Global-Lo­cal and il­le­gal

Business Standard - - OPINION - SU­NITA NARAIN The writer is at the Cen­tre for Sci­ence and En­vi­ron­ment su­[email protected]­ Twit­ter: @suni­ta­nar

Some weeks ago, I had dis­cussed how “il­le­gal” in­dus­trial ac­tiv­i­ties were flour­ish­ing in so-called il­le­gal colonies of Delhi. This was the case of Shiv Vi­har, where fac­to­ries had come up in homes to dye and wash jeans in blue. The Delhi High Court had taken up the mat­ter be­cause of ground­wa­ter con­tam­i­na­tion from chem­i­cal ef­flu­ents of these units and be­cause it had been linked to in­creased cases of can­cer.

This last fort­night I vis­ited this colony. It is like all other unau­tho­rised colonies — called so in the city mas­ter plan be­cause these are not for­mally sanc­tioned by au­thor­i­ties. They have no plan; they have no ex­is­tence. But ex­ist they do. Shiv Vi­har alone has some 100,000 in­hab­i­tants. The land was termed agri­cul­tural; but houses sprang up il­le­gally un­der the watch­ful eyes of ev­ery­one. There is no wa­ter sup­ply — but peo­ple de­pend on ground­wa­ter, which is am­ple be­cause of its prox­im­ity to the Ya­muna flood plain. In fact, dye­ing units came up here be­cause of this free wa­ter avail­abil­ity. There is no of­fi­cial sewage con­nec­tion, and house ef­flu­ents are dis­charged into open drains. These drains then dis­charge into a larger drain, which joins the Ya­muna. So, all ef­flu­ents — do­mes­tic and chem­i­cal

— make their way into the river, de­stroy­ing any chances of clean­ing it up.

My trip was to check on the sta­tus of the “il­le­gal” fac­to­ries and to see if we should col­lect fur­ther sam­ples of wa­ter for test­ing. You may re­call I had ex­plained that ac­cord­ing to the mas­ter plan, in­dus­trial ac­tiv­ity was banned in the “unau­tho­rised/reg­u­larised or un­reg­u­larised colonies”. There is a list of house­hold in­dus­tries, which is al­lowed to op­er­ate. But us­ing chem­i­cals for tex­tile dye­ing is not on that list. The High Court had cracked down on these fac­to­ries. The Cen­tral Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion (CBI) had been di­rected to track down of­fi­cials who al­lowed these to func­tion.

As ex­pected, this crack­down had worked. I found fac­tory af­ter fac­tory (or rather house af­ter house) listed as an op­er­at­ing dye­ing unit closed. There were seals on many doors, in­di­cat­ing of­fi­cial shut-down. All good, I thought.

But then I looked at the drain. It was full of blue colour — the pig­ment of our jeans. Let’s track down the drain, I said. Find where the colour is com­ing from. So, we walked through the nar­row lanes, con­gested and full of hu­man life. We came upon a closed door; we could hear the ma­chines and see blue dye flow­ing into the drain.

I asked. I was told the fac­tory was closed in Delhi. So, where is this com­ing from? This is Ut­tar Pradesh (UP). The lanes of the two states merge here. The gate of the fac­tory used to open in Delhi; now the unit uses its back­door and this opens in UP. Then an­other fac­tory. Same story. This lane is in UP, not Delhi, I was told again.

The story spilled out. When the court cracked down, fac­to­ries of­fi­cially closed down and then shifted. Not far. Just a few houses away. But they moved from Delhi to UP. An­other state, an­other court’s ju­ris­dic­tion. But the fact is that the fac­to­ries still spew their ef­flu­ents into the same drain, which con­nects to the Ya­muna. No change here. The fact is that these ef­flu­ents still con­tam­i­nate ground­wa­ter and in­jure lives and well­be­ing. No change here as well.

Why was I flab­ber­gasted, I asked my­self. Is this not the story of our glob­alised world? The fact is that as the cost of en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions in­creased, the cost of pro­duc­tion went up in the now rich world. It could af­ford to care about the qual­ity of its wa­ter and its air. Its health con­cerns were non-ne­go­tiable. So, gov­ern­ments cracked down on pol­lu­tion. It moved. It went to coun­tries like China, In­done­sia, Bangladesh or In­dia. Our com­par­a­tive ad­van­tage was that we could keep costs low — labour and en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns were dis­counted. We all con­tin­ued to wear jeans; these in fact be­came cheaper and more dis­pos­able; but they just came from some­where else.

Then of course, global con­sumers rose in an­guish against the fac­to­ries of the third world. They could not bear to see crass abuse of work­ers. Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, in our world, where the fac­to­ries had moved and started pol­lut­ing, there was crack­down — this time led by en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns. In Delhi, for in­stance, al­most 10 years ago, the Supreme Court banned all pol­lut­ing in­dus­tries. The reg­u­la­tors cracked down on the “le­gal” in­dus­tries. These then went un­der­ground — lit­er­ally moved from the le­gal ar­eas to il­le­gal ar­eas, like Shiv Vi­har. In these ar­eas, the pol­lu­tion reg­u­la­tor can­not op­er­ate. The rea­son­ing is sim­ple. “These fac­to­ries do not ex­ist be­cause they are il­le­gal. If we give them no­tice then we will have to first le­galise them, which we can­not do.” Log­i­cally. But deadly for pol­lu­tion.

So, where do we go now? Shiv Vi­har has moved fur­ther into Shanti Na­gar — the unau­tho­rised and un­reg­u­larised colony in UP, where the court is far away and the gaze of the reg­u­la­tor even fur­ther. In the fac­to­ries I found poor mi­grants work­ing in de­plorable con­di­tions; han­dling chem­i­cals with bare hands; ex­posed to the tox­ins more than any­one else. In the colony I found ev­ery­one de­pen­dent on the same pol­luted ground­wa­ter. But they are poor. They do this be­cause they have no op­tion.

The op­tion is with us. We have to change this cy­cle of de­struc­tion, where we shift our con­sump­tion to poorer re­gions where pol­lu­tion does not mat­ter. Liveli­hoods do. Clearly, the an­swer is to im­prove well­be­ing through em­ploy­ment. But this em­ploy­ment can­not ask peo­ple to choose be­tween liveli­hoods and death. This can­not be the way ahead. I will keep writ­ing on this as I learn more and find more an­swers. Bear with me.

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