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India’s toxic steel frame

Jul 14, 2008

India’s steel industry may be minting money but this profit has huge environmental costs, says Sunita Narain, Director, Centre for Science and Environment. Pollution caused by the use of the alternative sponge iron has failed to register with the callous government, she notes.

We were standing in Sarova village, not far from Raipur, the capital of mineral rich Chhattisgarh. All around us we could see some black stuff scattered on the ground.

The villagers told us that the sponge iron factory owner was giving this away as a ‘gift’ and would even transport it to their lands. They refused to say if they were being paid to dump this reject on their land.

But they did whisper to me that the land on which we were standing, laden with black reject belonged to the brother of the sarpanch (village head). The sarpanch they said was earlier against the factory’s pollution. But now, after his election he had joined the ranks of the silent.

Villagers told us that everything around them was black—their houses, their clothes, their agricultural fields. Even the rice they grew was caked with black dust.

This was not a benign gift. The factory was getting rid of its waste—char—the left over of its production of sponge iron, used to make steel, which makes infrastructure tick.

This rejected remains of iron ore, coal and dolomite, is toxic as it contains huge amounts of heavy metals. The village is poor. The factory is powerful. What better arrangement can there be? Who cares if the water source gets contaminated? After all, toxic pollution is a small price to pay for the nation’s progress.

Black toxic

My cynicism is warranted in this case. In this village we could see the water body—the only tank—was layered with emissions of the factory.

Villagers told us that everything around them was black—their houses, their clothes, their agricultural fields. Even the rice they grew was caked with black dust.

They said they had raised their voice. But nobody listened. They already had three factories in their backyard and now another one was coming up.

The sponge iron factory was visible from where we stood. It was blacker than any kettle in the world.

Everywhere I could see clouds of black dust emitted—from where the coal was being unloaded; from where it was being crushed; to where it was being fed into the kiln to be burnt with iron ore and dolomite; from the chimney of the kiln and all the bags of its dust collecting electrostatic precipitators.

Outside, the land was piled high with the same char. It was clear why the owner needed to do something charitable with his waste.

As we returned back to the mall-infested aspiring city of Raipur, a grotesque sight unfolded in its vicinity—lines and lines of sponge iron factories, each competing with the other to vomit more black dirt.

The next day when I returned to Delhi I found myself staring at full page advertisements, carrying images of the prime minister and the ministers in charge of the ministry of chemical, fertilizers and steel.

The proudest achievement in its four glorious years of the United Progressive Alliance, screamed the announcement, was that the country had retained its position as the world’s largest producer of sponge iron.

A dangerous profit

This is the progress story of India. With steel prices spiralling out of control, sponge iron is a thriving business. The investment in setting up the sponge iron plant, with its rudimentary technology and little machinery—can be recovered in just over a year.

We know that part of the increase in the price of steel manufacturing comes because of the increase in the price of its raw material—coking coal, which India largely imports. Sponge iron is an alternative route to produce steel—using coal which is still much cheaper.

So, as the price of steel gallops, the sponge iron industry makes profits, without the same costs. As a result, plants of all sizes—many less than 100 tonnes per annum are springing up across the country, literally without any check, in the backyard of people’s homes. There is intense anger. But governments do nothing. There is money to be made, profits to be shared.

The state government is equal in its callousness. Its contention is that minerals are wealth and they must be extracted at any cost.

In response to growing protests from people affected by sponge iron pollution, the Central Pollution Control Board issued draft standards. Under these standards, the industry would not be allowed, ‘under any circumstances’ to dump its char on agricultural waste; no new sponge iron plant would be commissioned without installation of pollution control equipment capable of meeting stringent air quality standards and plants would need to be sited away from villages and from each other.

It should come as no surprise that these draft standards issued in March 2006 have never seen the light of day.

Callous attitude

Two years and more later, as new sponge iron plants come up each day, and as village after village continues to suffer toxic pain, the ministry is still sitting on the standards. No prizes for guessing why.

The state government is equal in its callousness. Its contention is that minerals are wealth and they must be extracted at any cost.

It refuses to accept the need for environmental safeguards or to ensure that local communities—tribals in this case worst hit because of mineral extraction on their land—are compensated or that benefits are shared.

This is the cheap and dirty industrialisation model that we love to thrive upon. In this case, nobody can argue that this industry is poor, small and desperate and so environmental regulations will cost.

In this case, industry is highly lucrative; it involves the biggest names in corporate India. But still, as environmental standards would raise costs of production, why bother. After all, the affected villagers are voiceless. They will never make it to page 3 as steel barons will and do, day after day.

All I can say is that India’s steel frame stinks.

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