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Tamilnadu has been making tremendous progress since independence on all the economic, healthcare, education and GDP contribution parameters. Infact TN has been ranked in the top 3 on most of the progress counts comparable with the best states of Gujarat or Maharashtra. TN can also boast of the best of engineering/medical education, Childcare, infrastructure, urbanisation, social development, industries etc. However these developments have also left the state with one of the most polluted ecosystems comprising land, water and air. 

Let us analyse the impact of the predominant industries of Tamilnadu. 

Kudankulam Nuclear Power PlantKalpakkam and Koodankulam are the two major nuclear power houses in the state. Here the debate is on nuclear waste management. The management and disposal of nuclear wastes is such an advanced technology that even the developed nations are struggling with it for decades. But the Indian government had already entered into an agreement with the USA, France and Japan to set up and operate nuclear plants in India. Most of the technologies for operation and waste management are yet to be proven in their own countries. The risks are open and in case of failure such as Chernobyl and Fukushima, the management of disaster is such a colossal effort that nobody can effectively help. Australia has the best uranium deposits with around 27% of the world reserves. However, none of these are used for local electricity productions. There are strict regulations to preserve water, air and land locally thus preventing the setup of hazardous industries. As a result, the resources are exported. In contrast, the Indian government is eager to set up polluting industries and can afford to damage the environment in places like Tamilnadu.

For hundreds of years, a number of wars between human groups or countries have been staged to take control of the resources. America bombed Iraq for its petroleum resources. There is a bitter animosity between Karnataka and Tamilnadu over sharing the Cauvery water for decades. The Ganga river water sharing is a point of dispute between Bangladesh and India. Sharing of the resources is always a challenge whether it is petroleum oil, minerals or water. It may also lead to geographical or ethnic disputes as it happened in Srilanka. Resources in Trincomalee (Thirukonamalai) was one of the major reasons for the fight to take control over the region in Tamil-Sinhala ethnic war.

India, during 1990 and 1991, was preparing to adopt an approach of LPG – (Liberalization, Privatization and Globalization) for foreign investment. The foreign investment focus was just not only in high technology and included diversified areas including consumer retail, soda, media, purified water etc etc. It had a devastating effect on local business where a number of local businesses have shut shops and they were not able to match the branding and investment power of the MNC. Today we are mostly dependent on multinational corporations for drinking water, television shows, and what not!

A major part of the investment in India is not restricted to manufacture and sell in India. It also has the hidden agenda of using the resources in India and avoiding the consequent environmental impact of the developed nations. Sterlite plant in Tuticorin, Tamilnadu is a glaring example. Ideally the copper raw material that is brought from Australia should have been processed there itself with a local smelter plant. That is how local mining and processing is set up all over the world. Neyveli is a similar example where coal is mined, and electricity produced locally. But the copper smelter plant is located in Tuticorin which is thousands of miles away from the Australian copper mines. The primary reasons are avoiding environmental and government clearances in Australia. Of Course, there is a cost arbitrage as well if you take into account the wages and healthcare costs between the two locations.

The Sterlite copper plant was initially planned to be set up in Ratnagiri-Maharashtra under Sharad Pawar government. However, there came up with the risk of export business of widely popular local Alphonso mangoes. Europeans were apprehensive of importing food grown in the fields near copper smelting plants with toxins seeping into land, water and air. The farmers went into a protest and later demolished the initial setup of the plant buildings. The Maharashtra government also later withdrew the license.

Later the Jayalalitha government allowed to set up the plant in Tuticorin. Even in Tuticorin the fishermen protested with the reason of impact of fisheries in the sea. When the same protests were held in Maharashtra, the government respected the farmers and the environmental impact. However, in Tamilnadu, the protests were ignored with the claim that it will lead into a situation where no industry will come into Tamilnadu! such an apathy for the people and environment. We all know where we are now in this disaster with mass protests, police shootings and toxins in the local environments.

Australia has the best Uranium deposits with around 27% of the world reserves. However, none of these are used for local electricity productions. There are strict regulations to preserve water, air and land locally thus preventing the setup of hazardous industries. As a result, the resources are exported. The Modi government is eager to set up polluting industries and can afford to damage the environment in places like Tamilnadu.

During our school days, we never imagined that drinking water had to be bought for a price! Today there is a clear perception of water being impure in public places and pure packaged water in plastic bottles is the best for health. This perception is largely built after 1990 and today the water purification /packaging business is huge all over India. Even homes and restaurants have set up RO plants for their needs.

Air pollution is another major concern in India. In Delhi, it is a major disaster. Chennai is spared to some extent due to its locational advantage of being in the sea coast. Coastal winds carry and drive the pollution to a large extent every day. More than 30% of the Carbon particles in the air get dissipated in the wind. It is not so in Bengaluru or Kolkata and the air pollution is a big disaster in these big metropolises. We have seen an Oxygen parlour business in Gopalapuram - Chennai. Most of the homes in Delhi have installed air purifiers for indoor use. The breathing air which is an essential requirement for our life is also a business today.

Have we ever thought of these questions?

