The toxic spill from the reservoir of red mud, waste from alumina factory in Hungary, offers many lessons for India, which is gearing up for industrialization at the cost of green forests and peoples’ lives.
A wall of the toxic red sludge reservoir built by an alumina factory MAL Hungarian Aluminium collapsed a week back on October 4. As a result, the red sludge flooded the nearby village Kolontar, killing at least seven people and injuring 150 more out of whom ten are reported in serious condition. Most of those killed were drowned or swept away by the flooded sludge. Many of those injured received burn injuries.
Fearing a second burst, the village was evacuated on Saturday to nearby town. A tributary of Danube River was completely polluted and all of the living organisms in the river died due to the spillage. The Hungary government deployed emergency workers to remove the sludge and residents are helping them. Red sludge of 700,000 cubic meters spilled as the wall collapsed and another 500,000 cubic meters will be leaked if the wall breaches again, according to the Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary.
The spill was dumped onto three villages immediately, entered Danube on Thursday moving downstream toward Hungary’s immediate neighbors Croatia, Serbia and Romania. Though the threat to Danube is said to be averted, the risk of lasting damage cannot be ruled out, with Greenpeace showing its laboratory test that showed high concentrations of heavy metals in the sludge. The Hungarian Academy of Sciences said on October 8 that the red sludge remained hazardous due to its caustic alkalinity, but conflicted with the Greenpeace’s warning about heavy metals’ presence saying it is not considered dangerous for the environment. The respiratory activity of the soil is totally stopped by the sludge in the spilled region as per the Academy.
MAL was owned by three rich people of Hungary who bought the company from the government in 1995 in the wave of privatization. The factory processes Bauxite ore to extract Alumina or Aluminium Oxide. The red toxic waste is the byproduct of the Alumina factory.
The Hungarian Prime Minister warned the factory owners of severe punishment if the human error was established. He was quoted as saying by the BBC News, “If you are responsible for storing toxic chemicals and they escape and cause damage, you are responsible and have to compensate those affected. End of story. The fact they’ve escaped is enough to prove strict liability.”
The company owners are said to be known of the consequences but did not act as they thought it would not be profitable for them. It is pathetic that the private people look for profits even in disaster management at the cost of lives. It was reported initially that the company offered condolences and it was not their fault for the disaster. Maybe the reservoir itself has to take the responsibility for spilling out the waste!
In a swift action, the top executive of the company was arrested for questioning for breaching environmental laws and not taking proper precautionary measures though the spill was expected well in advance. Even more pleasing is that the company is temporarily nationalized or taken control by the government so that the assets of the factor would be made available for proper compensation.
The company distributed as 110,000 euros to the affected families that received 360 euros each. Some quarters of the disaster management experts ridiculed this as an insult as the company owners amassed millions of euros under their ownership. Even the estimation of tens of millions of dollars by the Prime Minister would be a conservative one according to the experts.
European authorities sent their expert team to aid the cleanup process and assess the damage that can spill over to the coming years. Gypsum was being dropped into the local Marcal River from helicopters to neutralize the alkaline effect of the fluid.
India, the 3rd largest economy of the Asia, has been promoting Special Economic Zones, “foreign territories on Indian land,” as depicted in the SEZ act, as means of privatization of mining and metal manufacturing. It allotted large swaths of fertile agricultural land to the miners, industrialists, real estate businesspersons and foreign private companies in the name of industrialization.
In states like Andhra Pradesh, vast swaths of land were grabbed by the state government from the formers without even compensating them, in the name of development. Latter the land was given away to the private people for a meager price who developed real estate projects on the land. The formers were deprived of their land and hence their livelihood. The land allotted to the SEZ projects was not utilized for the said purpose, but remained vacant for years. No foreign or local private companies turned up for building projects and no development is seen so far. The promised employment for thousands remained a myth.
In other states like Orissa, the state government gave away green forestland to the British based Vedanta Resources for bauxite mining. Vedanta set up a bauxite refinery in the tribal area endangering the lives of tribal groups. It violated all environmental laws of India. It did not take proper permissions from various departments required for setting up of factories on forestland. It planned to increase the factory capacity 6 folds and started the work without informing the government. Thanks to the activism of Indian environment minister, the company was issued show cause notice for violating environmental laws and endangering local forest dwelling tribes. The company’s plan for multiplying the production capacity of the refinery was also annulled for not taking permission.
The central India is a mineral rich area with many precious metals waiting to be explored. But, the most of the mineral rich land is covered with equally rich green forests. At a time when the world is bracing for control global warming, destroying forests is not an option for the Indian government in the name of development. While the developed countries are keeping away from thermal energy projects due to their contribution to the global warming, India is pursuing to set up number of thermal projects along the its east coast. These projects are threatening the livelihood of coastal people who rely on fishing in the seawater by releasing their waste into the sea.
India and Hungary
The Hungary government acted swiftly and nationalized MAL so as to make available assets for paying compensation to the affected people. Whereas, the Indian government acted equally swiftly helping the owner of Bhopal Union Carbide, Mr. Anderson to flee the country on the same night the leaked gas MIC killed thousands of people, and left many people ailing from peculiar diseases. Though it will be hasty to decide the Hungarian Government has come to full rescue of the deceased people, the way it responded immediately after the disaster is certainly an eye-opener for the Indian government.
Indian government should listen to the people of India instead of listening to calls from the MNCs for speeding up of privatization drive. No one denies development but the fruits of the development of a fewer sections should not deprive the vast masses of the country from their basic human rights: right to live, right to breathe fresh air, right to drink fresh water and right to decide what is appropriate for them.