Chemical Complex: Maharashtra Disregards Deaths, Bends Over To Make ‘Rehabilitation’ Pass Muster
Mahul, located on the eastern seafront of Mumbai, is the Maharashtra government’s preferred, and if one goes by its stand in court, only site available for rehabilitating over 11,000 families evicted from either side of the Tansa Pipeline and other places. Despite concerns raised in several quarters regarding the high pollution level in the area and the threat to human life due to the same, the government insists that the area is safe and habitable.
The National Green Tribunal, hearing a 2014 petition filed by residents of Mahul village adjacent to the 72-tower complex where Tansa pipeline evictees are being rehabilitated, held the area unsuitable for human habitation in December 2015. The Bombay High Court also took serious note of the pollution and its impact on the health of rehabilitated families in July 2017. A study by conducted by King Edward Memorial (KEM) Hospital in early 2015 reported a high incidence of respiratory issues in the area and pointed at high levels of Toluene—a volatile organic compound that causes respiratory ailments, among other things—in the atmosphere.
However, in March and April this year, the state government filed two affidavits in the Bombay High Court, stressing that 72-building rehabilitation complex is safe to live in, since pollution levels in the area are well within prescribed limits. A close perusal of the affidavits and related annexures, alongside the NGT judgement of 2015 and conversations with residents of the area, points at several gaps and omissions, and exposes the State’s desperation to make Mahul pass muster as a “rehabilitation site”, endangering the health, livelihoods and lives of the city’s poor.
Apprehensions and concerns
Eversmile Layout in Mahul—the 72-tower rehabilitation complex containing 17,495 tenements that the evictees moved in to—sits less than fifteen metres across the road alongside Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited’s (BPCL) refinery. The area is home to a large number of industrial units, including the refineries of BPCL, HPCL and IOC. It also has several hazardous chemical industries and thermal power plants, with the Bhaba Atomic Research Centre overlooking it along a section of the sea front.
Concerns over high pollution have held back several PAPs from moving into the tenements, even as those without any other options have trickled in through 2017. The affidavit filed by the state government in Bombay High Court on 16 April 2018 shows that a total of 10,504 tenements have been allotted to various PAPs in Eversmile Layout; this includes 5,862 Tansa pipeline evictees. However, a survey by Collective for Spatial Alternatives in February-March 2018 showed only 4,445 of over 10,000—less than fifty percent—families allotted tenements in the colony had moved in.
For families that did move in, the experience has been harrowing, if not life threatening. Many, particularly women, have nothing but a volley of abuses directed at “the authorities” who sent them to “rot here”.
“We have been dealing with breathing difficulties, heaviness/ congestion in the chest and weakness since the time we moved in,” says Anita More, who moved into the complex after her hutment in Kurla was demolished and her family was rehabilitated in June 2017. A cacophony of voices second her; many talk of the skin irritation and rashes that have now become constant companions. Some complain of severe illnesses, such as hypertension, paralysis and lung-diseases.
The symptoms described by the women match health hazards associated with VOCs, particularly toluene, a study by the Environment Pollution Research Centre (EPRC) of KEM Hospital had found in 2014. The study report, which has been questioned by the state government in its 26 April 2018 affidavit in the HC, recommended “immediately undertaking containment measures for emission of toluene”.
The shift, meanwhile, is taking a heavy toll on the lives of those who have moved in there. Apart from the immense financial strain they’re under on account of lost livelihoods courtesy the shift, residents say many people have lost their lives in the past few months owing to “unlivable conditions”. A writ petition filed in the High Court on behalf of 204 PAPs residing in the colony says 15 people have died since PAPs moved in some months ago.
Threat to health in Mahul: NGT’s 2015 order
In 2014, residents of Mahul and Ambapada villages, located next to the rehabilitation complex, approached the National Green Tribunal (NGT) against Sealord Containers and Aegis Chemicals for allegedly causing pollution.
