It is not the searing summer predicted for the Krishna-Prakasam-Guntur belt that the people of Cheruvukommupalem village in the Prakasam district dread. It is the monsoon.
The overwhelming stench
“During the rainy season, the stench of chemicals from the Bhagiradha Chemicals and Industries Ltd. (BCIL) factory gets overwhelming. Also, the factory allegedly releases its effluents into nearby water bodies and dumps some in the empty pits outside its building premises against the norms. When it rains, the chemical-filled water flows into our colonies. On such days, we do not step outside on the slush-filled roads for fear of developing infection,” says K. Suseela, a resident of Cheruvukommupalem, near Ongole town.
Her husband, a farmer, developed a severe infection in his toe after standing in the fields filled with polluted water. He eventually had to get the toe amputated, says Ms. Suseela, who has developed kidney stones and receiving treatment at a hospital in Ongole.
The factory in question, Bhagiradha Factories and Industries Limited (BCIL), was set up in the 1990s. It manufactures, among other pesticides and herbicides, the insecticide chlorpyrifos, which is banned in around 30 countries. In India, the pesticide is allowed a restricted use on 18 crops, according to a report by the Pesticide Action Network (PAN). Recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also banned the use of the pesticide in the country.
The Central Pollution Board Control (CPBC) categorises the industrial sectors in the country as red, orange, green and white for easy determination of their pollution-causing capacity. According to the Board, the BCIL falls under the red category.
Living 500 m from a red category factory
“It is surprising that an industry categorised as ‘red’ is allowed to function in the midst of urban settlements,” says a government doctor from Ongole on condition of anonymity.
While there are five villages, Cheruvukommupalem, Vengamukkapalem, Yerrajarla, Toofan Nagar and Pelluru, around the factory, the nearest, Vengamukkapalem is only 500 metres from BCIL.
According to the siting policy in the State, cement factories, stone crushers, dairies, LPG bottling unis, rice mills, cashew processing units, pesticide units, and sponge iron manufacturers have to follow specific guidelines.
In a report ‘Comprehensive Action Plan for Clean Air in Non-Attainment Cities’ prepared by the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board (APPCB), Ongole, with three red category industries, one orange and only one green, is one of the eight new entries to the list of Non-Attainment Cities in Andhra Pradesh implying that its air does not meet the national ambient air quality standards.
According to the official data available on the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board (APPCB) website, BCIL has four metres to measure the amount of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) released by it. These metres are required to assess the pollution index on the premises. As per a report published by the Board dated March 1, 2017, after a fire accident occurred at the factory in 2017, the VOC around its Production Block number 3 was as high as 343 PPM, against the standard value of zero.
When an industry that releases hazardous chemicals into the atmosphere is so close to human habitation, the health of people living there is bound to be affected, says a government doctor who preferred to stay anaonymous.
Meanwhile, the villagers allege that the industry disposes its effluents into Yerravagu, a feeder canal, in addition to dumping them around its own building premises through reverse boring.
‘BCIL illegally drawing water from agricultural fields’
Seconding them, activists from the HRF also allege that the factory draws its quota of 3.19 kiloliters of water per day from agricultural fields illegally. This has led to groundwater depletion, they say.
The chemical effluents released from BCIL, once they enter the ground, can stay for long, says Gutta Rohith, State Secretary of Human Rights Forum, which has been working on the issue for the last five years. He adds that it can not only contaminate the groundwater but also make the land fallow.
“We have seen many crop failures in recent years. In addition, many agricultural labourers refuse to work here due to the persistent odour. We cannot work in the fields for long as our eyes start burning after a while, and start to feel nauseated,” says Ms. Suseela, who used to work on her two-acre farm. Her crops have been affected, she says.
The BCIL management, however, has chosen not to respond to the multiple emails and calls from The Hindu on these allegations.
Dasari Koteswara Rao, general secretary of Prakasam Environmental Society, says they started digging deeper into the issue when they were constantly getting foul smell way back in 2007.
