Forty Years of Toxic Dust: How a Rural Community in India Displaced a Refinery

Two bauxite refinery chimneys emit thick smoke, leaving a layer of toxic dust behind.

You could see it from the Dwarka-Khambaliya National Highway. Mountains of crushed aluminum-rich ore, uncovered. Chimneys spewing thick, dirty-looking smoke. 

Everything within half a kilometer of the bauxite refinery was covered with a layer of toxic reddish dust — a school, government hospital, farmlands, and the village of Harshadpur included.

Biren Singh’s* house, a modest concrete structure, was located 100 meters from the refinery’s low perimeter walls. “We faced a lot of trouble because of the dust,” says the farmer and father of two. “It was difficult to breathe properly. [It] spoiled our crops; the dust would sit on the flowering crops and would stunt their growth. …We would not even hang our clothes to dry because within a few hours they’d be laden with dust.”

Nearly every household in Harshadpur was impacted. They had lived, worked, and schooled amongst the toxic dust for over 40 years.

Community members repeatedly raised their concerns with authorities, but to no avail. “We had done so much: gone to the District Collector, spoke to the company directly, approached the gram panchayat [village council] but we never got any response,” recalls Biren. “Sometimes I used to think that this problem would never go away.”

That mindset shifted when a friend of Biren’s from another village referred him to a community paralegal working with the CPR-Namati Environmental Justice program. The two connected and the paralegal explained to Biren that industrial units like the bauxite plant are legally obliged to adhere to certain environmental safeguards. Further, if anyone believed a company was not complying with these rules, there were regulatory institutions they could approach.

“I got angrier after knowing that this was all illegal,” says Biren. “But I was also a little hopeful because I knew when one uses a legal route one can get justice.”

In the weeks that followed, Biren and the paralegal identified, secured, and read through documents to find a legal hook. They found it in the company’s Consent to Operate. The letter, issued by the Regional Pollution Control Board (PCB), clearly stated that the company had to abide by the Air Prevention and Control of Pollution Act of 1981.

The pair proceeded to take photos showing how the unit did not comply with numerous clauses in the Act and submitted their evidence, along with a letter of complaint, to the Regional Pollution Control Board. After a number of follow-up letters and visits, the board issued a “show-cause notice” requiring the company to explain their lack of compliance.

The company did not respond, and the PCB took no further action.

Biren determined that they needed to apply more pressure. He gathered approximately 30 affected community members and together they wrote a letter — and they kept writing letters until finally, the PCB took action.

But despite repeated site visits by the PCB, the pollution continued unabated. Under continued pressure from the community members, the PCB eventually issued the company with a closure notice. Five days later it was inexplicably revoked.

A pile of debris can be seen behind the low walls of the bauxite refinery while black smoke emits from one of the chimney.

Biren was undeterred. “I did not think of giving up, because after using the legal route at least the institutions and the company had started to respond to our concerns. That was a huge change from our past experience. So I knew that even if this process is slow, this is what will get me and my community some relief.”

The community representatives reconvened to rethink their strategy. With the paralegal’s support, they read the laws again and identified a different approach. Under Gujarat’s State Pollution Control Boards Rules, the “vigilance committee” could be invoked in emergency situations where timely inspection is critical to resolve a problem of pollution.

Their new strategy worked: within two months of receiving the community’s letter, the committee had conducted site visits and found the company to be in gross violation of the law. The Regional PCB issued a “direction of action and closure notice” shortly thereafter.

This time, the company complied. It shut down the refinery for a month while it implemented the required safeguards, including building higher perimeter walls and fixing the air filtration systems on their chimneys.

The community was thrilled. The dust that infected their lungs, hung on their crops, and invaded their homes was a fraction of what it used to be. But having long thought that it was their fate to live amidst the toxic dust, they remained cautious. Biren and the other community representatives continued to monitor the plant and follow up with the regulatory institutions to ensure the problem did not resurface. Within six months, the company announced that it would be moving the unit from the residential area to a nearby industrial complex.

It was a huge relief to the residents of Harshadpur but, as Biren says, their joy was not in reaction to the outcome alone. “This process helped us get a proper channel to voice our concerns. Earlier we did not know who to share our miseries with, but now we know the officials who are responsible to work for us. God forbid, if this issue reoccurs, I know exactly where to go and who to write to about my problem.”

*name changed to protect identity 

May 26, 2021 | Namati

Region: India