The stench of noxious chemical fumes almost leaves you dizzy the moment you enter the industrial belt of Dombivali. Broken pipelines and open drains releasing untreated effluents towards the Ulhas River are a common sight. Residents say they can feel the fumes rising out of the drains with their palms.
By the government’s own admission, this is one of the most ‘critically polluted’ industrial clusters in the country — one that the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has finally cracked down on. Recently, it ordered the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) to identify and shut down industries that have been polluting the Ulhas river. More than 30,000 people live in this belt, the only residential area in the State within an industrial cluster, which has mainly chemical, textile and pharmaceutical units.
For over two decades, local residents had been complaining about the impact of the pollution on their health. Bhalchandra Lohokare (75) says he has spent a fortune on medicines in the past 22 years. “Everyone in my six-member family has respiratory and gastro-intestinal complaints,” he says.
Doctors say irreversible gastrointestinal and respiratory ailments like asthama are very common in the area. “The air and water pollution here is like slow poisoning. It has been affecting the quality of our lives for years now,” says Dr. Anand Hardikar (67), who has been writing complaints to various authorities for two decades.
Residents feel the effluents have now percolated down to the groundwater. They say trees have stopped bearing fruits. “The leaves blacken. When I crush the curry leaves plucked from my garden, my hands turn sticky. How will that happen if the groundwater is pure?” asks homemaker Rashmi Yeole (43).
Even the local birds have disappeared, residents say. “Schools in the vicinity have to declare holidays abruptly when the level of noxious fumes in the atmosphere becomes intolerably high,” says Raju Nalawade, secretary of Dombivali Welfare Association, active since the 1990s. Even air pollution from the fumes has left its mark. Residents complain of a layer of black soot in their homes and on trees. The NGT order issued on November 18 came in response to a petition filed by the NGO Vanashakti. “The Ulhas river has been contaminated with poisonous substances, including mercury, according to NEERI and NIO reports,” says its project officer Ashwin Aghor.
According to the 2013 interim Comprehensive Environmental Assessment of Industrial Clusters, carried out by the Central Pollution Control Board, Dombivali scores 72.29. This is way above the critical pollution level of 60. Record show this belt has been a regular offender.
MPCB officials say they are unaware of the NGT order. Despite repeated phone calls and emails, they did not respond to queries about what they had done to control the pollution. “We have received only one complaint so far, from an NGO. We immediately undertook joint sampling with them, “said L.T. Bhingardive, sub-regional officer at Kalyan MPCB.