In 2010, Mr. Koteswara Rao filed a case in the A.P. High Court against the factory for causing air pollution. “The A.P. Pollution Control Board imposed a fine of ₹5 lakh on the factory for non-compliance with environmental norms. But we do not know whether the factory rectified its mistakes,” says Mr. Koteswara Rao. While the villagers knew that the air was polluted, they did not know about groundwater contamination until 2019. Until then, many used the same water for cooking purposes, he added.
Water found to be unfit for consumption
However, a committee, constituted by former Collector Pola Bhaskar formed after receiving these complaints, concluded that the groundwater was not fit for household consumption. Now, every household in the neighbouring villages depends on the drinking water tankersfrom Ongole. While the rich can afford it, the poor are left with no choice but to drink groundwater from the borewells.
Eye irritation, headaches and knee pain are common among villagers here. G. Surendra, another resident of Cherukommupalem, had taken his mother, aged 57, to hospitals in Tirupati and Hyderabad after she complained of knee pain. The doctors said her bones had lost their density and strength.
“Not only my mother but everyone in the village seems to be suffering silently from an invisible illness. Knee pain is something everyone, young and old, complains about,” he says.
Their neighbour Naresh has an 11-year-old son who cannot walk properly due to a neurological condition. Another neighbour B. Padmavati (54), has been suffering from knee pain for the last 10 years. Rajeswaramma (55), a farm worker, has stopped going to work for a long due to knee pain.
Toofan Nagar too plagued
Similar issues persist at Toofan Nagar, a colony of Yanadi tribals adjacent to Cheruvukommupalem. Ashok, a village volunteer here, says that when he complained to the officials about skin allergies plaguing the people here, he was told that it was due to their “unhygienic lifestyle”.
As per a study conducted by Vimta Labs Ltd. from Nellore in 2019, the groundwater samples collected from the villages located around the factory have been found to be contaminated with chemicals such as lead and manganese. The study was carried out after people from these villages came to Vijayawada and staged a demonstration carrying bottles of brown-coloured water from their nearby water sources.
“The reports from the lab showed that Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), calcium, chlorine and sulfides were present in higher quantities. The hardness of water is also on the higher side”Government doctor
“The reports from the lab showed that Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), calcium, chlorine and sulfides were present in higher quantities. The hardness of water is also on the higher side,” says a government doctor from Ongole on the condition of anonymity.
“Lead, if it enters the body once, never leaves. Some of the chemicals found in the water are potential carcinogens. Long-term exposure to such heavy chemicals is bound to leave an impact on the health of people. How severe the impact is determined by their exposure level. The greater the exposure, the more severe the impact will be,” says the doctor. People working at the factory stand a greater risk of developing health problems.
A former employee of BCIL, aged 48, said he suffered from skin allergies a few times during his 13-year-long stint at the factory. “Nevertheless, I had to continue working there because of financial problems at home. But one day, I experienced a bout of vomiting all night. That is when my family asked me to stop working there. Many working there come from economically poor backgrounds. They don’t have a choice. Moreover, working there for a long time renders us useless for jobs that involve heavy lifting and physical work. Now, only around 30 employees at the factory are from nearby villages. The others are all from outside the State,” he says.
He used to ₹13,000 per month and received no medical reimbursements for his treatment. He now works as an electrician in Ongole.
He said his colleague died of liver cancer 10 years back at 35. Villagers claim there is an increase in cancer cases and deaths from kidney and heart ailments. “From 2021, I have seen one cancer patient, one kidney and two suffering from heart ailments (all young). One of them, a 23-year-old male, died of kidney failure recently. He did not have any comorbidities,” another doctor, who has a private clinic in Ongole.
Public health specialists from Ongole, while not denying the link between contaminated groundwater and health problems, say to ascertain the impact, officials should compare the number of deaths in the last 10 years with the corresponding number of the previous 10 years.
