Just standing close to 48,000 tonnes of raw chemical waste separated neatly into giant open tanks at Vapi's common effluent treatment plant (CETP) choked my throat with an acrid smell and made my gut turn. This is the vile stuff that's instrumental in putting the industrial town of Vapi, situated in 'vibrant' Gujarat, on the global map of shame. Recently, Forbes magazine named Vapi as one of the 10 most polluted cities in the world, basing its findings on a study conducted by the Blacksmith Institute, a US-based non-profit organisation.
"Vapi's groundwater is reported to be polluted 96 times higher than the World Health Organisation's health standards; in addition, local produce can contain up to 60 times more heavy metals like copper, chromium, cadmium, zinc, nickel, lead, iron," said Forbes. It adds, "Chock-a-block with heavy metals, chemical waste and air pollutants, Vapi is one of the worst industrial cesspools on earth."
In response, the Vapi Industries Association (VIA), the main lobbying group representing the interests of 3,000-plus large and small companies and good old Gujarati pride, has expressed its outrage. "We will challenge the Blacksmith study in court. We have filed a $10 million suit against the institute," said Shirish Desai, president of the 1971-founded VIA.
The town of Vapi, in Valsad district, marks the southern end of India's golden corridor, a 400-km industrial belt in Gujarat. The region has over 50 industrial estates that produce petrochemicals, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, textiles, dyes, fertilisers, leather products, paint and chloro-alkali. The waste they discharge contains heavy metals, cyanides, pesticides and other toxics. "Vapi was declared critically polluted by the CPCB (Central Pollution Control Board of India) in 1994. This followed a survey that revealed that there was no system in place to dispose of industrial waste at these estates," said Maganlal Shah a local entrepreneur who owns a plastic unit situated in the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC), a flourishing chemical estate in Vapi. Shah added, "In 1997, the CETP was established to collect and purify effluents from major plants situated in the vicinity of the GIDC, but the operation of the plant is far from satisfactory—the pipeline network that connects various industrial units to the CETP is old and prone to leakage."
Outlook has a letter in its possession that clearly proves that both the CPCB and the GPCB are acutely aware of the problem in Vapi. The letter written by CPCB to the GPCB in July 2007 states that none of the 15 CETPs functioning in Gujarat and monitored by the CPCB teams in 2006-07 were complying with set standards. And GPCB was, in fact, instructed to take adequate action. Sanjay Tyagi, secretary, GPCB, said, "We are upgrading the CETP in Vapi. We believe the quality of water bodies in the city will significantly improve when it is accomplished."
Vapi's three major rivers—the Damanganga, Kolak and Balitha—are also under threat of reaching a tipping point in its toxic levels of contamination as the city's sewage and chemical waste continues to make its way into their depths. So while the CETP spews its stinking brownish sludge into the Damanganga, creating a rotting unhealthy froth on its surface, the Kolak no longer resembles a water body as it has become a chemical dump site that is an ugly red in colour. The CPCB has in fact categorised both the Damanganga and Kolak rivers as critically polluted and unfit to support biological life.
In fact, instances of loss the local folk have suffered stand testimony to it. "In 2006, when our cattle went to graze and drink on the banks of the Kolak, they all died instantly. Almost all the 5,000 families in the village lost at least 3-5 animals," said Jayanti Bhai Desai, sarpanch, Tukwada village, a hamlet adjoining Vapi His fellowmen say that agriculture in the 15-odd villages adjoining Vapi too has been gravely affected. "This area was famous for its Hapus mangoes, chikoos, sugarcane and paddy, but now due to contaminated water and air pollution, the productivity of our fields has come down 50 per cent," said Naresh Patel, sarpanch, Salvav village. Desai says agriculture in the region is no longer viable and most farmers have sold their land. Tyagi, on the other hand, insists there is "no scientific proof that links decreased agricultural activity in the vicinity of Vapi to industrial pollution."
As for the citizens of Vapi city, well, those who can afford it have invested in expensive branded water filters. Although a comprehensive health impact study is yet to be undertaken, reports abound of increased instances of cancer, respiratory diseases and skin ailments. To top it all, the Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority (GSDMA) has admitted that it has no chemical disaster management plan in place. GSDMA was replying to a Right to Information Act application filed by environmental activist Rohit Prajapati (Outlook has a copy of it). "So, in the eventuality of a Bhopal-like emergency, and considering the fact that most chemical plants rely on tightly coupled operations, which render human intervention difficult, we are sitting on a ticking time bomb," warns Prajapati. So, next time Vapi is in the news, it could be for reasons even worse.