How an ethanol factory has turned this Vijayawada village from idyllic charm to industrial nightmare

Gandepalli village, near Vijayawada, grapples with a menacing presence: an ethanol factory whose operations have left a trail of devastation since operations began in 2008. Residents are struggling with foul air and water, poisoned crop fields, and depleting water tables. Despite relentless community outcry and damning environmental reports, relief remains elusive, writes Nellore Sravani

Updated - April 05, 2024 09:43 am IST

Published - April 05, 2024 08:27 am IST

Schoolchildren crossing the main road, even as a lorry is seen approaching in the background at Gandepalli village of NTR district. In this village, there are more lorries than human beings on the main road that measures not more than 15 feet in width.

Schoolchildren crossing the main road, even as a lorry is seen approaching in the background at Gandepalli village of NTR district. In this village, there are more lorries than human beings on the main road that measures not more than 15 feet in width. | Photo Credit: G.N. Rao

Gandepalli village, about 50 kilometres from Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, defies stereotypical village imagery of empty roads, vast expanses of fertile land, and clean air and water. Here, there are more lorries than humans on the main road that measures not more than 15 feet in width. Villagers say there are often minor accidents in Gandepalli that comes under the Kanchikacherla mandal in NTR district. 

One incident, involving the death of a schoolboy on January 3, 2017, left villagers enraged. Around 7 p.m. that day, Krishna Rajesh, 12, went out to get dinner on a cycle. On the way, he was hit by a lorry, leading to instantaneous death. In the police complaint filed the next day, the boy’s father Durga Rao claimed that the lorry involved in the accident belonged to a factory in the village. An FIR was registered against the driver, M. Raju, for alleged rash driving and causing death due to negligence. 

The case was closed in a year with the driver’s acquittal, since the prosecution witnesses turned hostile. Tearing up while recalling that time in their lives, the boy’s mother, Jaya Lakshmi, says at least four people witnessed the accident. “The defendant lawyer said my son did not go to school and all that he did was loaf around,” adds the bereaved mother, an agricultural labourer who, along with her husband and older son, relocated to a nearby village. 

“There is a reason why our repeated complaints against the factory for causing air, dust, and water pollution go unheard,” says a resident, requesting anonymity, even as he alleges that the number of unreported incidents involving the factory could be higher. 

The factory in question is Sentini BioProducts Pvt. Ltd., which according to its website, has a production capacity of 200 kilolitres per day (KLPD) of extra neutral alcohol (ENA), a type of ethanol, and 120 metric tonnes (MT) of animal feed supplement. 

Set up in 2008, the factory at first was a distillery with a production capacity of 125 KLPD, which was increased to 150 KLPD in 2017. In April 2023, it received environmental clearance for setting up a separate ethanol plant of 200 KLPD, which, the company said, would cater to the Central government’s Ethanol Blended Petrol (EBP) programme.

Launched in 2003 for the sale of 5% EBP in nine States and four Union Territories, the programme is being touted by the Centre as the way forward for the country as it reduces dependency on fossil fuels. At present, the ethanol-petrol blend has gone up to 10%, but the Centre has set a target of increasing this to 20% by 2025, says a Niti Aayog report released in 2021. 

On one hand, the report says the programme is important for a cleaner environment, since ethanol helps reduce emissions, but the process of manufacturing the liquid causes damage to the environment, humans, and animals. 

Unchecked pollution 

All ethanol production plants and distilleries fall under the ‘red category’, which means this type of industry has a pollution score of 60 or more, as per Central government norms, and that they require environmental clearance to establish and operate. These factories are mandated to have a Zero Liquid Discharge system in place, where the wastewater is treated before being recycled for use. 

Sentini BioProducts produces 200 KLPD ethanol from about 365 tonnes per day (TPD) of broken rice, corn, maize, and other starch-based grains. The grains are transported by lorries from Khammam in Telangana, and other places. According to the residents, the main road in the village is the shortest way to reach the factory. The same road is used by Gandepalli village people, including children. 

Soon after the establishment of the factory in 2008, people started complaining to district officials of a choking stench, polluted water and air, and extensive crop damage, in addition to lorries plying to and from the factory, creating a safety hazard. 

Those having land rights in front of the factory were the worst hit, say villagers. One of them, M. Muralidhar Reddy, 52, says, “The stretch where we have land used to primarily depend on rain for cultivation. Then, in the 1970s, a four-foot-wide irrigation canal was built that supplied water regularly to that stretch. We began growing paddy on a large scale. With a length of around 3 km, the canal borders the fields of around 20 farmers. The factory discharges its untreated wastewater into this canal, which overflows during rains and water enters the fields.” 

Slow death of fertile lands 

Slowly, the effect was felt on the crop. The paddy would not produce seeds, he explains. At first, the farmers did not understand why that was happening. However, it became a recurring problem for all the farmers. 

