MAC: Mines and Communities

The galloping increase in dangerous and polluting sponge iron plants in India has stimulated resist

Published by MAC on 2005-09-05

The galloping increase in dangerous and polluting sponge iron plants in India has stimulated resistance over three states

'No more sponge iron factories'

A report by: Manshi Asher, NCAS, Pune

September 5 2005

'No more sponge iron factories', this was the demand put forth by a group of 50 people from 3 states of Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand after a day long meeting.

Individuals belonging to different non-governmental organisations, autonomous peoples' movements, media groups from Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand came together on 1st September 2005 in a regional meeting in Orissa to discuss the adverse impacts of the growing sponge iron factories on the livelihoods and environment of these regions.

Sponge iron also known as direct reduced iron is extracted from iron ore and is used in the making of steel. With the rise in the global demand for steel over the past few years the sponge iron industry has also seen a boom. China is the one consuming large amounts of this steel as a part of its infrastructure building for the Beijing Olympics 2008 and Shanghai expo 2010. India is one of the hot spots for iron ore extraction and is the largest producer of sponge iron in the world today. The Central Eastern belt of the country including the states of Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and West Bengal is the key region for the growth of this industry.

The protests in these states have come up on the issues of land grabbing by these industries, especially in tribal areas; and air and water pollution in turn impacting local livelihoods. A preliminary study conducted by Sagar Dhara, an environmental Engineer, in Sukrili block of Mayurbhanj district, Orissa, in 2001 indicated carcinogenic contents in the discharge of Shivshakti Sponge Iron Plant. A movement opposing the plant that was initiated by the local women under the banner of Orissa Nari Samaj gained momentum in the area at the time.

Sagar Dhara, pointing out the environmental hazards of these plants said "Sponge Iron plants release hazardous pollutants like cadmium, nickel, hexavalent chromium (most dangerous through air and water), arsenic, manganese, and copper. The heavy metals in these particulate matters are most dangerous and can cause quick damage to fruit bearing trees, agricultural harvest and the human body especially the lungs".

In India 60% of the sponge iron units are small scale industries and many of them are under the unorganized sector. This, on one hand means that there is no protection to the rights of those who work as labour in these plants and on the other, that they lack the capacities to deal with hazardous waste from the point of view of prevention of pollution.

The Sponge Iron Manufacturers Association of Orissa claims that 37 000 people have been employed in these plants. On the other hand a study conducted by a group called Orissa Jan Sangathan indicates that almost 2 lakh people are affected adversely by these plants in 6 districts of Orissa.

In Orissa the most affected district is Sundergarh where almost 50 of these plants are concentrated. The district inspite of being a Schedule V area is facing a situation where land is being transferred to these companies without NoCs from the Gram Sabha (council of local villages). Even in areas where Gram Sabhas have attempted to oppose have not been supported by the local administration. In the year 2003-04 almost 4 plants had to withdraw or stop construction after strong opposition from the villages in the Gram Sabha. The main reason cited by the people for opposition was the large scale air and water pollution which had started affecting not only their health but that of their livestock, agriculture and land.

In Chhattisgarh, the state government in the last five years has signed a series of MoUs with various industries for the production of sponge Iron. Leading amongst these is the Jindal Power and Steel limited which also happens to be the world's largest producer of coal based sponge iron with a plant of 650,000 TPA capacity based in Raigarh town. Ramesh Agrawal, a resident of Raigarh and also an activist said that 50 sponge iron plants exist with a radius of 15 kilometers of Raigarh town.

The past year has witnessed growing unrest in the town as well as rural areas due to the pollution caused by these plants. In an effort to express this protest, about 10000 people mobilized for the Environmental Public hearing held for expansion of the Jindal Steel sponge iron plant in the district. "The District Pollution board blatantly violated all norms and guidelines laid down by the Ministry of Environment and Forests while conducting the hearing. And,.in spite of consistent opposition and efforts to draw attention of the state authorities and the ministry to this fact, the Centre recently granted clearance to the expansion project."

People expressed disappointment with use of judicial processes and mechanisms for recognition of their environment and livelihood rights . The struggle of Chauranga, a village near Raipur, the state capital managed to instill inspiration. Rama Shankar Chauhan, of Chauranga, narrated how their village managed to stop a sponge iron plant from coming up in their area. Said Chauhan "Almost 90% of the construction work was complete when we started realizing that this plant might not be good for our village. We had the experience of the neighbouring village where such a plant had affected grazing grounds and agriculture produce and fields. We had daily meetings and made a strategy for stopping the work. While the administration did not support us, after consistent opposition, the company owner realized that he would not be able to run the factory and decided to withdraw."

The story of Jharkhand was no different from the other two states. "So far 57 plants have been registered. Many are in the pipeline. 3 companies are bidding for captive mines as well as captive power plants along with SI plants" said an activist of Mines, minerals and People, an NGO. While the Jharkhand Industrial Policy 2001 talks of special incentives for industries like exemption from environmental clearance, there is no policy for how they would contribute to the local economy or adhere to pollution control practices.

One of these practices includes the installation of a technology called Electro Static Precipitators (ESP) in the stacks of the plant to control air pollution. Most of the plants have not installed this and even if any have running it is expensive because of its heavy consumption of power. "The Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh has assured that no more MoUs for SI Plants would be signed and that ESPs would be made compulsory for all plants. Despite this things continue to be the same" said Gautam Bandhopadhyaya, an activist of the Nadi Ghati Mukti Morcha, Chhattisgarh.

The meeting ended with the participants resolving to strengthen the mobilization against Sponge Iron Plants and plan a demonstration in Raipur in the winter session of the parliament with the slogan "No more sponge iron". The groups also concluded that there is a need to look at the issue of the sponge iron industry in the larger context of selling out of natural resources to domestic and foreign companies by the state without considering the impact on the local population and economy.

The meeting was organised at Sidharth village, Bhubaneswar, by by Orissa Nari Samaj and THREAD from Orissa and National Centre for Advocacy Studies, a resource centre based at Pune.

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