In its December 2015 judgement pertaining to the application, the NGT did not order the closure of either of the industries since “the contribution of individual source of air pollution in the air quality in the area is not available on record”. The tribunal, however, made several observations on the high levels of pollution, particularly of Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) associated with respiratory ailments, in the area, and laid down a series of directions for various government departments to alleviate health concerns flagged by the applicants.
The MPCB, in an assessment carried out in June 2014, had found extremely high levels of VOC Toluene, ranging 15.3- 41 microgrammes per cubic metre, in the vicinity of Mahul and Ambapada villages. In the course of hearing the application of the villagers, the NGT directed the MPCB to submit fresh reports on ambient air quality. The MPCB subsequently engaged an external agency, (Goldflinch), for conducting air quality sampling and analysis in the area and submitted the same before the NGT via an affidavit on 4 July 2015. This second air quality tests showed that toluene levels in the area were much lower than observed in June 2014.
The tribunal, however, was extremely critical of this drop, wondering what accounted for it. In the judgement, it raises questions on the credibility of the test, including the process of data collection. It also chastised the MPCB for “not applying its mind”:
“The concentrations of Benzene, Toluene etc. as referred in the [Goldflnch] report are substantially less than the concentrations reported by the MPCB in the June 2014 report. There is no justification or any discussions about such significant variation… It is also observed that the samples were collected by the laboratory itself and there is no involvement of MPCB in collection or analysis of the samples. We are constrained to bring out such inadequacy in the report only due to the fact that the MPCB has not applied its mind on such report before presenting it to National Green Tribunal.”
Further, the tribunal asked why the MPCB had not conducted a detailed VOC assessment for Mahul, like it had done for Tarapur, Navi Mumbai, Chandrapur, Aurangabad and Dombivli. It directed the body to conduct detailed VOC assessment in the area over three years; define buffer zones between hazardous industries and residential quarters. It also asked MPCB to evolve clear standards for VOC emissions in consultation with CPCB within four months—barring benzene, there’s no established standard for permissible limits of any VOC including toluene.
Crucially though, in paragraph 25 of the judgement, the tribunal noted: “Considering such observations and also, the demonstrated link between the prevalent ambient air quality at Mahul and Ambapada villages with the health impacts in those areas, it can be observed that there is a perceptible threat to health of the residents of village Mahul and Ambapada due to prevailing air quality in the area.”
No alternative, Mahul safe: new affidavits
In more than two years since the order, the MPCB, the BMC, and the state government have done precious little to define permissible limits of VOCs, or conduct a detailed VOC assessment of the area. The NGT’s order, particularly the section that points out the perceptible threat to the health of Mahul residents owing to high pollution levels, has however emerged as a roadblock in the government’s attempts to make Eversmile Layout pass muster as a rehabilitation site.
This is because Tansa pipeline PAPs who approached the HC against the demolitions are relying on the National Green Tribunal to press the government to look for an alternative rehabilitation site. The court had asked the government to look for alternative sites following the petitioners’ demand earlier this year, given that the NGT’s observation on perceptible threat to human health due to pollution in Mahul still holds. In April this year, the court pulled up the state government for failing to identify alternative sites.
The latest affidavit filed by the government in this regard, on 26 April 2018, notes that the government has been unable to identify an alternative site, as two possible rehabilitation locations in Dinsdoshi and Marol in Mumbai have been fully encroached upon, and it would take a long time to rehabilitate those encroachers, demolish the existing hutments and build new rehabilitation complexes in their place.
This affidavit makes a reference to affidavit filed by the government on 16 April this year, which said all pollutants, including VOCs, are now within safe limits in the area, on the basis of a joint study undertaken by MPCB and NEERI in 2017. The latest affidavit also cites fresh reports on ambient air quality from the past two years prepared by KEM Hospital, which again show all pollutants, including VOCs, to be within safe limits. The reports, the government says in the 26 April affidavit, clearly show that pollution levels in Mahul have come down since the NGT order in December 2015.