Now, after more than 10 years, farmers say they cannot cultivate paddy here anymore. Muralidhar Reddy has 4 acres here. He grows subabul on 3 acres, and paddy on 1 acre. “I keep checking to ensure that the canal water is not getting mixed with my crop. But even then, cultivating paddy is not profitable. One acre of paddy used to fetch us 30-40 basta (sacks of 75 kg each) of rice earlier. Now, the yield has come down to 10 basta,” he says, adding that some have given their land for grazing at a lease amount of ₹10,000-15,000 per acre per year. 

The wastewater from the factory is not released every day during summer, but on the day The Hindu visited the site to meet the farmers, water began flowing into the canal gradually from an inlet. At that moment, a young man herded his pack of goats, swiftly guiding them away from the water as they attempted to drink from it. He explains that ever since several cattle died mysteriously a couple of years ago, they avoid bringing animals to this area. 

Contaminated soil, water 

Villagers say they have written to the district officials and the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board (APPCB) multiple times. There have been several show-cause notices to the factory too since 2013. When they did not receive any response or they felt the response was not satisfactory, they approached the Lokayukta in 2013 for the shutting down of the factory. 

After activist Ch. Venugopal Rao filed a complaint, Deputy Director (Investigation)-Lokayukta was tasked with conducting an inquiry into the case. The inquiry, conducted on February 8, 2022, confirmed that the industrial effluents were being released into the Gandepalli-Nandaluru pumping irrigation canal without first treating them and that the soil had high salinity. 

K. Babu Rao, a retired scientist who has worked against polluting factories in Telangana earlier and is following up on the Gandepalli case, says that in addition to the grain used as raw material in manufacturing 200 KLPD ethanol, large quantities of sodium hydroxide (2,610 kg) and sodium hypo (316 kg) are used daily. “High sodium content in water affects it in two ways. One, it is toxic to the plant and can cause leaf burn, wilting, and stunted growth. Two, it affects the soil structure, clumping the soil particles together, reducing air and water permeability,” he explains. 

The Lokayukta report flayed the APPCB for not disclosing the fact that effluents were being discharged into the canal despite conducting inspections from 2019 to 2021. The Lokayukta team said in the report that the MAO and Joint Director of Agriculture of Krishna district did not probe the crop damage. In fact, the MAO gave a certificate to the factory stating that there was no damage to the crop, it said. 

The MAO subsequently reported that the soil was fit only for growing crops that could withstand high salinity and that the irrigation canal is contaminated. The Lokayukta inquiry revealed that the canal water, where the effluents are getting mixed, joins the Munneru river, a tributary of Krishna river, which is the primary source of drinking water to Guntur and Krishna districts. 

Based on the findings, the Lokayukta directed APPCB to submit an action-taken report. The APPCB, in response to the direction, issued directions to the factory in March 2023 to restrict its ethanol production capacity and ordered the unit to pay an environmental compensation of ₹90 lakh. They also asked a professor from the Acharya N.G. Ranga Agricultural University in Guntur district of A.P. to assess crop damage caused by the industry. 

When contacted, the professor refused to reveal the data collected so far and added that the report would be out only by July 2024. The factory informed the APPCB that it has “rectified all the lapses” so it should be allowed to manufacture 200 KLPD. It also added that the company incurred huge losses, so the fine should be reduced. 

An APPCB official from the Zonal Office, Vijayawada, said the factory has not yet paid the compensation and that the case in Lokayukta is pending.

The factory, which had informed the APPCB last year that it is complying with all rules, has not yet emptied the earthen lagoon, which is allegedly used for storing spent wash, says Muralidhar Reddy, adding that this goes against environmental rules.   

When asked further, APPCB Member Secretary refused to divulge details, citing the Model Code of Conduct in view of the forthcoming Assembly and Lok Sabha elections. The factory, too, did not respond to emails or calls from The Hindu

Illegal use of groundwater 

Now, with the Wyra river drying up, farmers are alleging that the factory is using groundwater for its daily requirement. According to Babu Rao, 4 litres of water are required to produce 1 litre of ethanol. 

“We can see eight huge pipelines from the fields through the Wyra river, a tributary of Krishna, to the factory. Now that the river is bone dry, they are illegally drawing from the groundwater,” says T. Srinivas Reddy, a farmer. He claims the company has bought many fields, one of which is next to his, to draw groundwater. “They have set up motors of 7.5 horsepower that run 24x7.” 

As per the Environment Clearance granted by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change for the ethanol plant in April 2023, point 4 of 22(A) states that no groundwater should be used for the production. 

The Human Rights Forum (HRF), which is approaching the authorities about the issue, has demanded that the APPCB shut down the factory for good immediately. “The factory does not have a Zero Liquid Discharge in place and is releasing highly polluting sludge into Wyra river. During our fact finding, we noticed that they are extracting water from the fields through high-capacity motors that run round the clock. This is depleting the water level, leading to an increase in salinity. All these together destroy the surrounding ecological resources, livelihood, and health,” says HRF State general secretary Y. Rajesh. 

Meanwhile, the farmers’ borewells are drying up. As summer sets in and water tables drop, the spectre of an impending water crisis in the mandal looms ominously.

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