Impact of industrial effluents on South Gujarat fisherfolk: Tale of two rivers ‘unfit to support life’

vapiAn excerpt from the project report,  “How effective are environmental regulations to address impacts of industrial and infrastructure projects in India”, prepared by a research team consisting of Krithika Dinesh, Meenakshi Kapoor, Kanchi Kohli, Manju Menon and Preeti Shree Venkatram of the CPR-Namati Environmental Justice Programme, Delhi:

Vapi is a bustling little town, at the southern tip of the western Indian state of Gujarat, home to rivers, fisherfolk, industries and high levels of pollution, amongst all other things. Some call Vapi the armpit of India, due to the high levels of pollution in this region. “You’ll be able to smell it,” is the constant refrain.

While industrialisation in Gujarat allowed several big operations to be located, it has also created an array of problems for the people living there to grapple with. Vapi is one of the places that has taken part in the Gujarat industrialisation vigorously – the Vapi Industrial Estate was set up in 1967 by the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC) and supports almost 1800 industries. In 1989 it was categorised as a ‘critically polluted area’ by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). The CPCB in collaboration with the Indian Institute of Technology formulated the Comprehensive Pollution Index (CEPI) to estimate the level of pollution in industrial clusters.

South of Vapi lies Daman & Diu that is one of the seven union territories in the country. Daman is twenty minutes away from the heart of Vapi, making it the weekend getaway for many. While the boundaries of Vapi and Daman are demarcated clearly, the natural resources are still shared. Damanganga flows from Vapi to Daman and back again to Vapi, putting the river under the jurisdictions of two different regulatory authorities.

Kolak is another of the rivers in Vapi that is infamous for its pollution.  The CPCB has categorised both Kolak and Damanganga as ‘rivers unfit to support life’. Over 5,000 people are dependent on these rivers and estuaries for fishing. The impacts faced by the fishing community are directly linked with the non-compliance of environmental laws by industrial units. In this case study, it is looked at how the fisherfolk in Vapi, facing the impacts of the water pollution on their livelihood, are trying to overcome it.

A river once blue

The Morai area of Valsad district, home to a fishing community, has been facing the impacts of effluent discharge by the industries into the Kolak and Damanganga rivers for decades now. There has been a dwindling supply of fish which is affecting their livelihood. Fish deaths after dumping of effluents by the industries, is a common problem being faced by the fishing community for several years now.

For instance in 2011, the Sarpanch had complained to the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB).“This is not the first time this has happened, but nothing has been done about it. The industries in the nearby areas are discharging chemical wastes into the Kolak river, which later get into the sea and results into the death of fish”: Kishor Patel, Sarpanch.

The GPCB in this instance acknowledged the fact that there are dead fish found in the area and instructed the Fisheries Department to take samples but no steps were taken following that.

One of the challenges is that the dumping that occurs near the Kolak estuary is affected by the tides that come and go. To even collect evidence of the pollution that is occurring in this part would mean collecting samples within hours, before the tide comes in.

As the dumping of these effluents occurs at night, this adds to the challenge of getting even the Vigilance Committee of GPCB to respond and collect the samples within the natural time frame. There are seven industries in the Morai area and to make a complaint that would make the authorities not dismiss it means collecting evidence of the pollution, being able to clearly identify the violator and the provisions of the law that are being violated.

The Kolak river is further polluted due to the discharge of effluents by industries into Bill Khadi, which is a canal in Vapi for releasing domestic waste water. The people living nearby have revealed that the industries dump effluents at night. This increases the water pollution in the river.

Efforts of the fishing community

With the help of researches, the community members took up the challenging task of finding whether any of the seven industries near the Morai area in Valsad had the permission to lay pipelines and for discharge. While the problem was established that the water pollution is due to effluent discharge, but it was still not known who laid those pipelines and under what conditions the permissions for laying them were obtained.

Right to Information (RTI) applications were filed by the representative of the fishing community in July 2014 to find out whether the required permissions were obtained e.g., the environment clearance, consent to operate (CTO), consent to establish (CTE) by the industries. RTIs were filed with the GPCB to obtain the CTO, CTE, and with the District Industries Centre (DIC) and Gujarat Water Supply Department to find out whether permissions had been given for laying pipelines to any of the industries.

The DIC, Water Supply Department responded saying that they have not given permission to lay pipelines. Evidence was also collected in the form of photographs, newspaper articles, interviews of the affected people and mapping of the river by the community researchers. Discussions with the representatives of the fishing community were key in gathering evidence, as the community researchers worked together with them in putting together the evidence.

An application has also been filed to the GPCB to empower the members of the community under the provisions of the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act. Section 23 of the Water Act, allows the State Pollution Control Board to empower any person to perform any of functions of the Board on its behalf. This was done to overcome the challenge of timely sample collection and assist the regulatory authorities in evidence collection.

Still in the making

It was only after several applications that it was ascertained that only two out of seven industries had permission to discharge treated effluents at an outlet suggested by the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO). This was found from the Environment Clearances of the two industries. An RTI has been filed asking for the NIO report and file notings of the communication to determine the exact location of the suggested outlet. However, this just establishes the permission for pipelines for two industries; the legalities of the other pipelines still remain.

Meanwhile, GPCB has replied to the complaints of the fishing community, saying that they are regularly monitoring discharges of the two industries. A site visit was done by the GPCB following the complaints of the community members in the presence of the complainants. As per the inspection report of this site visit, the GPCB has designated local bodies “to initiate efforts for controlling water pollution at source” and the Irrigation Department, Notified Area, Vapi Nagarpalika & Gram Panchayats “to set up a dedicated continuous monitoring system along with CCTV surveillance & keep constant watch” to improve the quality of the Kolak river.

Despite the responses and site visits of the regulatory authority, the biggest challenge that still remains is that of enforcement. Empowering and involving the community who is facing the impacts of non-compliance, to assist the authorities to monitor compliances can help in mitigating the negative environmental impacts.

The fishing community in Morai said that this year the fish catch has increased and some fish that had disappeared from the river, have returned. It is yet to be ascertained if the claimed improvement is due to the efforts to use the law and the GPCB’s response. But, for now, the problem has been formally acknowledged by the regulators and steps are underway to address the impact, almost twenty years in existence. The river still is not blue though, not just yet.

Download full report HERE

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