The lives of people in many areas of Gujarat have become difficult due to petrochemical industries. At the same time, climate goals are being impacted due to pollution caused by these industries. This is the second part of the series. Read the first part here.

The black dust and ash of coal is everywhere in the port of Dahej near Bharuch in Gujarat. Roads, houses, shops, clothes, utensils; people in the chemicals and petrochemicals hub even complain of fine coal particles in their very breath.

Lakhigam is situated on the Gulf of Khambhat coast. The fishing settlement had a population of 5,000 inhabitants, according to the Census of 2011.

The village’s lands were acquired by the state government for the development of the Dahej Special Economic Zone. A huge terminal of the Adani Petronet (Dahej) Port Pvt Ltd was built on the village beach in 2003.

Solid raw materials like coal, gypsum, steel, polypropylene and propylene are transported from here at a fast pace. A conveyor system has been installed here to handle coal in bulk, at a very fast evacuation rate of 4,200 million tonnes per hour.

Paradise turned hell

Ajay Gohil, former deputy head of Lakhigam village and a social activist, told this reporter, “Dust flies in the entire village when coal and gypsum are transported here. It has a direct impact on our health. We drink water and eat food laced with coal dust. Our spit and sneeze also produce coal dust. Our paradise-like village has become hell.”

Elderly fishermen from the village started going to another part of the sea to catch fish. The women here usually got cleaning work in the companies. Many men took up daily wage activities. Youth got an opportunity to avail jobs by training at Industrial Training Institutes or ITIs. One member of each family that gave up its land for industries, got a job.

The residents of Lakhigam said those who got permanent jobs, migrated to other areas of Bharuch district. Those who stayed back, have found temporary work and are forced to live in an extremely polluted environment.

Some of the one-room pucca houses built with corporate social responsibility funds have “Adani” nameplates. Inside one such house that this reporter visited, Shankarbhai Rathod sat on a chair as his wife Shankutla Devi handled household chores.

Shankar worked as a labourer in the Adani Petronet Company for more than five years. About one-and-a-half months ago, he had a paralysis attack and has been unable to walk since.

“I missed work when I fell ill and there was no help from the company for treatment. We don’t have health insurance. I was a daily wage labourer,” he added.

Shakuntala, who was taking care of her ailing husband, also lost her job. “If I go to work, who will give him food and medicines? Who will take him to the washroom?” she asked.

Subsequently, whatever little money she used to make earlier by working at the factory has also stopped coming in.

The Adani Group’s 9.8-km-long conveyor belt passing through Lakhigam is a symbol of industrial development. But its noise is unbearable for the villagers.

Pradip Gohil, a resident, complained, “About two months ago, I realised that I could not hear anything with my left ear. Instead, there was an intermittent buzzing sound. I am receiving medical treatment. The noise of this conveyor belt, which runs day and night, must be affecting others like me. They would not even be aware.”

The conveyor belt passes right behind the village primary school. Pradip showed it to this reporter. “Children are not able to study because of the noise. People here are suffering from diseases like skin, respiratory illness and even cancer.”

Dr Dhrumil Vaidya, posted at the Dahej primary health centre (PHC), and Taruna Parmar, a health worker attached to the PHC, also confirmed the locals’ complaint. Vaidya said locals were showing increased incidence of cough and cold, lung disease as well as skin-related diseases because of the pollution.

Despite these difficult conditions, the residents of Dahej do not want these industrial units to move out of here. Lakshmanbhai Ahir, the sarpanch (village head) of Dahej village, said, “We have got livelihood due to the coming of these industries. But these companies have forgotten the policy and rules of the government and indulge in a lot of pollution-causing activities to increase their profits. We went to the National Green Tribunal. But nothing happened. We have made a compromise with the status quo.”

These complaints of the local community were also confirmed by the CAG report tabled in Parliament in August 2022. The investigation found that necessary measures were not taken to protect locals and the ecosystem.

The port of Dahej is built on tidal flats, which makes it rich in terms of biodiversity. It used to serve as a spawning and breeding ground for many species of fish and migratory birds, respectively. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report related to the port had expressed the possibility of the quality of seawater being affected due to reasons such as oil spills during operations. Despite this, measures towards rectification were not taken.

Exponential growth

Platforms like ONGC, GAIL, GCPTCL Liquid Chemical Terminal, LNG Petronet Gas Terminal, Reliance Liquid Fuel Jetty, Birla Copper Bulk Cargo Jetty are present along with Adani in the Dahej maritime zone.

