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When The Soil Disappears, The Soul Disappears Sukinda, the most polluted place on planet Earth

Updated: March 9, 2013 2:17 pm

Time magazine, in one of its special issues, listed the ten most polluted places on the planet. The report was based on the joint study conducted by the New York-based Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross of Switzerland. The study group had selected ten places from a database of four hundred reported environmental hotspots in the world. Sukinda, in Odisha, figured as the third most polluted place amongst the top ten.

Seventy years of intensive open-cast chromite mining have resulted in a cratered and scarred landscape, toxic water and soil, ruined agricultural fields, degraded forestland, and a population that is being decimated slowly due to the poison in the air and water.

At the turn of the last century, the Sukinda Valley was a thickly forested area with a few tribal hamlets. The forests were full of wildlife including Royal Bengal Tigers. Most of the hilly terrain was inaccessible and uninhabited. It was the Tata’s who made the first discovery of Chromite in the area in 1949. Sukinda has 97 per cent of India’s total chromite deposits and has largest open cast mine in the world. Chromite is an important ingredient in the production of stainless steel, refractory ceramics, chemicals, electrodes, foundries etc. It is highly heat resistant and is used for the smelting of aluminium. It is also used in leather tanning, glassware and is an important catalyst in the manufacture of many other metals. The major steel makers all over the world are dependent on Sukinda’s chrome, and this constitutes a major export from the Paradip port.

The price of refined chromium is nearly a lac of rupees per tonne in the international market. The advent of the Tata’s led to fourteen other companies entering in the fray over the years. The graveyard now stretches to a zone of more then 200 square kilometres, with the fraternity of gravediggers that include the Jindals, OMC, Facor and Imfa. These mines are engaged in the extraction and beneficiation of the ore. All these mines have environmental management plans, but these are good only in print, they are never implemented. In the fancy townships of these mining majors, barricaded by high walls, neat rows of houses with clean roads and parks ensures a comfortable living for their employees. These gated communities have schools, hospitals, clubs, filtered water and market complexes, some of them even have private airstrips and helipads for their top executives. In sharp contrast, the original inhabitants of the land, who work as day labourers in the mines live in a chill penury in slum clusters. The dried up wells and tube wells, broken school buildings and non-existent health facilities are a mute testimony of the sheer apathy. No wonder, the area is a hotbed of Maoists activity.

The ore beneficiation plants are set up in the vicinity of the mines, and the run off and the residue is dumped without any consideration of the environmental impacts. According to the Institute of Minerals and Materials Technology (IMMT) at Bhubaneswar, one tonne of chromite mining generates around 10 tonnes of overburden which is diverse in its chemical and mineralogical character.

Over 30 million tonnes of hexavalent chromium (Cr+6) bearing overburden, generated by the chromite mines, have completely altered the landscape of the region. The untreated waste water from the mines is let out into the open fields of the surrounding villages. It eventually drains into the Damasa river, a tributary of the Bramhni that eventually empties out into the Bay of Bengal. This area is also flood-prone, resulting in further contamination of the waterways. Studies have established that nearly 70 per cent of the surface water and 60 per cent of the drinking water contains hexavalent chromium at more than double the national and international standards and levels of over 20 times the standard have also been recorded. In fact, high levels of hexavalent chromium have been found even in the Bay of Bengal. The Bramhni drains into the sea through the Bhitarkanika Delta, which has recently been shortlisted by the UNESCO as a World Biodiversity Site. The fragile mangrove ecosystem with the unique flora and fauna, including the Olive Ridley nesting rookeries, are being deeply affected by this poison that is carried downstream by the river.

Studies now have shown that Cr+6 had entered the food chain as well. Traces are found in edible plants, rice crops, fruits and vegetables. Samples of milk, meat and fish too have very high levels of these carcinogenic elements. A known human carcinogen, Cr+6 causes respiratory tract irritation, nasal septum ulcers, irritant dermatitis, rhinitis, bronchospasm and pneumonia.

The Acharya Harihar Regional Cancer Centre at Cuttack, along with the Odisha Voluntary Health Association had conducted a survey on the incidence of cancer and reported of a very high increase in the number of patients with lung, breast, gastrointestinal tract and oral cancer being detected in patients from Sukinda area.

In another survey carried out by OVHA, they reported that 84.75 per cent of deaths in the mining areas and 86.42 per cent of deaths in nearby industrial villages occurred due to chromite mine-related diseases. People living less than a kilometre from the sites were the worst affected, with 24.47 per cent of inhabitants suffering from pollution-induced illnesses. It is so much evident, in the week that I spent in the area, I hardly saw a healthy local, the average life expectancy must be the lowest in the country and I did not come across a single old person. Even the males in the forties and fifties looked so worn and weathered that they would pass off as old men. Doctors at the Primary Health Centre told me off the record that the infant mortality rate is definitely the highest in the country.

The Odisha Pollution Control Board had immediately called the Blacksmith report an “exaggeration”. However in their own report titled ‘Environment Study and Preparation of Action Plan for Abatement of Chromium Pollution in Sukinda Valley’, they too have reported dangerous levels of Cr+6 in the mines overburden and surface water. The findings revealed the presence of Cr+6 in the range of ‘0.018-0.172 mg/l in summer season’ and higher levels during the monsoon, up to ‘0.201mg/ against the prescribed standard (0.05 mg/l) for Class B and C categories of inland surface water.

The mines are also depleting the groundwater by going deeper every year. As most of the pits are now lower than the water table, all the groundwater is draining into these man made craters, this poisonous sludge has to be pumped out for the extraction of the ore.

The scarcity of water has made most of the land barren and the locals, mostly tribals, are forced to work in the mines for their sustenance. Even a day’s visit to Sukinda gives one the realisation that mining is a very violent activity, both to the environment and to humankind. Sukinda’s mutilated landscape, its once vibrant fields, its poisoned rivers and wetlands, its brutalised local population, all bear testimony to this ugly fact. But perhaps what makes Sukinda stand out is the avarice with which the mining companies have plundered the place without any qualms or amends.

The thousands of trucks lined up on both sides of the road, wait for their turn to carry off nature’s bounty. The wind here is heavy and a blanket of red haze continuously hangs low. What is left behind is death and permanent destruction, in the heart and soul of both mother earth and those that inhabit it.

The 2011 Time magazine report is old history, but a senior scientist at the IMMT tells me that if another study is made today, Sukinda will be the most polluted hotspot, things having worsened in the last few years.

By Anil Dhir from Sukinda

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