When almost everybody else in Tami Nadu queued up outside polling booths on April 18, Shanthi Paranthaman, a homemaker from Nagaraja Kandigai, was busy cleaning her house, sweeping up dustpans of gray soot. This is one exercise in futility, Paranthaman says, she and other residents like her dread the most in a heavily polluted Nagaraja Kandigai on the outskirts of Chennai.
A tiny hamlet in Thiruvallur district’s Gummidipoondi block, Nagaraja Kandigai is fast-emerging as a smoke chamber, courtesy a sponge iron plant in the village. The Dalit-dominated village has an estimated 572 voters. However, no one from the hamlet went to cast their vote in the second phase of Lok Sabha elections during which Tamil Nadu recorded 72 per cent voting.
“Every day I spend hours dragging around a bucket of water, sweeping and mopping the dust off the floor. But the thick layer refuses to leave even when you pour a whole bucket of water over it. What is more frustrating is that we can at least see the dust on the floor but can you see the pollution we breathe? Sometimes it feels like I’m about to get choked,” says Paranthaman.
While everybody in the village seems visibly unhappy with the plant, no one knows who owns it. Back in 2009, Chennai Ferrous Industries Limited allegedly violated many environmental regulations to establish an iron ore plant in Nagaraja Kandigai. However, in the wake of large-scale opposition from the villagers, the company was forced to shut down the plant in 2012. The villagers thought that was the end of their struggle, but their victory was short-lived. “In September last year, the plant was handed over to another manufacturer,” says Karthik, a resident of the village.
“Due to pollution, people in this village are already complaining of various ailments such as asthma and skin diseases. We now really fear for the health of our children,” he adds. Karthik also claimed that a number of cases where women complained of ovary damages have also been reported from the village.
The last six months, they claim, have been particularly difficult because of the new plant. Even though the villagers raised a hue and cry this time as well and went to the district administration and the inspector of factories, no one, they say, paid heed to their complaints. “Even the state pollution board didn’t come to our rescue. This is why we decided to boycott the polls,” Karthik adds.
However, some villagers allege that Pugazhenthi, the village tehsildar, coerced a few residents to cast their votes. “He was able to get 18 voters, including six of his relatives and family members,” says a villager who doesn’t want to be named.
When reached out for his comments, Pugazhenthi denied the claim. “I only requested my family members to vote since I am a government employee. I was simply trying to avoid any problems in future. The others who decided to vote are government employees living in the vicinity of the polling booth,” he says.
Pugazhenthi claims that following a meeting of a peace committee held in the past, a few company officials had assured to limit the emission of smoke. “After that the problem was put off for some time.”
Explaining the bone of contention between the villagers and the plant owner, he says: “They [villagers] say that the company has been running on lease granted to another steel company. They also say that it started operations with a pollution control board certificate, which was earlier given to the Chennai Ferrous Limited. Chennai Ferrous Limited has not been in operation for the past five years. How can the board give certificate to a company that was shut down years back?” The officials of Chennai Ferrous Industries Limited were not available for comment.
One of the villagers tells The Federal that the company in the past accused them of spreading rumours since they were not given jobs in the plant.
To this, the man standing next to him says: “We don’t need jobs. What will we do with jobs if we can’t breathe. Dead men can’t work.”