For decades, Karnataka's West Coast Paper Mill has suppressed evidence of the pollution that it is causing to the Kali River by discharging untreated trade effluents. Many efforts to force the company to follow legally required environmental norms has been in vain aided by lax regulation. On September 30, campaigners with the Kali Bachao Andolan (KBA) led a protest rally into the sprawling campus of the West Coast Paper Mills (WCPM) in Dandeli. The day also marked the Annual General Meeting with Shareholders, an important one for the accountability of any public company. Equally importantly, the campaigners met with the shareholders.

Courtesy, Subramanya Sastry WCPM's Executive Director is forced into a meeting

Villagers from Kariampalli, worst affected by recent pollution by WCPM, along with representatives of Environment Support Group, Parisara Samrakshana Kendra, Alternative Law Forum and Samvada, rallied through the Dandeli town and entered the WCPM campus in time for the Annual General Meeting on the 30th afternoon. Heavy security and the presence of a large posse' of police did not deter the campaigners in their peaceful entry to the AGM, deep inside the campus. Once there, shareholders were met with individually and pressed to hold their company leadership accountable for their lax environmental management and criminal neglect of affected communities.

Coming under intense pressure, the West Coast Paper Mills agreed undertake the expenses of providing drinking water to all villages affected by pollution of Kali due to discharge of effluents.
The day was also significant as it marked the closure of the deadline of the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board for WCPM to install a secondary effluent treatment plant. When senior managers were pressed to show the plant, they deterred only to admit that it was unlikely that it would be ready any time soon. Clearly caught off guard, and deeply embarrassed, the Mr. Chandak, Executive Director of WCPM, offered to meet with a key 'leaders' of Kali Bachao Andolan. He was told that he must meet all, or none would meet him.

Late in the evening, the top executive complied with this demand, and the protestors took their message into the company's Boardroom. Along with Mr. Chandak, all of his senior staff was present. The campaigners charged the company on the following counts:

  1. Willful negligence causing serious pollution of the Kali river and its ecology; extracting water from Kali River far in excess of consented quantities, by tampering with water meters, both at the intake and discharge points.
  2. Causing grievous injury and harm to villagers downstream of the effluent discharge point.
  3. Criminal neglect of villagers affected by the pollution incident on 29/30 June 2003; not providing compensatory drinking water facilities despite the pollution of surface and underground aquifers for a decade.
  4. Lax approach to statutory warnings requiring the company to install a state of the art effluent treatment plant; violation of a key directive requiring the treatment plant to be ready by 30 September; carelessly discharging fly ash from the power plant, including in a local college campus.
  5. Gross violation of production limits set, as the company was on record that it was producing more than twice the consented quantity; more fresh wate rand doubling of pollution, with consequent adverse impacts on public health and environment.
  6. Wrongly claiming that the increase in production will not increase the pollution load, in an attempt to dodge compliance with a full environmental review requiring public involvement; environmental compliance reports of the past five years filed by the company with the Karnataka Pollution Control Board have too many factual inaccuracies and are mostly a "copy-paste" job from across the years. (It appears the regulatory authority has colluded with the company by not examining such details and taking appropriate action.)
  7. Behaving in a manner as to threaten the local communities with dire action if they questioned the company's errant behaviour.

The excecutive director was also informed that Central Pollution Control Board and Ministry of Environment and Forests had on investigation found the pollution of the river to be extremely serious. Further, that KBA had briefed the Chief Minister of Karnataka Mr.Krishna, Karnataka Industries Minister and Dandeli MLA Mr. R.V.Deshpande and the Chairman of Karnataka State Pollution Control Board Mr.J.Alexander on the continuing violations by the company.

Mr. Chandak neither had an explanation, nor was he able to deny any of these charges. When the local villagers presented to him how difficult their life had become because of his company's utter lack of responsibility, he was constrained to offer some relief. and made the following commitments:

  1. WCPM will undertake the expenses of providing drinking water to all villages affected by pollution of Kali due to discharge of effluents.
  2. WCPM will invest in a mobile medical unit to provide immediate health relief to affected villages.
  3. WCPM will accept monetary claims from all affected families. These claims would include cost of loss of income and livelihood due to disease, death and disease of cattle and failure of crops.
  4. WCPM will extend one year's livelihood support on claim to Jahnu, a local citizen who suffered acute renal failure, and also his sister-in-law, who lost an new born infant, due to pollution by the Mill.
  5. WCPM would modernize the production process to make it elemental-chlorine free, but not soon.

Courtesy, Subramanya Sastry The Sep 30 rally passing the bus stand

This marks an important departure in the nature of events in Dandeli. For long local people have suffered enormously from the pollution as they were repeatedly threatened with job losses if WCPM was pressurized to be environmentally responsible. The apparent motive was to present WCPM as the only economic option, and that implementing required pollution control technology would force losses on the company. This rally has changed that. Citizens of the region are now better equipped to negotiate a better deal for themselves and those who work in this large paper mill.

The Kali Bachao campaign has also presented an opportunity to the paper mill company to fully comply with law and implement all environmental measures, as is clearly possible given its non-insignificant cash reserves. The Mill can then put its decade-long polluting past behind and go forward.

The regulatory regime in Karnataka needs to act now. The KBA feels that the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board must immediately take cognizance of WCPM's non-compliance of the 30 September deadline for installing an effluent treatment plant. This is a violation of provisions of the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act. If the State's pollution watchdog does not enforce the statutes, it would in effect include itself as responsible for inaction along with WCPM.