While sawmills and ply mills continue to create a plethora of nuisances for the residents such as polluting the air and water, noise pollution and other health hazards, the main problem is that the complaints are not being taken up with the urgency the matter requires. In fact, the authorities do not view it as a problem in the first place. The residents have been running from pillar to post, from this department to that, filing complaints and petitions but to no avail. Just as no one was held liable for killing Jessica Lal (initially), no deptt of the administration is ready to accept responsibility for letting these illegal units run in densely populated residential areas…
Thirty-seven years have passed to the fateful Bhopal Gas Tragedy, yet the gruesome memories remain. Considered to be among the worst industrial disasters among the world, the incident of vicious gas leak (Methyl Isocyanate) from the Union Carbide India Limited pesticide plant took 3787 lives and injured more than 5 lakh people (official figures). Unfortunately, that wasn’t the worst part. That we’ve learnt little from the tragedy, and many such plants, factories, etc. continue to operate unabashedly flouting every safety standard, norm and against law are a living testimony to this. The sawmills, veneer units and plywood factories in densely populated Rajendra Nagar, Moti Nagar and Aishbagh areas of Lucknow are a case in point. Consider the case of ply factory in Rajendra Nagar- Takia Maula Bagh. Run by Mahmood Ali and sons, it has become a headache for the residents of the colony. Not only does the ply mill flout every environmental norm but can also be called out for illegal land occupation, which is overtly taking place due to the connivance and irresponsibility of the concerned departments and the officials.
What is the background of the case?
TreeTake had earlier campaigned against the mill and with the cooperation of the concerned departments, the mill had been sealed by previous district forest officers (DFOs) - Shraddha Yadav and Manoj Kumar Sonkar . As per the then Awadh DFOs, the mill didn’t have any license. But it is back and thriving again, causing nuisance to the residents.
Lucknow plywood is situated centrally in Rajendra Nagar Maula Bagh ka Takia- which is primarily a graveyard. It is important to note that the process of burial in this graveyard had stopped years ago and after that the piece of land had come under the aegis of Rajendra Nagar improvement trust over which a park was to be built. But over time, on one portion of this expansive graveyard a different colony has been proliferating in which there are two to three storey residential buildings. On the rest of the graveyard however, four sawmills had been set up in 1972, and out of these four, two have been converted into plywood factories.
Highly polluting, the factory is not only emitting poisonous, bitter gases that are a health hazard for the residents, but also flushes out polluting, toxic water into open drains. Not to mention the irritating noise caused by the sawing of wood, that creates noise pollution, even at night. From these factories, dense smoke is emitted which spreads itself over Aishbagh flyover causing breathing difficulty and discomfort. The chimneys of the mill are smaller than what is permitted under the standards, so they emit smoke at an inappropriate altitude, causing the smoke to fill inside the houses of the residents, causing difficulty in breathing and deep discomfort. To top it all, a school- Pioneer Montessori school- and an inter college- Pioneer Inter College- are situated at an arm’s length from the factory, while the emission standards clearly state that densely populated areas should be at least 500 metres away from such establishments. Sharmila Singh, co-owner of the school and college, declined to comment when asked about the same. Apparently, the school cares little about the type of environment their students are exposed to.
On the condition of anonymity, a worker working in the mill said: “The owner of the mill gives donation to political parties and also to the concerned departments. That is why no one is concerned about the effects the mill has on the residents. Some even say that they have been given so much liberty, keeping in mind the upcoming elections, and if anything at all can be done against them, it will only be possible after the elections. But what I fail to understand is that how come in a democracy only one person’s voice is given priority, and the people’s voices are crushed. Rajendra Nagar ward is quite expansive and people are fed up of the irregularities in administration. Already, groundwater exploitation matter was a hot topic and now many residential buildings are being bought by land mafia and are being converted into godowns. LDA only registers the complaints and issues notices to such people but nothing further is done and these people are being given a free hand. Why this is taking place is not hard to understand. The police are definitely hand in glove with these people. What is more amazing is that how the current establishment is chest thumping itself against strict measures taken with respect to illegal land occupations; but, on the other hand, even after giving substantial proof, somehow the ply factory has become invisible in the eyes of the administration.”
“We have run pillar to post to get these illegal factories closed, but no one takes note. As the departments concerned, including he police, do not give us a receiving, they later deny having received a complaint in the first place. One, Mr Chaturvedi, had fought these thugs his entire life but died without getting justice,” says Sharad Awasthi, a local of the area whose family has lost many members from diseases resulting from ply pollution.