“Comorbid conditions of the deceased person must be considered when examining such cases. Drinking contaminated water may have been one of the factors in one’s death. But the number of deaths related to the contaminated water can be found out only after a scientific study,” the doctor says.
An ASHA worker, who went to every household to collect details of people as part of a routine health survey, says while people are not open about any serious illnesses, it is not unusual to see deaths due to kidney failure and cancer on death certificates.
“In response to a PIL filed by one P. Venkateswarlu, the High Court ordered us to see if the factory was still causing pollution. A team, including me, went to the factory and inspected their waste treatment process. The factory does have a Zero Liquid Discharge policy. We submitted a report recently that the factory is not flouting norms”Dinesh KumarPrakasam district Collector
Not denying that there could be a rise in serious ailments, Prakasam district Collector Dinesh Kumar says, “People must have consumed borewell water for drinking and cooking purposes until 2019 when the colour of the water changed. So, there must have been some impact on their health. In response to a PIL filed by one P. Venkateswarlu, the High Court ordered us to see if the factory was still causing pollution. A team, including me, went to the factory and inspected their waste treatment process. The factory does have a Zero Liquid Discharge policy. We submitted a report recently that the factory is not flouting norms. However, the High Court did not direct us to go for a health survey. If people continue to face health issues, we are ready to take up further studies. We have written to the State Pollution Board and government to constitute a high-level team to conduct an impact assessment study. The factory will be pulled up if it is found to have violated norms.”
Not pollution causing, says APPCB
G. Nagi Reddy, an environmental engineer from the APPCB Ongole Regional Office, denied allegations that the factory is causing pollution.
“Earlier, the factory was issued two ‘Stop Production’ orders. Operations were halted for a while. But now, it has rectified its mistakes and has a proper treatment process in place. The odour that many complain about is a natural byproduct of chemical reactions. Besides, no one uses borewell water for drinking these days,” says Mr. Nagi Reddy, adding that the villagers are making “frivolous” complaints.
The data obtained from the village secretariat reveals the causes of the deaths of the people of Cheruvukommupalem in 2019. Doctors believe the number could be bigger if a scientific study is carried out.
But for the people at Toofan Nagar, groundwater is what they have. The factory management sends tankers to this place. “But not everyone gets it,” the village volunteer says.
“Though the factory was shut down for a while a couple of times in the past, was the contaminated groundwater cleaned? How long will it take for groundwater to get back to its normal state? What about the impact it left on people who consumed it for years unsuspiciously,” asks Mr. Rohith.
“According to the ‘Polluter Pays’ principle, factories that cause pollution are liable to pay compensation for the losses incurred by the people. Just issuing a stop-production order will not suffice” Gutta RohithState Secretary of Human Rights Forum
According to the ‘Polluter Pays’ principle, factories that cause pollution are liable to pay compensation for the losses incurred by the people. Just issuing a stop production order will not suffice, Mr. Rohith adds.
Last year in September, villagers submitted a representation to the Collectorate in Ongole demanding shifting of the factory to another place.
The Collector responds, “At the time of its opening (in 1995), there was no urban sprawl. However, the factory is not adamant about shifting its operations elsewhere. It seeks government help to identify suitable land (200-300 acres). It is also ready to arrange transport facilities for workers from far-off villages. It does not want to lose its skilled workers, many of whom come from these villages. ”
“If the factory shifts its base, that will indeed be a win for the people. But what about those who have been suffering from illness for a long time now?” asks Mr. Rohith.
The villagers are exhausted to even hope. “We have waged a long battle. Nothing has come out of it. We have all the proof. We have seen dead fish and snakes floating in the water bodies. We have seen young people dying of kidney problems and heart attacks. But our complaints have fallen on deaf ears all these years. It is sad that people have to fight for basic rights such as access to clean drinking water,” says Mr. Surendra, who lost his 28-year-old friend to kidney failure two years back.