Globally, environmental racism has been about the trash of over-consuming rich countries finding its way to the into the backyards of the poorest nations’ most marginalised communities. As India reaches the end of the third decade of neoliberal development, we have created enough of our own trash as well as internal ecological refugees. Like the residents of Baddi, now an industrial area located in the foothills of the Shiwalik in Himachal Pradesh, who have been suffering the brunt of the pharmaceutical and other toxic manufacturing units of the country for the last 20 years. Among the people and places who matter less here are the Gujjars in Kenduwal village.
The common land in front of their homes has been transformed into a dumping ground with garbage from Baddi town about 4.5 kilometres away. It added to the odour and other discharge they were already putting up with from the Common Effluent Treatment Plant (CETP) set up three years ago just about 100 m from their home.
Ghulam Nabi pointed from his veranda at the mounds of garbage shimmering in the Sun, composed of plastics, cloth, rotting foods, metals, glass and animal carcasses. Adjacent to the municipal dump, the tanks of the effluent treatment plant were visible, flanked by the Sarsa river flowing into the Sutlej, towards Punjab. The dumping site and the effluent plant are both located on the floodplains of the Sarsa, which has several villages located along its banks, all impacted by the release of untreated effluents by almost 2,000 industrial units.
There are about a thousand Gujjar families in these villages and they have been the worst affected as they depend entirely on rearing cattle for their livelihoods. “Livestock are forced to drink and bathe in the polluted water and graze on contaminated grass along the banks of the Sarsa,” Nabi said. The CETP has failed to fix the problem of pollution as many industries release effluents directly into the river. There are doubts whether the CETP itself is effective.
Over the last year or so, the people of Malpur, Malku Majra, Sheetalpur and Bhudd villages, all located within a kilometre of the CETP and the municipal waste dump, have been raising these issues, especially of the stench. Some 1,200 residents submitted petitions to the Baddi Barotiwala Nalagarh Development Authority (BBNDA), the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM), the Pollution Control Board (PCB) and to the President of India. “We asked for permission to commit ‘euthanasia’ (sic) rather than to live in such a toxic atmosphere,” Dharampaul Kaushik, a resident of Bhudd who led the signature drive, said.
While the recent spate of protests managed to get some local media coverage, Kaushik has little trust in the authorities. He has battled the sand mining mafia in the area and feels that vested interests, including the residents of Baddi town, are behind the lackadaisical administrative response, which is why non-compliance with the law has become a non-issue. What is an open dumping yard in reality is – on paper – an ‘integrated solid waste management facility’ for which the BBNDA received clearance from the environment ministry in August 2015. The environment impact assessment report of the project states the following as its objective:
To overcome the deficient solid waste management (SWM) system in the area, BBNDA intends to facilitate an integrated Municipal Solid Waste Management facility by creating an efficient waste segregation, collection, transportation, processing and disposal mechanism in conformity with the … rules.
The components of the project, expected to cost about Rs 9.7 crore, include a receiving facility, a compost plant, a recycling plant, a secured landfill and a leachate collection unit. Per the BBNDA website, 500 megatonnes of unsegregated waste has already been dumped on the site, and the project is only in the pre-bidding stage.
The illegal dumping was brought to the notice of the environment ministry’s regional office during their half yearly compliance monitoring visit over a year ago. The scientist at the regional office had recommended the immediate suspension of dumping given non-compliance. However, no action was taken on this front by the responsible authority, the PCB, and the dumping continues to this day. Moreover, this lack of response has escaped the environment ministry’s attention.
The land acquired for dumping is spread over two hectares and falls in the category of the commons. Although it is currently owned by the panchayat, village heads vehemently deny having given a no-objection-certificate. The siting of the proposed project is also questionable because the Solid Waste Management Rules issued by the environment ministry in 2016 clearly state that no disposal site can be located within 200 m of habitation or on a floodplain. They also say that there must be no paths or roads through a disposal site or a landfill; if there is one, it has to be concretised.
That the path through the dump leading to their homes is blocked was the most recent complaint by the families of Kenduwal. However, the Baddi Municipal Council officials have been unresponsive and some even miffed by all the noise. This became apparent when, on July 6, the executive officer of the council filed an FIR against three members of the Gujjar community for allegedly attempting to stop the trucks from dropping their payloads. “After the rains there was knee deep smelly muck in our path. Following many complaints, the Municipal Council started getting soil thrown to build the road, Bashir, one of the persons charged,” said. “But even before the work was complete, the garbage truck came in. We got into a tussle with the truck driver when he refused to back off. Next morning there was news of a police complaint lodged against us in the local papers.”
A compromise was reached on July 7 in a meeting led by Madanlal Chaudhary, the chairperson of the Municipal Council Committee. However, when the affected people tried to discuss their problems with the dump, Chaudhary argued, “That is not connected with this (fight and stopping work). If there is a problem, it has to be raised properly with the MC.” When reminded that the MC had not been forthcoming, he retorted, “We have had scientists over from Chandigarh to spray a medicine to get rid of the smell and the flies.”
Soniya Mohammad, Nabi’s wife, said, “We are busy tending to the ill children and the cattle of the household. Many members of the family have been sick and at least 20 cattle and five buffaloes have died from feeding off the trash and toxic water.” A fire that erupted in the dump this summer also spread to their cattle shed and burnt heaps of dry fodder.
In Himachal Pradesh, the Gujjars are a scheduled tribe belonging to the minority community. The Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 has provisions that can be invoked in such cases when a member of a non-SC/ST community “dumps excreta, sewage, carcasses or any other obnoxious substance in premises, or at the entrance of the premises, occupied by a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe”. The act also makes it illegal to ‘wrongfully dispossess a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe from his land or premises or interfere with the enjoyment of his rights over any land, premises or water’. However, powerful as this law is, the Gujjars have been treated with as if it is their fate to put up with the trash.
When the answer to “What is the solution?” is silence, it is indicative of a deeply ingrained bias within our system, which then leads to failures of policy and law. It is a different matter that in an economy that is extracting, producing and consuming in overdrive, simply plugging the holes in will not work. The tap will have to be closed.
Manshi Asher is an environment researcher and activist associated with the Himdhara Collective.