Multiple factories operating despite Supreme Court order
There are many ply factories across the Aishbagh flyover, each one claiming to have 'legitimate’ papers, licence and claim over the land on which they are operating. The owner of Jay Rajesh Timber Store says he has complete papers and also a licence from the forest department. He also said during 2004-05 there were proposals to make Timber-run but that did not materialize. The Basarmal Hiramal store claims to have been there for the past 60 years. Sardar Harjit Singh ply factory claims to have been made in 1984 and that it is the first ply factory in that area. They also claim to have all the papers. And the list goes on.
Owner of Maulabagh ply factory claimed: “It was in 1993 that the saw mill was converted into plywood factory. We took license from the forest department and a no objection certificate from the pollution board. We deposit provident fund at the labour court, income tax sale tax and other taxes also. We have the relevant papers to prove our claim. Earlier we were not getting licence so we protested in front of the forest department to either give us the licence or give us the land.” On the other hand, a shopkeeper near the Aishbagh flyover said: “These ply factories had been closed down but now they are open and thriving. These mills are no more than 15 years old. The fact can be cross checked by other residents.”
Ata-ul-Rehman, former secretary, Lucknow Timber and Plywood Association, had yet another interesting claim: “The then government had given permission to settle down in the area as Aishbagh Motijheel sawmill area.” He even claimed to have the map that was passed but didn’t produce it when he was asked to. “Many plymills are operating without licence. Earlier, the forest department only gave receipts, but did not give licences. In 1997, after the orders of the Supreme Court, a Power Committee was constituted. The committee decided that the people who have the receipts will be given licences.”
After the directive of Supreme Court, in September 2006, in Uttar Pradesh 3220 saw mills and 115 veneer and ply factories were closed. The apex court has clearly stated that the sawmills whose licence have not been renewed after March 4, 1997 and those veneers that are operating without NOC from concerned department should be closed with immediate effect. The Supreme Court had also stated that the state government would decide how much wood log will be provided to ply factories. That, the factories would be run in accordance with the timber provided to them. For the purpose, the guidelines from Forest Survey of India, Dehradun were to be used. The then forest secretary was directed to attach an affidavit. The apex court had also formed a Central Empowered Committee (CEC) and another committee at the state level. CEC had directed 2196 sawmills and 15 veneer units to be opened across Uttar Pradesh. The licence to them was to be given after NOC from the pollution control board and the Nagar Nigam. The central question is that if the Committee had permitted only 2196 sawmills and 15 veneer units, how come there are 10-12 units operating in Lucknow alone, that too in densely populated areas?
No one killed Jessica
While illegal sawmill factories and ply mills continue to create a plethora of nuisances for the residents such as polluting the air and water, noise pollution and other health hazards, main problem is that their complaints are not being taken up with the urgency the matter requires. In fact, the authorities do not view it as a problem in the first place. The residents have been running from pillar to post, from this department to that, filing complaints and petitions but to no avail. Just as no one was held liable for killing Jessica Lal (initially), no person from the administration is ready to accept the responsibility.
When it comes to accountability, the Naka Hindola Station House Officer (SHO) Manoj Kumar Mishra fails the citizens on every level. When confronted with the issue, he stated: “Rajendra Nagar area doesn’t come under our jurisdiction.” But when pressed with proof from the Uttar Pradesh Police website, he said: “Okay, yes, maybe it does come under our jurisdiction, but there hasn’t been a single complaint.” When inquired further, he said: “The cases have been shifted. Please complain to the District Magistrate.” The police department, far from assuring that any action will be taken against illegally operating factories, doesn’t take neither the responsibility, nor any Suo moto cognizance. Instead, suggesting that only the ‘higher ups’ can solve the problem is the only solution it has to offer.
When asked about the issue, Raju Gandhi, Corporator, Moti Nagar area, was not even ready to accept that it was even an issue in the first place. He said: “Seven to eight years ago, I had given a written complaint to the Nagar Ayukt and Nagar Swaasth Adhikari, but nothing happened. It is the responsibility of the Health department and there is little I can do.”
Raju Dixit, Corporator, Rajendra Nagar, went a step further in his response. In his view, the polluting water (or shall we say sludge), these illegal factories are releasing, is not an issue- neither for the residents, nor the environment. He asks rhetorically: “Naali to khuli hi hoti hai... Gandagi naali mein nahi jayegi to aur kahan jayegi (The drains are usually open... Where will the sludge go, if not in the drain)? With this attitude, how will India ever become Open Defecation Free (ODF), as aimed in the Swachh Bharat Mission, is a question one needs to ask. Interestingly, Raju Gandhi accepted that such factories shouldn’t be operating in residential areas. “Yes! I am not denying the fact that such factories shouldn’t be operating in residential areas. What’s wrong should be stated as wrong,” he says. But at the same time, he fails to explain why this wrong hasn’t been righted by him. In fact, both the corporators of Moti Nagar and Rajendra Nagar claimed no resident had ever complained to them.
