A two-kilometre detour from the six-lane national highway 152-D (Narnaul-Ambala), towards the interior villages in Haryana, where stone-crushing units are set up, presents a grim picture. At least one family member in each of the 100 families residing in Harijan colony, at Khatoli Ahir village of the state’s Mahendragarh district, is either suffering from lung disease, skin allergy or kidney-related issues. The residents attribute the dust created by stone crushing units, as the reason for their illnesses.
Three-year-old Sheetal, is among the youngest in the Khatoli Ahir village with multiple illnesses, including rashes on her skin and kidney-related disorders. Priyanka Devi (27), her mother, said that her daughter has been facing these issues for the last six months. “The doctors at Narnaul (the district headquarters) told us that she should be protected from dust and treatment would run for several months. But we have no other place to stay. The air here has dust all the time,” she says.
Expressing similar anguish, 52-year-old Kamla Devi, who also lives in the Harijan colony at Khatoli Ahir, said she had two sons; one had died, and the other is suffering from tuberculosis (TB) and is being treated in a private hospital in Narnaul, around 22 kilometres away. “He was diagnosed with TB a year ago and is currently under treatment. Doctors had asked him to stay away from the polluted environment, but we cannot afford it,” she added.
Babli Devi and Sunita Devi, both in their thirties, who live in the same village, said that they had skin allergies and respiratory illness for the last four years and they suspect it is because of exposure to dust raised by stone crushers. “When we wake up in the morning, the silica dust is found deposited on top of floors, houses, roads and in the agriculture fields. Even green leaves of trees are enveloped in white dust due to pollution created by stone crushers,” they added.
While it isn’t established whether the dust is the direct cause of the illness or aggravating pre-existing conditions, anecdotal evidence clearly points to the air pollution, caused by stone crushing units, as impacting the health of people of all ages in the villages of Mahendragarh.
Illegally operating stone crushing units are generally considered a source of air pollution, generated during the various operations involved in crushing stones down to smaller sizes or to powder that is eventually used in road and building construction. Fine inhalable particulate matter (PM2.5) is associated with human health problems and has been recorded to be high in some stone crushing units.
While there are guidelines to keep this in check, in Mahendragarh, many of these units do not comply with state guidelines, say residents and activists working in the region.
Puran Chand Gunwal, a chemist who runs the pharmacy and out-patient department (OPD) in Dholera village, also in Mahendragarh district, said that every day, 30% of the patients who come to him as the first point person for initial treatment, have pulmonary disease, a lung-related illness. “The number of patients is increasing daily, particularly in the last five to seven years. There are patients whose condition is so severe that they keep themselves locked inside their houses because they cannot breathe out in the open due to dust-ridden air,” he said. Dholera has about 15 stone crushing units.
Jagdish Chander, a 77-year-old man from Dholera, is one such patient. Using an oxygen concentrator machine, Chander spoke to Mongabay-India, saying, “I used to work at a stone crushing unit. But its dust has gone into my lungs that I cannot breathe on my own,” he alleged. “I keep myself closed inside the house and use an oxygen concentrator to breathe. I am taking treatment from Delhi’s government hospital.”
The stone crushers have an impact on farming as well. Sat Prakash, 58, a resident of Khatoli Jat, another village in the district, has his agriculture field opposite two stone crushing units. He said that during the sowing and harvesting season, it is hard to get labour because people do not want to work in the polluted environment caused by dust from the nearby stone crushers. He owns 4.5 acres of land growing bajra (millet) and claims that the productivity of the crop has also been reduced due to pollution.
“The stone crushers do not use water (as recommended by the pollution board) while crushing the stone, which results in flying of dust in the surrounding areas,” he claims. The entire Nangal Chaudhary tehsil (where Khatoli Jat is located), however, is a water-deficient spot also labelled as the dark zone in Haryana, which is demarcated by the government as an area with acute overexploitation of groundwater.
Haryana State Pollution Control Board (HSPCB) regional officer of Narnaul (Mahendergarh), Krishan Kumar admitted that such issues exist on the ground but said that the department is taking swift and appropriate action. On being asked about the allegations by residents of Nangal Chaudhary, which say that authorities are issuing NOCs (No-Objection-Certificates) violators (illegal stone crushing units), Kumar said that no fresh NOCs are being given. “Earlier, 150 crushers would run, but now the strength has gone down to 88, and only these are operating,” he added. The residents also allege that waste from the stone crushing units has impacted trees and plants, to which, Kumar said that the case has been sent to the forest department to reconfirm violations, and once it gets done, the proper action would be taken.
