Jamuria, West Bengal: The Left-wing extremists of West Bengal have given themselves a new cause to fight for—pollution control.
On 18 December, the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist) set alight a sponge iron factory at Jhargram in West Midnapore district. The next day, its top leader Koteshwar Rao told state environment secretary M.L. Meena on the phone that they gutted the factory because it was polluting the environment.
Low vigil: A sponge iron unit at Jamuria spews smoke. According to a worker at the local sponge iron unit, compliance with anti-pollution norms is the least at night, when there is no surveillance. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
The 100-odd sponge iron units in the state are indeed big pollutants. In the last few years, the state’s pollution control board (PCB) has issued some 250 closure notices to 50-60 units for not abiding by its norms. Some 50 notices were issued last year itself.
“We conduct frequent raids, impose fine on errant units and force them to suspend operation,” said Biswajit Mukherjee, the state PCB’s senior law officer and spokesperson. “But if they make amends and meet our standards, we cannot stop them from restarting production.”
Most of these factories operate out of the coal-rich Burdwan district. To produce sponge iron, which steel plants use as feedstock, these units burn coal to heat iron ore.
As most of these units use coal with high ash content—considered inferior in quality and sourced mostly from illegal private mines— and switch off pollution control devices to pare power costs, they emit “clouds of smoke, black or grey in colour”, according to another PCB official. He did not want to be named as he is not authorized to speak to the media.
“The smoke typically contains a lot of harmful gases, such as oxides of carbon, sulphur and nitrogen, and substantial quantities of fine particles, mainly fly ash,” he added.
Ajoy Raj, a resident of Jamuria, said the pollution was taking its toll not only on people’s health—bronchial problems are widespread in this area— but also on cattle and crops.
“Because of the sponge iron factories, Jamuria has turned grey,” he said. “Our cattle refuse to graze because of the fly ash that settles on the grass. As a result, the cattle population in this neighbourhood is fast depleting.”
To assess the impact, the state PCB recently commissioned a study by the economics department of Kolkata’s Jadavpur University. It showed crops worth at least Rs1.09 crore and livestock worth Rs3.89 crore a year were damaged by this menace; injury to human health was estimated to cost Rs5.2 crore a year.
Compliance with anti-pollution norms is least at night, when there is no surveillance, said a worker at a local sponge iron unit on condition of anonymity. “The pollution control device is switched off at night because the power cost of running it round the clock is Rs1-3 lakh a month,” he said.
The state PCB is aware of this practice and its officials conduct raids even at night, said Mukherjee, “but there is almost no surveillance in tribal areas because of insurgents”.
Sponge iron manufacturers, however, blame the menace on the water deficiency in Jamuria. If the fine particles contained in the smoke could be moistened, they could be prevented from being blown away by the wind, said Subhendu Bhattacharya, secretary of the West Bengal Sponge Iron Manufacturers Association. “We need a lot of water, but are paying as much as Rs12 a litre. We cannot afford to buy more than 2,000 litres a day, whereas a sponge iron unit typically needs at least 4,000 litres,” he said. Bhattacharya also said sponge iron units in Jamuria had offered to collectively spend up to Rs6 crore to lay an 8km pipeline, but the state government wasn’t ready to supply water to these units.
Meanwhile, pollution continues to grow. “We need stricter laws. With the ones we currently have, we cannot force permanent closure of the errant units,” said the PCB official quoted above, who didn’t want to be named. “What a banned political outfit can do, the government cannot.”