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"The people of Mahul are not interested in the compensation. We want clean air and good living conditions."

Thursday, July 12, 2018
Photographs by Trupti Arekar

While authorities such as the BMC and MPCB continue to turn a blind eye to the seriousness of the problems encountered by residents of Mahul, the state government is behaving as if nothing wrong has taken place. While agencies continue to shirk their responsibility and not even take into consideration the directives issued by the Bombay High Court, residents continue their battle against health problems caused by refineries and industries. Day after day several innocent lives are sucked into this 'death trap' in Mahul. Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan activist Bilal Khan interacts with ADC's Dev Kotak, lambasting the government for being casual and irresponsible, and declining the Rs 29 crore package by the BMC and forcing the people to accept current conditions and keep inhaling the slow poison in their environment.

Why have the residents of Mahul rejected the Rs 29 crore package offered to them by the BMC?
Firstly, we are angry with the state government because the residents were not consulted before relocating them. And now they are offering us a package and expect us to accept it. Just because a compensatory package is offered, does that mean that residents should continue to stay in hell? This is a highly polluted and industrial zone posing high risk to the lives and health of others. The people of Mahul are not interested in the compensation. We want clean air and good living conditions. The government has time and again failed to relocate them.    

What are the observations made by the NGT (National Green Tribunal)?
NGT has always maintained that the conditions there are uninhabitable. In 2015, NGT called Mahul a 'living hell' and a chemical zone, forcing them to continue to live there. Nothing has changed even after pointing out to authorities the grave health hazards the place poses, as over 100 people have died in the last three years. MPCB, BMC and the Maharashtra government have not acted or tried to implement recommendations suggested, shirking it's responsibility. Nothing has changed and there has been a flagrant violation of norms. This is a plain and simple murder of the residents.  

What exactly do you mean by rehabilitation in the true sense? What facilities are you referring to?
There are no facilities, not even basic ones. BEST bus service is there, but highly infrequent. The schools and colleges are far away and the children have to travel a lot everyday or are either forced to discontinue their studies. There is a dearth of medical care facilities, no hospitals around if one has to run for urgent treatment. The sewage treatment plant has also been shut for quite some time now. People are constantly at risk, more than hundred people have lost their lives in the last three years and MPCB still calls the condition 'livable'. BPCL, HPCL, chemical storage plants and oil refineries emit carcinogenic substances and add to the dangers. But the authorities want us to accept the package, without even fixing and ensuring basic amenities.

Has there been any limit in terms of the distance at which these refineries and industrial units should be located at from residential colonies?
The housing complex the government has set up is in violation of the regulations of Ministry of Environment and Forest guidelines and the courts' orders. The safe zone recommended from the hazardous facility is a minimum of 25 kilometers away. The housing complex is bordering the BPCL refinery, barely 35 meters away. This is nowhere even close to the prescribed distance limit by the government agencies.

What risk to health do these gases and substances pose?
The presence of benzene, an organic chemical compound in the air, has been confirmed. Benzene in the environment is 3000 per cent more, compared to the acceptable five per cent. During the day it is 158 and at night it reaches 248 (milligram per cubic meter). Exposure to benzene for long duration causes a decrease in red blood cells and affects the bone marrow. The chemical is known to affect pregnant women and fertility in men. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has revealed that benzene causes cancer in humans and even leads to leukemia. However health problems are not the only thing, a major disaster could take place. Given the scale of operations, any evacuation plan will fail in case of an emergency, such as a gas leak or a major fire. A constant threat to life and health looms at large. In 2003 Mahul was identified as a toxic hotspot, similar to Bhopal in the aftermath of the gas leak at the Union Carbide pesticide plant.

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