go on pollution patrol
A team of youngsters visits factories and zeroes in on errant industries
PC Vinoj Kumar
Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu
For an estimated 20,000
people living in the nearly 15 villages located in the vicinity of the State
Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT) estate in Cuddalore,
pollution has been a part of their lives for the last 20 years. They don’t
get enough drinking water as the groundwater level has fallen; the land
they till has lost fertility; Uppanar river, once home to many species of
fish and bread earner for hundreds of fishermen, now barely meets their
needs; and the air they breathe stinks.
villagers collect air samples in Cuddalore for testing photo by
The toxic gases spewed by the industries bring more than just foul odour.
Many of them cause deadly diseases. Most of the villagers complain of headache,
watering of eyes, nausea, breathlessness, chest pain, skin diseases, and
infertility. “Our children lack good health. They are often down with
fever,” says Indrani, a fisherwoman of Sonnanchavadi. “The stench
at night is the worst. Sometimes it becomes suffocating,” says Parasuraman
of Semmankuppam village. The villagers approached the authorities several
times, but their pleas fell on deaf ears.
After having submitted themselves to the barrage of pollutants for so many
years, the villagers are now getting back with the help of some NGOs. The
NGOs — Federation of Consumer Organisations Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry
(FEDCOT), Cuddalore District Consumer Organisation, Global Community Monitor,
and The Other Media — roped in 12 village youth, and formed the SIPCOT
Area Community Environmental Monitors (SACEM). They were then trained to
describe and rate the odours they experienced. “It is an accepted
method of documenting air pollution. International agencies such as the
US Environmental Protection Agency follow this method to monitor air pollution,”
says Shweta Narayan, coordinator, SACEM.
The team started to monitor odour levels from April. “Whenever there
is an incidence of odour, we record the information,” says S. Sivaskankar
of Semmankuppam. Like the other volunteers, today he can walk blindfolded
and identify the industry by sniffing. “If it is the smell of human
excreta, it has to be spic Mitocon. The stench of decaying corpse or burning
dead body comes from Pioneer Miyagi. Asian Paints lets out a chikkoo smell,”
The team also collected air using a simple device they call the ‘bucket’,
developed at a cost of Rs 1,700. The air samples were then sent to the US
for analysis by SACEM. In September, SACEM released its report ‘Gas
Trouble — Air Quality in SIPCOT’, which reported the presence
of 22 toxins in the air. “Eight of the 22 chemicals are known to cause
cancer,” stated the report. The NGOs are planning their next move.
“The report has established the levels of air pollution in the area.
Now steps have to be taken to find a solution,” says M. Nizamudeen,
general secretary of FEDCOT.
The industries contest
the results of the study. “The report is factually incorrect. Out
of the 22 chemicals they mention, nine are not used by any of the industries
in SIPCOT,” says K. Vijayaraghavan, director, Cuddalore SIPCOT Industries
conducted by NGOs reveal that factories in SIPCOT complex are releasing
eight cancerous toxins into air
The CSIA says the industries conduct regular air quality checks. They have
also written to the National Environmental EngiNEERIng Research Institute
(NEERI) to undertake an air quality survey in SIPCOT. The CSIA argues that
odour is not an indication of pollution. “When there is a concentration
of chemical factories, there is bound to be some odour,” says MH Upadhyaya,
president, CSIA. “The question is whether the chemicals are within
permissible limits. None of the industries have violated the Tamil Nadu
Pollution Control Board’s norms,” he argues.