The USA, the most technologically advanced country on the planet, buys clothes from Thiruppur. Germany which manufactures luxury cars such as Benz and Audi is buying leather shoes from the Vaniyambadi. Why so? Can't they manufacture these items locally? More than 80% of the Hyundai cars manufactured in Chennai are exported with the remaining 20% being locally sold. More than the advantages of local cheap labour, the primary factors are the environmental impact of producing the goods in their countries. The resource load of production is huge in the above products. A car production needs 4 lakhs liters of water. An inner wear requires 2700 liters. A pair of shoes needs 16000 liters of water. The environmental impacts of paint/ oil /harmful chemicals seeping into water/ land/ air is something one cannot even imagine. None of the freshwater lake bodies are left out in Vaniyambadi/ Vellore area from the local leather industries. One cannot drink even a drop of water from these lakes. Cancer is highly prevalent. One of the most polluted river in the world is Paalar.

In one incident, the local people in Thiruppur Orathupalayam area prevented the opening of a dam in Noyyal basin as the water is highly contaminated from the effluents of Thiruppur dye industries.

During 1978, there was a nuclear plant accident in the USA. Since then no fresh plant was set up in the USA. However there have been few plants approved and set up in India. Moreover, the plants are not set up in every state. Gujrat had opposed the nuclear plant during the term of Vijay Rupani as CM and Modi as PM and was left out. But in Tamilnadu a series of plants are set up in Koodankulam. Even when there are multiple failures, the units are being extended up to 6 or 7.

Tamilnadu is one of the most industrialized and most impacted states in India. Even though few industries like Gem industry in Neduvasal and Sterlite are out of production now, there is always a lurking danger of them reopening any time in another form. Indian government has announced six places as protected areas in TN including Kalpakkam. One can safely assume that nuclear enrichment for atomic bombs is the major reason for the inclusion of Kalpakkam. There is no other significant industrial activity here. Government thinks that TN is far from China and Pakistan and is a safe place thus ignoring the fact that China is already set up in Srilanka.

India is also following a similar capitalistic policy like the USA in 1940-1970 of exploiting the natural resources and generating more employment opportunities for people. However, following the same policy in hazardous industries like nuclear plants is leaving us with many questions. Nuclear waste management is a dangerous game. No country in the world has any proven solution for this challenge. Europe is planning to set up a nuclear waste disposal locker under the earthen depth of 250 kilometers deeply buried under. In India, the Koodankulam nuclear wastes are supposed to be buried in Kolar Gold Fields (KGF) as represented by the government in the court. However, the local people in KGF have already raised objections to such a dangerous plan. The Karnataka government also opposed this plan and instructed that the nuclear waste had to be stored in Koodankulam itself and not moved to Karnataka. As a result, Supreme court had ruled to find a comprehensive solution in 5 years during 2013. We have already passed the stated period and still no solution in place.

Many of the new, not proven nuclear power plants from France and America are being set up in India in the near future. Government agreements have been cleared. We are not against power production and industrialization. But at what cost and impact is a question. A large mall in Velachery-Chennai, Phoenix Marketcity uses 12000 units of power in a day. Comparatively a nearby village Thirukalukkundram uses only 1000 units of power in a day. Imagine a single luxury mall using 12 days of power requirements in a single day. Is this a development and we need to set up a nuclear plant for this luxury?

In the name of modern development, we are only encouraging consumerism and greedy life. What is considered as junk food in America like Pizza, burger is considered as luxury premium food in these malls. There is no sufficient power for irrigation but the factories and malls gets a large part of the power production. Pepsi, Coca Cola plants, IPL matches and car factories get a large part of power produced in the Tamilnadu where as large part of villages undergo a planned power shut down every day. When Koodankulam was set up, it was expected to produce 15000 MW power at peak level. Even after so many years, it is struggling to produce even 1000 MW on a regular basis. The current production is not even crossing 150 MW after accounting for transmission losses.

In Tamilnadu, every district has its own problems - Koodankulam, Tuticorin - Sterlite, DCW, Spic, Theni - Nutrino, Chemical plants, Leather and garment industry pollution, Granite and sand smuggling, rampant plastic pollution to name a few. The developing world is importing the end products for them leaving a toxic footprint on our natural resources.

Even the so-called development projects envisaged by the government like linking of rivers ultimately have no long-term vision. Their environmental impacts are going to be a disaster again. Adani is given a project to link all the rivers with an estimated 20 lakh crore investment. It will ultimately lead to poor water drainage in oceans in estuaries. It will have a serious impact in the fisheries with food shortage for small and large fishes in freshwater ecology at estuaries. Any development has to be planned with minimum or near zero ecological impact so that we do not seriously jeopardize the human life which is supposed to benefit by the economical development. What is the point if one works in a plant for 25 years and sets up a good house /family but in the end spends the entire retirement funds for cancer treatment?

Time for serious thinking…

Written by Sundarrajan, Environmental Activist

Translated by Ganapathy Nallasivan

(Courtesy: Nimirvom Tamil Monthly Magazine)

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