In November 2016, India’s environment ministry took a decision that would affect areas that had faced decades of damage. It lifted the moratorium it had placed on expansions and new investments in three industrial clusters in Gujarat: Ankleshwar, Vapi and Vatva GIDC (Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation). While there were hints at such a decision earlier in the year, it was only announced to the world on November 25. In May 2016, a similar decision was taken for another industrial cluster, Chandrapur in Maharashtra, to “enable new investments that have been stalled for more than five years”.
The Vapi contestation has been on for a while now. It was declared as critically polluted in 1989 and then again in 2010. In 2010, a moratorium was imposed on the expansion of industries and the setting up of new ones subject to the submission of a mitigation action plan by the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB). This action plan, now known as the Vapi Action Plan, had various management and mitigation measures like the safe disposal of treated water, strengthening air quality monitoring and measuring impact on health within surrounding populations. The plan recognised that environmental pollution in the region has been caused by the non-compliance by industries and responsible regulatory authorities, and mandated mitigating measures to be taken by these industries and authorities within a certain time frame. The moratorium was imposed in 2010, later lifted owing to the pressure from industries and then imposed again.
The Gujarat government has been pushing to lift the moratorium for more than five years now. In April 2016, the parameters to designate areas like Vapi critically polluted were changed. Industrial clusters are identified based on the Comprehensive Environment Pollution Index (CEPI), which is developed by the Central Pollution Control Board. The CEPI is calculated on the basis of parameters like nature of toxins, scale of industrial activities, level of ambient pollution and so on. In 2016, when the CEPI was revised, parameters like the impact on human health and environmental degradation were done away with. The reason given was that it is difficult to quantitatively assess the impact on people or the ecosystem.
The new CEPI index has ensured that the path is cleared for areas like Vapi to no longer be classified as critically polluted and to allow for an inflow of industrial activities. It is estimated that due to the moratorium, nearly Rs 22,000 crore worth of investments were stalled in Vapi.
Vapi made its name in 2007, when it was listed as one of the most polluted cities in the world. It makes one wonder whether the damages done to a place like this, which is home to two rivers, more than 1.6 million people, over 300 medium- and large-scale industries and around 1,500 small-scale industries, has been reversed and the place revived enough to support more industries.
Through an action research project that has focused on environmental compliance in Vapi for over two years, there is documented evidence that conditions of the action plan have still not been complied with. The industries are also still not complying with standard environmental norms and conditions. Efforts by community members in Vapi to find out the status of compliance with the action plan have also been futile. They have tried to get this information on several instances since May 2014, filing four Right to Information requests and going directly to the GPCB. Despite this, the GPCB has not provided them with this information.
A canal for dumping
Bill Khadi is a canal that runs through Vapi collecting domestic wastewater, which goes into the Kolak river. Through the years, industries have made the canal a safehouse for dumping effluents. People living near it have said that a stench is created when industries dump their effluents into this canal in the middle of the night. To prevent this from happening, the action plan contains conditions to aid the monitoring of discharge by industries. One of these conditions is the “construction of motorable road for Bill Khadi passing through the GIDC stretch”, which would help the authorities better monitor the area.
Further, as per an action plan prepared by the regional office of the GPCB for improving water quality of the river, “a dedicated continuous monitoring system along with CCTV surveillance & a constant watch” is to be put in place through the Bill Khadi. This is yet to be done. The cemented road from Koparali to Bill Khadi is also pending.
A common effluent treatment plant (CETP) was established in Vapi back in 1997 to treat the effluents released by small-scale industries in the area. These industries send their partially treated effluents to CETP to treat it further before they can be released. It was acknowledged in the action plan that the CETP was not meeting the prescribed norms for pollution reduction. Until 2013, the CETP was still not meeting the prescribed standards upto which the elements in the effluents have to be reduced.
This treated water from the CETP is being released into the Damanganga river since its inception. As per the action plan, to ensure safe disposal of the treated effluents, the CETP is supposed to release the treated water into the deep sea. A visit to the river will show that this (treated or partially treated) water is flowing into the river.
Another instance of effluent discharge is into the Kolak river, again dumped at night into the river. This has been a routine since 2011 and is acknowledged by the authorities. Between January and March 2016, community members complained four times to the GPCB and called the Vigilance Office (which has been created for taking immediate action). However, by the time the officers got to spot on each occasion, the effluents had been washed away. But even when no longer visible on the surface, the impact of the effluents is borne by the fisherfolk.
The rivers and their estuaries in Vapi support the livelihoods of more than 5,000 people. The pollution caused due to the effluents not being properly treated completely and not being discharged at designated points has affected the livelihoods of the fisherfolk. Even more importantly, the negative impact on people’s health in these areas is immeasurable. Since it is has been difficult to attribute health problems directly to the pollution caused by a particular industry, these damages are left unmeasured and remedies unattained and unasked.
Publicising instances of non-compliance, which have been found by looking at documents clause by clause, are an attempt to attribute some responsibility to the industrial units. So is Vapi still critically polluted? Several questions remain unanswered on whether Vapi can support new industries and the expansion of old ones. Have the damages caused to the environment and people actually been addressed or simply kept aside now that new parameters are in place? How can new industries and the expansion of old ones be allowed when there is no environmental compliance by the existing industries? Unfortunately, lifting the moratorium on industrial expasion in Vapi does just that.
Krithika Dinesh and Bharat Patel are with the CPR-Namati Environment Justice Program.