Battles In The Court
Rambilas Khatoli, an activist against stone crusher pollution, alleged that all such crushing units are operating with the nexus of powerful people. “They work non-stop, making loud noises and raise silica dust in the air,” he told Mongabay-India. The units are required to sprinkle water during crushing as recommended in a Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) guideline and an NGT order in this particular case, to avoid raising dust, but none of them do it which is why dust spreads to the neighbouring areas where people live, explained 52-year-old Khatoli. He said that the residents protested in 2021, blocking a road to seek the attention of authorities. They also took out a march in 2021 protesting against the stone crushers. The police, however, registered a case against protesters, said Khatoli, which was later withdrawn. “Residents of about seven villages are suffering, and stone crusher owners are earning at the cost of our health,” he added.
Another local activist, Tejpal Yadav, moved the Punjab and Haryana High Court on September 25, 2018, against stone crushers. He claimed that the government permitted stone crushers to continue operations illegally.
Based on his and other applications, the NGT, on January 18 this year, levied a fine on illegally operating stone crushing units in Mahendragarh. The NGT ordered recovery of compensation for past violations from illegally operating stone crushers and a fine of Rs. 20 lakh from each of the 343 identified illegal units on a Polluters Pay principle which stipulates that those responsible for generating pollution should pay for its management and prevention of harm to human health and the environment.
Yadav said that the number of air-borne diseases recorded has grown over the past decade, as per the report submitted by Narnaul civil surgeon office to the NGT. According to Civil Surgeon, Narnaul (Mahendragarh), in a letter to Haryana State Pollution Control Board (HSPCB), the number of patients with air-borne diseases has increased from 21,329 in 2011 to 36,211 in 2020. The report was submitted by HSPCB in the NGT, Delhi, as a compliance report on information sought by the court on how many people were affected by air-borne diseases in Mahendragarh.
Some of the stone crushers in the district are also under the scanner for illegal use of groundwater. In its action-taken report in April 2021, submitted to the NGT, the Central Ground Water Authority mentioned that show-cause notices had been served to violators that extracted groundwater illegally in the district. The authorities had found five of the stone crushers in Nangal Chaudhary not complying to the order of installing air pollution control devices and with the prescribed emission standards. The authorities ordered the plants to shut down as well as pay a fine of Rs. 6.27 lakhs each.
Consistent with the order given on October 26, 2021, National Green Tribunal, in a more recent ruling on January 18, 2023, stated that, from November to February, when the air quality is usually poorer compared to the rest of the year, no stone crushing unit be allowed to operate in the area unless the air quality index is below 200, which is of moderate or higher quality.
The court order also fixed interim compensation at Rs. 20 lakh (Rs. two million) against each stone crusher operating in the area as per the Polluter Pays principle. It further said that the compensation amount may be collected by State Pollution Control Board (SPCB) by coercion on the deposit failure within one month. The compensation may be used for the restoration of the environment in the area, the NGT order said.
HSPCB sub-divisional officer Anuj Kumar, who mostly deals with crushers in the Nangal Chaudhary area, said that the department is following the orders of NGT to monitor the situation and to act if it violates again. “The court has not disposed of the matter. It is still in progress, and the next hearing in court is on August 10 for the final decision,” he added. On the crushers not using water during the crushing of stone, he admitted that such complaints are there, but they are bound to do it. He said that Nangal Chaudhary is a dry zone, and water extraction is a challenge for them, but they need to arrange it as per the norms. On the NGT court orders to recover a compensation amount of Rs. 20 lakhs (Rs. two million) from each stone crusher for violations, he said that it was pending as there is a stay by the Supreme Court on it.
HSPCB Chairman P. Raghavendra Rao said that he would look into the health issues faced by Nangal Chaudhary residents due to stone crushers. Proper action would be taken, he added.
The HSPCB has installed two ambient air quality monitoring stations (manual), one at Nangal Chaudhary and the other at Mahendergarh towns, to measure the air quality in the area.
The SPCB has taken actions such as closure, prosecution and imposition of environmental compensation. In a January order this year, a total of 13 stone crushers were found non-complying with the provisions under Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act 1981 and were closed by the Board. A total of nine grinding units found non-complying were closed by the Board. Apart from closure, environmental compensation of Rs. 176 lakhs (Rs. 17. 6 million) was imposed on eight mineral grinding units.
Abhey Singh Yadav, an MLA from Nangal Chaudhary belonging to the Bharatiya Janta Party, the ruling party in the state, admitted that stone crushers have been operating by flouting norms and causing serious harm to people at the cost of the environment. “I raised the issue in the Haryana state assembly when Vipul Goel was holding the portfolio of industries and commerce, environment, and industrial training. It is not that the government is not acting, but more needs to be done,” MLA Yadav added.
(Published under Creative Commons from Mongabay-India. Read the original article here)