That, the factories are polluting industries is a child’s guess. But apparently, it’s hard for the Pollution Control board to grasp this fact. RO Ram Karan may not be a stranger to the fact that the licence to such units is given only after the Pollution Control board gives a No Objection Certificate (NOC), but admitting it (so that some responsibility can be put on the board), is another story altogether. Brushing off any responsibility of the Pollution Control board he says: “Sawmills are exempted from the pollution control standards. Pollution Control board has no bearing whatsoever. No standards are set for such units.” On the other hand, the Pollution Control Board website (uppcb.com) states that such units do come under the purview of the board. At the same time, it is important to note that the Air Quality Index of Lucknow (various places) for the month of October 2021, ranges between 153- 115 as per the board’s website. The PM 10 level crossed the 100 mark, which was far above the danger zone.
On the question of who is really responsible and accountable, RO Ram Karan categorically states: “It is the responsibility of the Forest Department as ultimately they give the licence. Hence, the complaints should be made to the DFO.” But when the DFO Lucknow Awadh was confronted with the same question, he pushed it back to the Pollution Control board. “The licence is given only after Pollution Control board gives the NOC. So, it is their responsibility.” When pushed further about why the licence is given, the DFO said: “The licences granted are very old and were issued way back.” But he fails to answer the hard-hitting questions like why the licences are being renewed every five years despite the Supreme Court order quashing all such illegal licences.
How is plywood manufactured?
Plywood can be produced from any Timber. But it is typically produced from softwood, because this provides maximum value addition. In order to produce plywood, first the bark of the timber is mechanically removed. Then the logs are cut to proper length to make wood blocks, ready for peeling. Prior to peeling the wood block are conditioned by soaking in water, heating with hot water or with direct application of steam. The logs are then peeled into thin veneer sheets on a rotary lathe. The veneers are then dried in Sun for industrial heaters. Once the winners are dry, an adhesive resign is applied to the veneers. They are then start together in required size, with alternative layers having perpendicular orientation. The start veneers are then pressed together by hot press which cause the resign does boarding the veneers together. The panel is then sawn into standard sizes.
Health hazards to the residents of such areas
There are three petrol pumps in the area. One of them is just attached to a sawmill. What’s amazing is the fact that sandwich between the two to is a Pollution tracking booth. If we are to speak of the level of pollution, the sawmills and ply factories come in the ‘orange' category, which is considered to be ‘danger zone’. As per the rules, the sawmills should be working only in one shift but instead, they are working beyond their capacity 24×7.
The ply factories are considered to be modified forms of sawmills in the general parlance. But instead, they are much more dangerous than the sawmills. The sawmills emit fine dust particles that are harmful even to the workers over there and also to anyone exposed. But the ply factories go a step further. Not only do they use harmful chemicals like formaldehydes, the smoke and polluting water they emit are equally dangerous. Most of these mills are under a tin shed. The owners cannot install (or simply don’t want to), expensive pollution control equipment. Those who have such equipment, are not utilising them to their full capacity.
Madhu Tripathi, retired Professor, Geology Department, University of Lucknow, stated: “Such factories in residential areas are a great health hazard to the residents of the area. To begin with, plywood industry produces significant quantities of residue and dust during the veneering and finishing processes. They emit PM 10 particle, which is especially harmful because of its ability to reach the lower regions of the respiratory tract. The elderly, children, and people with chronic lung disease, influenza and asthma are especially sensitive to the effects of this particulate matter. Once it enters the lungs, it cannot come out. Then there are other pollutants such as hydrocarbon fumes, dust particles, arsenic, benzene, formaldehydes and nickel, etc. These are inevitably trapped into the atmosphere and, especially after the Diwali period, when cold weather is about to commence, they manifest themselves as smog. It has other effects like reduced visibility, etc. There is also other aspect to it- the noise pollution. The constantly irritating noise lowers the hearing capacity and disturbs the balanced equilibrium of an individual. They will have concentration issues, the effects of which will only be felt in the long term.” Additionally, she also advises the residents of the area to wear mask even at home at all times as indoors also contain highly polluted environment.
What is the effect on the workers working in such units?
All plywood factories use formaldehyde as a component of the glue which holds the wooden veneers together. Formaldehyde is mixed with phenol or urea and few minor additives to form the glue. Mostly this mixing is done at the location and those who are involved in the mixing process have acute exposure to the chemicals. In addition, once the glue is formed it is sprayed by high pressure nozzles onto the wooden veneer, where again employees are exposed. When exposed to formaldehyde, Some individuals may experience various short-term effects like watery eyes, burning sensation in the eyes, nose and throat, coughing, wheezing, nausea, etc. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classified as formaldehyde as a human carcinogen. In addition to this, various pollutants, especially asbestos dust, and PM 10, etc have disastrous impact. The fact that such factories are working beyond their capacity, on a 24/7 basis, with no consideration for the health of the workers, is another grim reminder why they should be shut down immediately.
