At over 300 sites across India hazardous waste is part of the landscape and life
Nibra village in Howrah district of West Bengal looks like any ordinary village. There are wells, ponds, a playground even a small school in its vicinity. Appearances are deceptive though, the village sits on a hazardous waste site, according to environment ministry records.
To be precise 4440 tones of chromium residue lies beneath the ground on which the settlement is built. People who live there are unaware they have built their lives on tonnes of toxic carcinogenic material. Nibra village is not the only one, there are atleast 320 sites across the country that host hazardous waste which affects around 2 lakh people, directly or indirectly.
They are called orphan sites because industries and municipal agencies dumped hazardous waste at such sites and abandoned them. The environment ministry is yet to finalise even guidelines and rules to tackle hazardous waste polluted sites.
Most of the sites are located in the states of Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Orissa, Delhi, Karnataka, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh/Telangana and Punjab.
Some are reclaimed by the citizens of a poor, land-hungry country because there are no signposts warning them of what lies underneath and what lies ahead for them.
“We will be coming out with the national framework for the remediation of polluted sites shortly,” said Bishwanath Sinha, joint secretary, hazardous waste management, at the environment ministry. “The rules will look at how to deal with contaminated sites and how to prevent contamination of uncontaminated sites.”
Under a $51.25 million World Bank project launched in 2010, India was supposed to get a National Programme for the Remediation of Polluted Sites. The project was to end in 2015 but was delayed. Now officials are racing against time to meet the new deadline of September 2017.
The number of polluted sites is likely much higher than 320. An inventory commissioned by the ministry said there were probably 557 such sites. There is no way to be sure because the guidelines for identifying them don’t exist yet, nor does a road map on how to tackle the contamination before it becomes a health hazard.
Of the identified sites and pollutants, Chromium is found in the largest number of places, followed lead, cadmium, mercury and pesticides. In most sites, there is more than one contaminant. Chromium is used in a variety of industries like leather, steel, paint manufacturing. In the environment, Chromium exists in two forms: Trivalent Chromium Cr(III) and Hexavalent Chromium Cr(VI). The latter is deemed toxic and carcinogen by the World Health Organization.
“People are living in sites without even knowing they reside over a contaminated area,” Hemant Rane, a consultant who helped prepare the technical reports and visited some of the sites, said. Atleast 13 sites of the 557 are being used as settlements. In almost all of the sites identified groundwater was being used for drinking purposes.
In Rania in Kanpur Dehat district of Uttar Pradesh people use the chromium sludge from the waste site to construct and renovate their homes. The groundwater here is heavily contaminated, according to CPCB officials. “People are drinking contaminated water without even knowing it,” a CPCB official said.
The contamination is from an open dump containing 45,000 tonnes of chromium waste that was generated by tannery industries in the area.
Who will remediate the sites and who will pay for it are questions that can only be answered when there is a framework which deals with these difficult questions. India currently does not have that and the process of developing it has been painfully slow. While the ministry twiddles its thumbs, people are building their homes and lives on these contaminated sites.
The authorities are struggling to decontaminate even the 12 sites declared as high priority, of which Nibra village is one. The longer it takes to start the process of decontaminating the sites the harder it will become. At Nibra, there are both private and public structures on the land and people resist suggestions to resettle elsewhere.
In the absence of a framework, funding such decontamination projects is a major hurdle, officials at CPCB, said. Currently 8 sites are undergoing remediation and the cost is amounting to around R. 800 crore. For the other identified sites the cost will easily run into thousands of crores of rupees.
The apex pollution regulatory authority believes the ‘polluter pays principle’ should apply to the cases, but it will be difficult to catch hold of the polluters and make them pay because the actions happened at a time when there were no regulations around it. The dumping of the chromium ore processing residue in Nibra happened over two years from 1998 to 2000. The identity of the dumpers is not known.
The absconders are not paying the price for the contamination, those who have unwittingly adopted the sites are.
More than 180,000 people are supposed to benefit under the World Bank project implemented by the environment ministry, but till the end of last year, not a single person was listed as a beneficiary. There are more than 28,000 people who will be saved from contamination through the projects, but as of 2016, none of them had escaped from the effects of the contamination.