proponent to assess the environmental impacts of the proposed illegalities.

Closer to Sterlite in Thoothukudi, the State Industries Promotion Corporation Of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT) has proposed to set up an Industrial Park for petroleum refinery and petrochemical industries spread over 631 hectares at a site adjacent to the existing copper smelter. This site is also in close proximity to residential areas, and within 6 km of Thoothukudi town. Mishaps and disasters from large petroleum-based industries can have airborne impacts further than six kilometres.

The ministry too takes a casual view of location as an environmental criteria. From approving highways through primary forests and dams on seismically unstable Himalayan slopes, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has made it clear that it is preoccupied solely with improving the business environment and the investment climate.

The recently circulated controversial draft Environmental Impact Assessment Notification, for instance, proposes to regularise projects constructed without obtaining prior EC by granting them a post-facto clearance. This assumes that the post-facto EC signed by the minister may force the fragile Himalayan hillside to restrain from slipping under the weight of an ill-placed dam, or a toxic gas to behave itself and float upwind to avoid populated areas.

If this Notification is pushed through in its current form, the facade of due diligence will be ripped off. “Experts” who lacked the courage or integrity to question the siting of projects before they are constructed cannot be expected to do so post-facto -- after the promoter has invested millions.

Nature cannot be bullied by experts, lied to or bribed. Under the circumstances, one realises that chance and pure luck, more than regulation and good design, are what keep more disasters from happening. But when luck runs out, and it often does with complex forces like nature, the most unlikely circumstances are known to converge to expose human hubris with deadly effect.

Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based writer and solidarity worker with the Anti-Sterlite People’s Movement. Views are the author's own.


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