It's an environmental tragedy of no small proportion. Anywhere else in the world, such an accident would have triggered off an international controversy. In Orissa, it's being played down. A survey is on for accounting the damage in terms of money lost. The district administration claims it has the situation 'under control' and Nalco authorities have instituted an internal inquiry. But for the 50,000 villagers, the scramble for compensation has begun. While an expert committee has been set up to review the damage, no one is speaking about the long-term impact of the disaster. Angul's district collector L.N. Gupta admits that the removal of ash from agricultural land is "the main headache now". Mechanical earth excavation is the answer but any effort to use heavy vehicles would result in the obliteration of boundaries of agricultural fields. This could create a whole host of problems. Therefore, it has been decided that farmers would be paid at the government-schedule rate to remove the ash layer themselves; the ash would then be taken away by Nalco, says Gupta.
Nalco authorities have adopted the stand that fly ash is non-toxic and, in fact, beneficial to the soil "when added as a nutrient". But experts from the Orissa University of Agriculture and Technology maintain that no crops can be grown in the affected soil for at least a year. The state government has therefore decided to ask Nalco to compensate affected farmers for the loss of standing crop as well as the next rabi and kharif season. Apart from the damage to agriculture, once dry, the ash would begin to fly around, posing a serious threat to the health of the population. Inhalation of the ash causes diseases such as fibrosis, bronchitis and pneumonitis. Moreover, all water bodies including wells and ponds in the area stand contaminated. While Nalco authorities claim they have now desilted 50 wells and dug 30 borewells, this is restricted to the 15 villages actually hit by the flood. About five lakh people in downstream villages in Angul, Dhenkanal, Kendrapada and Jajpur districts too are affected by the discharge as they are dependent on the river system for drinking water. Already, cases of gastroenteritis and skin disease have been reported. The Nandira river has taken a massive load of ash (30,000 cubic feet) and has overflown its banks as a result. Environmentalists fear this could cause untold damage to the sensitive mangrove system and marine life of the Bhittarkanika sanctuary.