The water bodies of Patancheru, the hub of biggest bulk drugs and pharmaceutical industries in Andhra Pradesh, have the world’s highest level of pharma residues. A startling revelation, no doubt, but what is more horrific is this: researchers analysing vials of treated wastewater have found 21 different active pharmaceutical ingredients used in generics mixed in them. However, this should not surprise us at all: in the last 10 years, there have been enough warnings about the deteriorating environmental condition of the area.
The 1990 Status of Environment in Andhra Pradesh, Citizen’s Report, said that groundwater pollution due to effluent discharge led to an increase in diseases, including cancer. In 1995, the district judge of Medak (Patancheru is located in this district) submitted a report to the Supreme Court, which said that over 100 industries were responsible for causing groundwater pollution in the region. Recently, the Central Pollution Control Board identified Patancheru as one of the 22 critically polluted areas in the country. However, what is clear now, thanks to the latest report, is this: everyone — the government, the companies and the pollution authorities — did not bother to reverse the trend. Meanwhile, it is the poor who have been paying the cost of this dumping: the district health officer’s 2002 report found morbidity rates in the area have increased from of 10.18 per cent to 25.49 per cent over a period of 10 years. Today, many have become drug-resistant and a high incidence of cancer has been reported. Experts say that since the water of this area flows into the Godavari, the affected area could be much larger.
The Indian pharmaceutical industry is part of the ‘sunshine sector’. It is competitive because the manufacturing costs are low here. Needless to add, cost-cutting on pollution control is an important factor behind this advantage. While the developed countries outsource production to India to cut costs, the big Indian companies parcel these out to smaller firms, which are notorious for lack of pollution control. And lax laws and officers only perpetuate this problem. While the West has shunned Indian products that involve child labour, in the future similar stringent laws could force the Indian pharmaceutical companies to clean up their backyard. Before that happens, the companies would do well to invest in pollution control and adhere to international norms. Just planting a tree or opening a school in the name of corporate social responsibility will no longer do.