A cocktail of chemicals

  • 27/02/1995

A cocktail of chemicals A DREAM blown to dust is how you could describe today"s wheezing New Bombay, the once promised green haven on the fringe of gas and smog smothered Greater Bombay.

Two decades ago, the Bombay Municipal Regional Development Authority (BMRDA) had decided to develop a clean, self-sufficient residential area west of the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation"s (MIDC) industrial zone. But today a gagging pong of pollution emanates from the 2,068 industrial units in the Trans-Thane-Creek (TTC) industrial area, and 8.7 lakh vehicles weave serpentine trails of smoke --about 2,000 tonnes of pollutants are added to the atmosphere every day, 7.6 lakh tonnes a year.

The TTC has the country"s highest concentration of chemical industrial units, comprising almost 70-75 per cent of the units located here. Most of them are linked to the petroleum industry. However, pollution apart, even the faulty urban planning of New Bombay has also drawn flak.

Experts are warring about whether vehicular or industrial pollution is the true culprit. Dust from construction sites, roads under repairs, quarrying and transportation of soil, along with burning of firewood and cowdung in poorer homes aggravate the situation. Respiratory tract diseases are on the rise, though their links with pollution is yet to be firmly established.

Confusing and meagre databases lending themselves to wildly varying interpretations means that no clean corrective strategy has emerged. And an allegedly toothless Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) has been accused of indulging in dirty practices, abetting the industry in keeping the air foul.

The state government has been trying to come up with a practical solution. But procedural barriers, including the Official Secrets Act, are smoke-screening data access.

Approached by various United Nations fora and the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Department of Atomic Energy had asked the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) to conduct a risk assessment study for the Thane-Belapur Industrial Area (TBIA) in 1989. Under this Inter Agency Project (IAP) the BARC has been conducting ambient air quality studies for the past 3 years.

Ironically, "The results of this continuous automatic Air Quality Monitoring study cannot be made available to the public as it is a BARC study under the Official Secrets Act," says Dr T N Mahadevan, who heads the monitoring station at HICO Products Ltd.

But is industrial or vehicular pollution the main culprit? "The trend analysis for 1978-1991 indicates that suspended particulate matter (SPM) is persistently high, followed by increasing levels of nitrogen oxides (NOX). The levels of sulphur dioxide (SO2) are decreasing as cleaner fuels are used": this was reported in the government of Maharashtra-initiated study, the Environmental Management Strategy (EMS) and Action Plan for Bombay Metropolitan Region under the Metropolitan Environment Improvement Programme (MEIP).

The only data available for January to March 1990 gives the 95 percentile values of a few chemicals. The government had subcontracted Apte Consulting Engineers to prepare this report on the Chembur and Thane-Belapur industrial zone. The data in the MEIP-Integrated Urban Environmental Management report was collected from industries which had carried out air quality surveys for short periods. The post-analysis conclusions were arrived at consensually by consultants, industrialists, the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) and NGOs.
Varing values The values of SPM taken at various points along the 19-km Thane-Belapur (TB) Road range from 171.3 to 333.5 micrograms per cubic meters (ug/cu m). While those of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide vary from 30.5 and 13.3 to 65.5 and 25.7 ug/cu m respectively, CO and hydrocarbons (C6-C10) cross the standard limits of 4.375 and 0.25 ug/cu m at many places, with CO reaching a high of 5.2 ug/cu m and HC reaching 1.8.

The MPCB did an air quality inventory of the area from November-December 1994 and positioned its vans at various sites along TB Road. The results indicate slightly high levels of SO2, at points reaching 70-80 ug/cu m. NOx, ammonia (NH3) and hydrogen sulphide (H2S) meet the prescribed Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) standards. Recording very high values of SPM at various points, the EMS inventory shows that of the daily pollution load, the transport sector accounts for 1,550 tonne per day (tpd) and industry emits 418 tpd; the power and domestic sectors release 91 tpd and 23 tpd respectively. Clearly, vehicular traffic takes the lashing.

But, asks Amar Ranu, chairperson of the Save New Bombay Committee, "Which limit do we accept? If we accept the industrial limits, then the values are well within CPCB-prescribed limits. But with a population of around 7.5-8 lakh people forming the risk group, is it safe to accept the pollution levels at industrial zone standards and not residential limits?"

