Ranipet tanneries tragedy: lack of pollution control in Tamil Nadu

Updated - September 23, 2017 12:50 pm IST

Published - February 02, 2015 04:23 pm IST

Questions have been raised about the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board’s virtual clean chit to the tanneries in a report last year after 10 workers died on Friday at a tannery in Ranipet in Vellore district; documents indicate that the Board was giving a long rope to the tanneries and the common effluent treatment plants set up by them.

Shweta Narayan is an environmental activist who has been working in a wide range of subjects involving industrial pollution . She has joined us in a discussion on the recent tragedy at a Common Effluent Treatment Plant in Vellore in which 10 workers lost their lives

Shweta Narayan: There are two aspects of this incident. 1. the very TNPCB that ought to be protecting the environment is only protecting the industries. There is absolutely no regulation in place to check violations whatsoever. 2. TNPCB does not have the political will or scientific know how to deal with pollution related issues. We have documented cases from Cuddalore where TNPCB's data shows that the gorundwater is severely polluted with carcinogens and yet the TNPCB has not issued single advisory to alert public and tell them not use the water

Guest: Hi. Is TNPCB coming under Environment ministry or any other state department? I am from Perundurai in Tamilnadu, home to TN 'environment minister' Thoppu.N.T.Venkatachalam, and the place (Perundurai SIPCOT) where a new coke bottling plant is proposed against people's will. It is mainly opposed because of there is no waste water treatment plan.

K Venkataramanan: The TNPCB is a statutory body which enforces the various pollution related laws. It is administratively under the State environment ministry.

Comment From Parithi are the responsible plants still functioning ?

K Venkataramanan: No, all the 80-odd tanneries linked to the Common Effluent Treatment Plant in which the accident occurred have been shut down

Comment From Ram Rajan

I agree with Sruthi that its not about the regulation itself, but if its only on paper and most regulation clearances are ticked off on cash how do you go about stopping that? Can digitizing the system help? how?

Sruthisagar: Actually, the TNPCB has gone online in collecting pollution levels from industries. But again, the efficacy of the system is under a cloud since those enforcing the regulations seem to show too much leniency.

Shweta Narayan: accidents like this are routine. and does not come as a surprise. We are sitting on a ticking time-bomb. For one industry that the PCB stops on the ground of pollution there are at least 3 it clears to show that the state is "industry-friendly". Political interference hinders the department to do its job properly.

Shweta Narayan: Unfortunately the courts in our country too care more about the development than environment. the CUSECS consent got regularised after a court case and no action was taken for the violations of operating and polluting for 10 years!

Comment From Sivasankar.N : There should have been a bund wall to hold the effluent in case there was a tank failure. Why was this not in place?

K Venkataramanan: This is a good question, but this was noted by the TNPCB itself. In an inspection report last year, the team noted that there was no mechanism in place to deal with an emergency at the sludge drying bed. The tragedy happened despite this.

Shweta Narayan: The bund was not in place because the structure was not approved

Comment From Debashish Dash: Hey, I am a law student. I know that governmental energies are not appropriately invested for pollution related issues. So, my question is should the court punish the violators suo moto?

K Venkataramanan: Courts do take suo motu cognisance of violations. Normally, punishment in the form of disciplinary/ criminal proceedings against government officials are left to established processes.However, Courts can award exemplary damages and fix responsibility.

Shweta Narayan: I would also like to question the role of the Factories Inspectorate and Health Department in the Ranipet case.

Sruthisagar: Peculiarly, a proactive National Green Tribunal Bench working in Chennai has been unable to exercise suo motu powers since a group of environmentalists obtained a stay order from the High Court. Before the stay, the Southern Bench had intervened in a number of cases, most famous was the contamination of packaged drinking water cans supplied by private parties.

Sruthisagar: Peculiarly, a proactive National Green Tribunal Bench working in Chennai has been unable to exercise suo motu powers since a group of environmentalists obtained a stay order from the High Court. Before the stay, the Southern Bench had intervened in a number of cases, most famous was the contamination of packaged drinking water cans supplied by private parties.