Industrial units produce a variety of chemicals and fertilisers including ethylene, propylene, polyethylene, polypropylene, benzene and butadiene.

Plastics and fertilisers are the two largest products. They are used in vehicles, digital devices and even food products. The exponential growth of plastics around the world has also overtaken products like steel, aluminum and cement.

India’s total major petrochemicals installed production capacity stood at 50.44 Million Metric Tonnes Per Annum (MMTPA) and production at 42.15 MMTPA in 2020-21. Polymer production was 12.14 MMTPA. Plastics are hydrocarbon-based polymers derived from crude oil and natural gas.

The demand for chemical and petrochemical products in India is expected to nearly triple and reach $1 trillion by 2040. At present, its market in the country is $190 billion. India is the world’s sixth-largest and Asia’s fourth-largest chemical producer. The country is expected to contribute to more than 10 per cent growth globally in petrochemicals.

“We always look at the advantages of petrochemical industries in terms of gross domestic product,” said Gopal Krishna, an environmental activist and a member of the Toxic Watch Alliance. “But we do not care about the damage caused to the environment and biodiversity, the impact on traditional livelihoods and human health. If you consider the whole picture, you will realise that it is a mostly loss-making transaction.”

He further said: “The petrochemical enterprises, which have been identified by the Central Pollution Control Board as heavily polluting industries, are included in the Red category. Should we just leave it at that? Just transition demands a change in these enterprises and adoption of environment-friendly processes.”

Plastic pollution and Net Zero

Petrochemicals, including plastics, emit large amounts of greenhouse gases (GHG) during the process to manufacture them. This can be a major obstacle in achieving the goal of keeping global temperature rise below 1.5°C. Globally, plastic production at current rates would lead to 1.34 gigatonnes of GHG emissions annually by 2030. This will be equivalent to more than 295 coal-fired power plants of 500 MW.

The petrochemicals industry has been identified as a “blind spot” in global energy discussions. The sector is not getting the necessary attention to reduce the crisis of climate change.

Preeti Mahesh, chief programme coordinator at Toxics Link, an organisation working on plastic pollution, said, “In India, discourse centres only around the disposal of plastic waste and the communities that are engaged in such disposal. There is no talk about the pollution caused during its manufacture and the communities affected. We are not even talking about limiting its production.”

The proposal to create an international legally binding, global plastics treaty was unanimously endorsed by 175 countries at the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2) on March 2 2022, in order to curb plastic pollution.

An important step in this direction is believed to be the Zero Draft brought in September 2023. Two important meetings are scheduled in 2024 to finalise it.

The treaty aims to end plastic pollution by 2040. This includes not just plastic waste, but encompasses the entire plastic life cycle. “Be it Gulf countries or India, they don’t want to discuss reducing plastic production right now. They are ready to take action only on plastic waste,” said Mahesh.

Waiting for just transition

About 2 million people are directly employed in the Indian chemicals and petrochemicals sector. It is growing at more than six per cent annually. Apart from this, millions of people living around industrial areas manufacturing petrochemicals indirectly depend on them for livelihood.

“India has no concrete plan to move away from petrochemicals, although our government has a temporary and limited strategy to limit single-use plastics to some extent,” said Soumya Dutta, a member of the advisory board at the United Nations’ Climate Technology Centre and Network.

“From large corporate houses in petrochemical production to small moulding units, vendors, and recyclers, this industry provides employment and profits to a large number of people. Almost every area of our lives is associated with plastic. Despite the huge environmental damage from petrochemical industries, it is difficult to stop these in the next few decades,” added Soumya.

According to a report by World Resources Institute, meeting global climate goals will require moving away from the petrochemicals sector. Developing countries need a ‘just transition’ to protect workers and communities dependent on the sector. This can lead to significant environmental, social, and economic benefits. But these will be important challenges for developing countries.

The binding document on ending plastic pollution also calls for framing necessary policies and mechanisms to provide skill training and livelihood opportunities to the community dependent on it.

Usmangani Sherasia, an environmental activist from Gujarat, said, “If petrochemical companies withdraw, fish in the sea and crops in the fields will return.” An even larger population is tied to employment generated by fishing and farming.

(This story is part of a fellowship granted by the Centre for Financial Accountability)

Read this in Hindi here.

This article was originally published in Down To Earth and can be read here.

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