Constitutional provisions that guarantee safe environment to the citizens
Initially, the Constitution of India had no direct provision for environmental protection. Global consciousness for the protection of environment in the seventies, Stockholm conference of 1972, and increasing awareness of the environmental crisis prompted the Indian government to enact the 42nd amendment of the constitution in 1976. The constitution was amended to introduce direct provisions for the protection of environment. The 42nd amendment added article 48-A to the Directive Principles of State policy. Article 48-A states: “The state shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forest and wildlife of the country.” Article 51-A (clause-g) which deals with the fundamental duties of the citizens states: “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife and to have compassion for living creatures.” Article 253 states: “Parliament has the power to make any law for whole or any part of the country for implementing any treaty, agreement or conventional with any other country.” In simple words, this article suggests that in the wake of Stockholm conference of 1972, Parliament has the power to legislate on all matters link to the preservation of natural environment. Parliaments use of article 253 to enact the Water Act 1974, Environment Protection Act 1986 and Air Act 1981 is a testimony to this. This Act was enacted to implement the decisions reached at the Stockholm conference. The Environment Protection Act 1986 was a direct outcome of the aftermath that ensued in the wake of Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984.
Right to clean environment as recognised by the SC
Further, Article 21 of the Constitution of India provides: “No person shall be deprived of his life and personal liberty accept according to the procedure established by law.” ‘Life’ as stated has a much wider meaning which includes right to live with human dignity, right to livelihood, right to health, and most importantly the right to pollution free air. Thus, right to life is fundamental to our very existence without which we cannot live as human being and includes all those aspects of life, which go to make a man's life meaningful, complete and worth living. It is the only article in the Constitution that has received the widest possible interpretation. Under the canopy of Article 21, so many rights have found shelter, growth and nourishment. Thus, ‘right and life’ under article 21 means the life of dignity to live in a proper environment free from dangers of diseases and infection. Maintenance of health, preservation of the sanitation and environment have been held to fall within the purview of article 21 as it adversely affects the life of the citizens and it amounts to slow poisoning and reducing the life of the citizens because the hazards created, if not checked. In Subhash Kumar vs State of Bihar, it was held that a Public Interest Litigation is maintainable for ensuring enjoyment of pollution free water and air which is included in right to life under article 21 of the constitution. The court observed: “Right to live is a fundamental right under article 21 of the constitution and it includes the right of enjoyment of pollution free water and therefore full enjoyment of life. If anything, and dangers or a that quality of life in derogation of loss a citizen has the right to have recourse to article 32 of the Constitution for removing the pollution of water or Air which may be detrimental to quality of life.”
The Supreme Court has stepped in from time to time to ensure the citizens right to clean environment. In MC Mehta vs Union of India (1988), the Supreme Court ordered closure of tanneries that were polluting water. The court issued several guidelines and directions for the protection of Taj Mahal from environmental degradation. In Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum versus Union of India, the code to cognizance of the environmental problems being caused by tanneries that for polluting the water resources, canals, rivers, underground water and agricultural land. The court issued several directions to deal with the problem. In Milk Men Colony Vikas Samiti vs State of Rajasthan, the supreme court held that the right to life means clean surrounding which lead to healthy body and mind. It includes right to freedom from stray cattle and animals in urban areas. In MC Mehta vs Union of India (2006), the court held that the blatant and large-scale misuse of residential premises for commercial use in Delhi violated the right to salubrious and sand decent environment. Taking note of the problem the court issued directives to the government on the same.
The way forward
Vikram Singh, former DGP comments: “There are multiple sanctions and permissions that the sawmill and plywood factory have to take. If it is in the middle of a residential colony per se, it means that it is a polluting industry and there have to be checks and balances from the pollution control board as well as the district Udyog Officer, District Magistrate and the DFO. I am sure if someone were to examine all appropriate sanctions, they would not find any because such units cannot operate in a residential area with right sanctions. The illicit felling of trees, especially the mango orchards outside of Lucknow has assumed epidemic proportions (and there could be a link). The ‘dear 4’ should be enquired about the complaints received. Such units cannot operate without the complicity of the local thana, The local first officer at the level of the ACF and even the DFO. Clearly a sawmill in the centre of a residential area is obnoxious It must be done away with as soon as possible.”
The DFO doesn’t deny the fact that such factories should not be in a residential area. On the question that what is the forest department doing to address the issue as previously the DFOs had taken concrete action against such units, he said: “The best strategy is to give them alternative land on the outskirts of the city. Due to our efforts, some of the units have been shifted to Amethi, Sandeela, Barabanki, etc.” Why the same cannot be done for these units is anyone’s guess!
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