Shweta Narayan: I would also like to question the role of the Factories Inspectorate and Health Department in the Ranipet case.

Shweta Narayan: First of all we are seeing a massive increase in the accidents of the workforce and in most cases these are migrant contract workers. Were these workers authorised to work in the unit? Law clearly prohibits engagement of contract workers in hazardous processes, was this being followed? (obviously not by the looks of it). Remember this is just one unit. There are thousands of unit that operate in the same manner through out the state.

Comment From vicky: should we go for collective Effluent treatment plant or in situ effluent treatment plant for individual industries. I guess the loss would have been less had they not been this big plant.

K Venkataramanan: The concept of Common plants to treat effluents came about because individual plants could not afford the facility. So individual treatment plants would throw up a fresh economic aspect in favour of industry as they would cite costs to avoid zero liquid discharge objective.

Guest: TN is least bothered about pollution.. infact they did not care about this, and also there is no significant allocation in the budget for polution control board.. also the govt is not keen on clamping a blanket ban on plastics.. why ??

K Venkataramanan: The reasons are many, ranging from corruption to vote banks.

Shweta Narayan: Factories inspectorate approves the layout of the unit, building plan, process layout etc. they are supposed to approve the safety processes inside the unit and recommend changes if required. They also oversee the Occupational Health and Safety measures employed by the unit for the workers.

Shweta Narayan: Health Department on the other hand are supposed to alert and inform the residents on the public health impacts of the operations of chemical operations on the residents/ communities outside the premises of the factory.

Parithi: Land fills and effluent storage should be done away from populated areas as per the rules right! then why was no action taken till now

K Venkataramanan: Yes, it is time to raise such questions forcefully

Comment From Rajamani : Why do we not call this a complete failure of TNPCB ? The Licencing has failed, the monitoring has failed and who is going to take up the responsibility for this tragedy. We have time and again seen that its only after such disasters some knee jerk reactions are seen while it dies out over time. We need public departments to publish monthly reports in public to bring more transparency in operations.

Shweta Narayan: demanding transparency is the first step.

Sruthisagar: There is no question that official negligence has allowed this incident to take place. Responsibility has to be fixed. Since this case is now in the Supreme Court and is coming up for hearing on Tuesday, we should expect some reply from the TNPCB.

Comment From Sankara Narayanan : Agreed. Individual TPs are not viable. Are the CETPs functioning properly anywhere, after getting an illegal subsidy of 75% from state and central exchequers? After eating an interest-free loan of Rs200 cr, how Tirupur CETPs are functioning? Shameful.

Sruthisagar: Yes. You are right though I am not sure about the numbers you have quoted. Quite significantly, the TNPCB has gone on record before the Supreme Court that the CEPTs are functioning quite well. The Municipalities on the other hand have thrashed the inspection reports, which means within the government there is no consistent stand.

Comment From Muthukrishnan: Is it the lack of enforcement? The start of any process is to have a trained and committed staff. If appointments to any of these government agencies are through a corrupt employment agency of the government (such as the TNPSC) there is never a likelihood of change. As long as the hiring process is corrupt, how does anyone expect the people that come through that process to be less corrupt?

Sruthisagar: It is a fact that the number of trained hands needs to go up. I think if the system is allowed to function efficiently, much could be achieved.

Guest: How come the plant was allowed by TNPCB to operate when there was no bund or safety feature available for a failure case?

Sruthisagar: The facility itself was illegal. In a sworn affidavit before the Supreme Court, the TNPCB, as early as in August, had identified this illegal structure. But no action to close it was initiated. Quite simply, had the officials closed it down in August, we could have avoided the accident.

Comment From Muthukrishnan: The second issue is these tanneries are fueled by greed. These leather tanning industries were moved from areas of the world where pollution controls have become stricter, knowing fully well that such standards can easily be violated in India.

Sruthisagar: Again, the question is more of enforcement than lack of guidelines. The sorry state is that even the existing guidelines aren't implemented.

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