Ranu also flays the MPCB for not conducting tests for the levels of non-criteria pollutants like HC and benzopyrene, despite a heavy concentration of petroleum based industries in the area.

Debi Goenka of the Bombay Environmental Action Group (BEAG) blames "industries like NOCIL, Herdillia, PIL, Standard Alkali and Reliance in the TTC area and RCF, HPL, Oswal and the Tata Electric Company". Goenka also castigates the burning of refuse at the BMC dumpyard in Deonar just across the creek from Vashi, and heavy vehicular traffic on the Bombay-Pune highway.

Goenka says, "New Bombay is trapped between Chembur and the TTC industries, with the Parsik Hill range adding to the problem by trapping the pollutants on the western side and preventing their dispersal."

Dr Rashmi Mayur, director of the International Institute for a Sustainable Future, is more categorical: industry is responsible for up to 65 per cent of the pollution. Vehicular pollution is most noticeable near the Thane creek bridge, Greater Bombay"s entry point, where engines idle to pay toll tax.

But Soli Arcewala, chairperson, AIC Watson Environmental Consultants Pvt Ltd, which was contracted for the EMS study, says, "Industrial pollution is just not there. We are sufficiently below the World Health Organization"s permissible limits for NOx and SOx. Up to 70 per cent of the total pollution load is contributed by traffic, and only 10 per cent by industries." Arcewala dismisses the once-in-a-while crossing of limits as "episodal occurrences. The factories are all meeting the emission standards." Besides, he says, the strong sea breeze blows away most industrial pollutants.

Peak hour escalation
Arcewala warns that peak-hour escalation of SPM -- up to 500 per cent -- needs urgent attention. The use of better fuel has actually reduced SOx levels, but NOx and CO values have increased because the number of vehicles has gone up by 300 per cent since 1971.

Anand Apte of Apte Consulting Engineers, too, blames vehicular pollution in the main. "The ambient air quality status is not good, but it is much better than it was 7-8 years ago."

However, Dr Saranathan of SOCLEEN contests this conclusion. He points out that Apte"s report showed low levels of NOx and SOx and a high level of HC. He says that the traffic factor "does not explain the low concentrations of NOx, which should also be high".

Dr R K Garg, director, IAP, says that although exact figures cannot be given, the SPM levels are high -- about 400-500 ugm/cu m. Hydrocarbon levels are high, but continuous data is not being collected. NOx is reasonably below the stipulated standards while SOx does at times touch the upper limit.

Even government officials bicker. Dr D B Boralkar, heading the Air Pollution Control Laboratory at the MPCB, Belapur, lays the blame on small and medium scale industries. His recent pollution inventory shows that "the values of SOx are on the higher side, with definite peaks appearing from time to time."

Dr Garg is foxed about which standard to accept. Residential and industrial areas are interspersed and the CPCB respective standards vary substantially. The annual average for SOx is 60 ugm/cu m for residential area and 80 ugm/cu m for industrial area. The average for SPM varies from 200 to 500 ugm/cu m for the two areas.

Tracing the roots, Mehta explains, "In the "60s, when these industries were set up, there was no population nearby. Nor was there environmental awareness or expertise in pollution control. Awareness increased only after the 1984 Bhopal tragedy."

As for facilities, "We have just 2 air quality monitoring vans, only one of the continuous automatic type. With over 8,000 industries in the region, we try to do our best." Result: infrequent monitoring.

"In 1993-94, some 1,531 samples were collected, which means approximately 31 samples from each of the 30 stations here," Mehta says. "In case of a complaint, the MPCB visits the area to do 8 or 16 hour samplings, but only `criteria chemicals" are tested. We do not have the sophisticated equipment to test non-criteria chemicals."

The monitoring of smokestacks is done once in a quarter or once or twice a year. Mehta agrees that the MPCB does not have enough data to recognise peaks, even micro-meteorological data at the time of sampling. There is no coordination between the urban planning and the environment departments.

R S Patil, associate professor at the Centre for Environmental Science and Engineering, IIT, Bombay, says, "Air pollution inventory requires highly sophisticated equipment and a thorough knowledge of meteorological data and source emissions." While the meteorological data remains generally stable over a period of years, with micro-meteorology changing daily, source emissions change with a new process and a new industry.