It goes on to call NGT’s observations in para 25 (cited above) “sweeping” and says they were made “without having the bonafide of the exact test reports of the ambient air quality in Mahul and Ambapada villages”. The MPCB, it informs the court, filed an application before the NGT on 4 April this year asking the tribunal to modify/ clarify its earlier order in light of the new findings.
Gaps and ommissions
A close perusal of the aforementioned affidavit and reports, however, makes the gaps and omissions apparent. For instance, the 16 April affidavit says Mahul is safe and livable on the basis of a joint study undertaken by MPCB and NEERI in 2017, also submitted to the court. The study, conducted over two rounds in August and October 2017, records toluene levels in the buildings that stand barely 15-30 metres from the BPCL and HPCL refineries, at less than 1 microgrammes per cubic metre.
These figures are at a sharp variance from the toluene levels recorded in the area by the MPCB itself in June 2014, and by Goldflinch in 2015. Neither the report, nor the affidavit, however, offer any explanation of the sharp drop in VOC levels in the area. The NGT had pulled up the MPCB for not explaining the drop in levels between 2014 and 2015, but despite the chastisement, the state government continues doing the same before the HC. The MPCB’s application for clarification/ modification of the 2015 NGT order also fails to account for this sharp drop in pollutant levels; it says nothing about what control measures, if any, have been put in place in the interim period that explains this drop. Although the MPCB says an action plan has been prepared in consultation with CPCB and guidelines have been issued to petrochemical refineries, there’s no clarity on whethere they have been implemented.
The NGT order also asked the MPCB to fix permissible standards for all VOCs in consultation with the CPCB within four months of December 2015. In its application for modification/ clarification of the order, however, the MPCB makes no mention of this direction, merely noting that India has no established standards for VOCs like Toluene. The application quotes the standards defined by the Ontario, Canada administration and says fresh tests (NEERI 2017) show that “Toluene and Xylene are well within norms set by Ministry of Environment, Ontario”.
The same application, however, goes on to say that the “report shows some exceedance of …Toluene and Xylene in some locations”. Nothing explains this doublespeak within the application. In addition, it notes that the levels of benzene, chloroform and 1,2 dichloroethane do not meet the Ontario standards. Does this have health implications? The application says nothing specific, but says that these aberrations and the lack of adequate data makes it impossible to certify that “the air quality is good and there are no health impacts”. It also says it cannot ascertain the reason for the high levels of choloroform and dichloroethane in the area.
Contrary to the experiences of residents of Eversmile Layout, the application, on the basis of fresh reports from KEM Hospital, says respiratory morbidity in the area has reduced.
The MPCB’s application before the NGT will be taken up on 17 May, and the next date of hearing in the High Court is 7 June. The residents of the colony, whose erstwhile houses were demolished by the state, however, continue to live amidst squalor and persistent threats to their health and safety.
Apart from the health concerns mentioned above, the rehabilitation colony itself is in a shambles. The buildings, constructed over 20 years ago, were vacant for close to two decades, and are in dire need of maintenance.
A survey conducted by the Collective for Spatial Alternatives (CSA) in February 2018 found that out of 31 surveyed buildings, 29 have broken sewer pipes; 23 do not have adequate waste collection services or functional elevators; two buildings do not have water supply, and 11 more do not have constant access to running water. The report further notes that 27 out of the 31 buildings are facing a steady stream of sewage and water overflow that are flooding its by-lanes and courtyards.
A visit to any tenement makes it apparent that they are designed like match-boxes, with little scope for natural light and ventilation. In fact, the buildings themselves stand in violation of national building control rules. The report prepared by Indorewala and Wagh notes the density of tenements in the rehabilitation colony at 1,372 tenements/hectare. This is nearly three times the 500 tenements/hectare limit permissible under the National Building Code of India.
“This colony of 72 buildings has been designed for stacking as many tenements as possible in one building, rather than providing a liveable neighbourhood to the occupants,” the report states.