Global-Local and illegal
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.