Patil says, "The meteorological conditions of the winds are such that the downwind receptors of residential areas get affected." The general wind direction in the Trans-Thane-Creek region is mostly from southwest to northeast.

Pollution is higher at night, she explains, "because in winter, night atmosphere is stable and temperature inversion is a common phenomenon. This condition does not allow the mixing of gases -- a situation that can be very dangerous. The same goes for early morning and late evening." The cumulative effect of even low-pollution small units can be very high, as their stacks are close to the ground and do not facilitate effective dispersal, creating localised problems. The large industries have a regional effect because of their high stacks.

Goenka holds that the problem will go unresolved because there is still no independent pollution monitoring. "MPCB data is unreliable. Whatever little there is does not reflect the actual air quality."

Flagellating the MPCB"s credibility, he says that of the 5 government secretaries in the board, "the chairperson is a bureaucrat, 3 are MLAs or MLCs and there is one NGO representative -- they believe that tree planting is the solution to all environmental problems."

Being shackled by the government"s priorities, the MPCB, he says, "is understaffed, underfunded and lacking in technical expertise. There are 40-50 field officers for about 1.5 lakh factories in the state." Corruption is endemic. He also accuses the implementing authorities, the courts, of siding with the industries in cases filed by the NGOs. Says Ranu, "The existing regulatory bodies are defunct and are surviving on the payrolls of industries."

Boralkar says defensively that their best efforts are scuttled because "there are too many obstacles on our path. The MPCB has the best political and administrative infrastructure in the country, yet we cannot do much in the absence of a political will." The MPCB"s staff of 400-500 is very inadequate, the technical humanpower virtually absent.

In a World Bank-funded project to improve the status of the pollution control boards of 4 states in 1991-92, the MPCB was given top priority. The project had sanctioned 268 posts, but, Boralkar reveals, no recruitment rules were prescribed and the posts are still lying vacant.

In 1992-93, the Central government procured Rs 4.2 crore for the MPCB from the World Bank to buy the latest pollution monitoring technologies. But the MPCB has received only voltage stabilizers, generators and 6 jeeps. "Are we serious about our environment?" asks Boralkar. S S Kulkarni, technical advisor, MIDC Head Office, says, "MIDC does not have the required knowhow of pollution control technology."

Boralkar says that the MPCB has no powers to stop errant units. It can merely ask the MIDC and the Maharashtra State Electricity Board to sever water and power supplies. By then, Delhi bigwigs have been petitioned to stall the action. "This department," says Boralkar pointedly, "is as corrupt or as honest as any other government department."

Ranu cries hoarse that the MIDC is dirtying the waters further with its policy of setting up 3 more industrial areas in Uran, Panvel and Taloja. Residential and industrial areas have merged without an exclusion zone between them, excepting the Thane-Belapur road and the railway line.

Goenka says that the CPCB"s chalking out of different standards for commercial, residential and industrial areas has compounded the confusion, because all the zones coexist and often overlap. Besides, there are no emission standards for CO, hydrocarbons, benzopyrene and other organic chemicals. "This being the largest chemical industry belt in the country, people end up breathing in a cocktail of chemicals."

But most officials talk about a Gordian knot of factors behind the current mess. That Bombay would explode into a megapolis had not been not envisaged when the MIDC-TTC was recognised in the "60s. In the post-Independence era, the government had speed-driven industrialisation, bothering little about environmental consequences.

In fact, industry representatives accuse the government for letting residential areas crowd into the industrial zone. N Sadasivan of the Thane-Belapur Industrial Association says that the industries came to the area first, and were assured that a minimum buffer zone of 1-2 km would be maintained between industrial and residential areas. Today, there is a human deluge, a giant risk group.

With powers restricted to land allocation, the MIDC"s hands are tied, Kulkarni gripes. Once a proposal receives no-objection certificates from the MPCB and the environment department, the MIDC has to oblige. It can refuse to give land to an unit it feels has polluting potential, but the ultimate decision lies with the environment department. Unfortunately, he adds, the Environment Impact Assessments (EIA) submitted by the industry are not open to the MIDC.

Two other factors dog the issue. First, says Kulkarni, Western countries are unabashedly dumping their outdated, high-polluting technologies here; second, we accept this unfairness because as a nation we have "very little social responsibility".

