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Campaign against pollution

aril river pollution

the local paper mill provided work but pollutes the river

factory workers dump mounds of ash at the side of the road

factory workers dump mounds of ash at the side of the road

Above photo copyright Anita Duggal

Before They Came

Amarpurkashi was the centre of a peaceful area of small villages. People were poor but happy and the village community was caring and cohesive. Houses were little more than mud and straw huts while many villages did not have a road connecting them to the nearby towns. There was no electricity but plenty of clean water, just thirty feet below the ground. Buffaloes wallowed in natural pools and ponds. Farm holdings were small and not enough to sustain a reasonable standard of living. Many were landless and struggled to survive on seasonal work in the fields. There was no employment available locally. Illnesses like asthma and jaundice were unknown. No one owned a tractor and few sent their daughters to the one government primary school. It was not yet a cash economy but still relied on barter.

The Villains

Then in 1994, businessmen from Moradabad bought land near the river and set up two paper factories. Employment was now available locally, even for illiterate, unskilled villagers. The barter system died out and small farmers and landless labourers had cash in hand.

However, with economic benefits came pollution. All the pools of natural water dried up and clean water was only available from a hundred feet below ground. Asthma and jaundice became common. The air was full of dust and granular ash which fell on washing hanging out to dry, on the hair, face and eyes of anyone sitting outside and on the leaves of plants and trees. At the side of the road, there were huge, unsightly mounds of grey ash, dumped by the factory workers. Fields adjacent to the factory were no longer productive, their crops thin and diseased, spoilt by the factory effluents that spilled over onto the land.

Complaints against the factory began as early as 1995 when they started encroaching on farmers’ land bordering the river. From then until 2008, every effort was made to resolve the problem. Meetings with the factory owners were arranged but they never turned up. Government officers were approached but did nothing. Villagers sent over 500 postcards to the District Magistrate; emails were sent to key government ministers; the U.P. Pollution Control Board was contacted on numerous occasions and articles appeared in the local newspapers. Nothing was done. The villagers were poor and the factory owners were rich. They knew that they could continue to pollute the area with complete impunity.

By February 2008, the villagers had had enough. Mukat Singh, project staff, local students and villagers decided to protest more actively and organised a dharna or ‘sit-in’ by the roadside near the factory, followed by a fast. Supporters from VRI and other organisations sent numerous emails to government ministers and officials, asking for action to be taken. Two volunteers took samples of the polluted river water and got them tested in a government laboratory. The results showed that the pollution levels of the water were extremely high, way above accepted levels. Articles were written in international journals and another volunteer made a documentary which was launched in London in 2010 and put on YouTube.

The Result

By 2011, the factory had closed two units and the remaining one was working at very low capacity and only at night. Many workers were made redundant and the factory did not pay its contractors. Unfortunately, this meant that villagers lost a valuable source of income. However, although the river remains highly polluted, most of the ash has gone, the air is cleaner and cases of asthma and jaundice have decreased significantly.

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