In the 1980s, when the Pithampur industrial hub came up in Dhar district, people from the villages nearby rejoiced at the prospect of an increase in employment opportunities. Today, thousands of jobs have materialised in 800-odd industrial units, but villagers wonder if they are worth the catastrophe that has now visited upon them.
As many as 10,000 villagers are suffering from the adverse effects of the industrial pollutants that have contaminated the groundwater in the area. The problem is so acute that the residents of Chirakhan, Dhannad and Bajrangpura villages as well as the surrounding areas have stopped drinking water directly from their wells. While some villagers have taken to using filters to purify the water, others – such as the residents of Chirakhan – travel over five kilometres in search of more potable alternatives.
Their worries have only increased ever since a treatment, storage and disposal facility for hazardous industrial waste was set up in Pithampur. The residents of Tarpura, situated adjacent to the Ramky Enviro Engineers hazardous waste unit, have been living in constant fear ever since it was decided that 350 tonnes of toxic waste from the defunct Union Carbide plant in Bhopal be incinerated at the facility.
“We approached everyone from district officials to politicians, but nothing came out of it,” said Saligram, a 53-year-old shopkeeper, when asked about the recent trial runs conducted at the facility.
The remaining 340 tonnes of Union Carbide waste is also likely to be disposed at the facility once the Supreme Court lays down the procedure.
“There is a terrible stench when the wind blows the smoke from its chimney towards the village. The well water has also been contaminated,” Narayanbhai, a shopkeeper, said. Efforts to contact Ramky officials proved futile.
Other villages located about four kilometres from the Ramky facility attribute their woes to effluents discharged by some units into a nullah that flows downhill from Pithampur. “Almost all the villagers have installed water-purifying units at their homes. But the filter rod, which usually lasts for a year, has to be changed every two months,” said Murarilal Patel, former sarpanch of Chirakhan village.
The ground water drawn by borewells is used to water the fields, but even here the output has been affected – with the agricultural yield of vegetables like lauki (bottle gourd) and staple cereals such as wheat dropping significantly.
Dhannad village, located about four kilometres from Pithampur, has a similar story to relate. Water from a well that had been quenching their thirst for over a century is now being used only for washing and other domestic purposes. “We get mouth ulcers if we drink this water,” said Ramprasad, a villager.
Meanwhile, life goes on in the Pithampur area – for better or worse. A stone’s throw away from the Ramky unit is a small playground where children play with gay abandon, completely oblivious to the fact that in their neighbourhood lies chemical waste that is hazardous to both man and beast.