Goenka holds that most industries set up in the "50s and "60s cut costs by installing pollution control equipment instead of modern low-pollution technologies -- technologies that are superannuated and ineffective. Mayur says that the 15 per cent of the units that have invested in state-of-the-art technologies are brought low by the majority, which uses leaky, anachronistic systems. Ranu would have the chemical industries update technologies every 10 years, with defaulters facing dismantling or relocation.

The state government seems to be realising the extent of the problem -- and now, as P M Byas, director, environment department, says, new polluting units will not be sanctioned. Low-pollution engineering and electronic units are being cleared, along with old units which will be allowed to expand in their own backyards.

The industry is slowly mending its ways: Sadasivan says that most of them are now trying to use all available control devices. Arcewala reasons that the exercise is self-defeating, since most smallscale units can"t afford even consultants.

Even those who can afford it, won"t. Arcewala explains that a new smallscale distillery costs Rs 2-3 crores and a complementary effluent treatment plant costs about the same. More to blame, the concept of waste minimisation, and its ultimate cost-effectiveness, has not percolated to the lower levels of industry.

G S Gill, joint managing director of City and Industrial Development Corporation of Maharashtra Limited (CIDCO), explains that urban area planning in the region was initiated in the early "70s, a decade after the industries came up. The idea then was to provide the growing workforce with low cost housing close to the factories.

But, Ranu points out, no EIA was done. Gill says that before the residential area was demarcated, the National Environmental Engineering and Research Institute at Nagpur had conducted a study, but it had not come out strongly enough against pollution issues. The "convenience factor" outweighed environmental concerns.

Opinion is divided over whether pollution is responsible for the growing incidence of some diseases. Dr R K Garg, dismisses this allegation based on surveys conducted last year. But Mayur claims that his own study of Thane district shows that "most of the people diagnosed are suffering from cold, cough, headache, fever, emphysema, dizziness, tiredness, and their feeling is that it is due to extremely high levels of pollution".

Dr M A Chitnis, medical officer, NOCIL"s polymer division, speaks of a 60-71 per cent increase in malaria cases (from stagnant and polluted waterbodies) and a 8-10 per cent increase in respiratory illnesses. "This is an approximation. A detailed epidemiological study is a major requirement today," he says.

Dr S D Tekchandani, consulting pathologist at Vashi"s Lakshadeep Hospital, corroborates that there is "an increase in upper respiratory tract illnesses like chronic cough, bronchitis and asthma. But the increase will be more noticeable in another 5 years or so as pollution related problems take a few years to surface, and a majority of the population came here in the past 2 or 3 years."

While Tekchandani"s colleague, Dr S Asgekar, agrees with him, he says that the sudden increase in the population density could also indirectly help increase morbidity levels. Asgekar feels that schoolchildren and the aged, both with low levels of resistance, form the risk groups. No health status survey has yet been conducted, he says, but some results will be available once the IAP is complete.

For a clearer sky
Better late than never. The TBIA has now been declared an Air Pollution Prevention Area under the Air Pollution Prevention and Control Act (1986), and all industries are required to comply. Apart from planting trees and encouraging community participation in improving the environment, CIDCO is also keen on sponsoring continuous air quality monitoring stations, each of which costs only Rs 2-3 lakh. It is contemplating a multipronged approach, incorporating tree-planting, "smruti vans" and developing water sports complexes, besides undertaking waste recycling.

The state government is actively promoting awareness, which Saranathan views as a "small but significant start". It is also considering integrating its various departments for environmental action. In fact, Ranu is happy that for the first time the government is contemplating environmental action beyond just planting trees, to which the TBIA still sadly confines itself. The MIDC is planning to help MPCB by setting up monitoring stations in 11 zones -- barring, ironically, its own TTC-MIDC area!

However, hard realists like Mayur prefer to restrict their appreciation to a moratorium on industrial growth in the area. "This, hopefully, will not increase pollution," he says. Hope, in fact, is the only thing left.

Coughing up sinking health
The incidence rate of major diseases in the New Bombay area is very high, and growing
Disease Total Per 1,000 people
Malaria 54 7.63
Leprosy 17 2.40
tuberculosis 19 2.68
Respiratory Disease 115 16.25
Diarrhoea 3 0.42
Sample Population 7,075  

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