For over a decade, residents living near gold melting and polishing units in the city’s jewellery hub have been complaining about the toxic fumes from factory chimneys that permeate the air they breathe, but their complaints have been falling on the deaf ears of the BMC and state government
“Our battle is for the next generation. We have spent our life inhaling toxic fumes, but we don’t want our children to suffer the same fate.”
Health goes up in smoke: Dozens of chimneys can be seen from the terrace of one of the buildings in the area. (Inset) resident Neeta Soni
Coming out of the mouth of a blind man, these words capture the sense of despondency that permanently hangs over Bhuleshwar, much like the cloud of toxic fumes causing it. Every morning, residents of the crowded south Mumbai neighbourhood begin their day with chemical fumes entering their houses from chimneys right outside the windows of their houses.
Smoke (circled) coming out of one of the chimneys
The chimneys belong to factories engaged in melting, polishing and refining gold and silver ornaments gold smithy units located in the area, and the residents have been fighting a losing battle to get them to take their life-threatening business elsewhere.
Neeta Soni and Anjana Shah
For over a decade, the Bhuleshwar Residents Association has been fighting a legal battle and petitioning agencies to get the units shifted out of the residential zone, but claim that the BMC and other government authorities have been turning a deaf ear.
In fact, in the last few years, the number of factories has increased and is still growing despite the evident hazards of the pollution caused by the chemicals (sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ammonia and hydrochloric acid, among others) used in the units. To avoid getting caught in the act by government agencies, the factories release the fumes early in the morning or after sunset.
While various authorities, including the BMC and the Maharashtra State Human Rights Commission have stated unequivocally that the fumes released from the units are having a serious impact on the residents’ health, a KEM hospital report from 2005 had a really startling, clinching statistic.
“In 2005, KEM Hospital undertook a health survey, in which it was found that 55% of residents living near these factories suffered from asthma, bronchitis and restrictive lung disease,” said Devendra Shah, a blind man and office bearer of the Bhuleshwar Residents’ Association, who began the fight against the factories in 2001, after a gas cylinder blast in a refining factory in Phophalwadi killed 24 people.
“Even in 2009, a survey conducted by the BMC’s environment department has shown a high level of respiratory suspended particulate matter. They have been conducting surveys again and again to delay action,” he added. Devendra Shah’s friend, Vijay Shah, who has also been at the forefront of the fight, said he has been maintaining documents for the last 13 years.
“A few months ago, the environment secretary had directed a committee to look into the pollution caused by gold smithy units. The committee has members of the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, Maharashtra Pollution Control Board, and representatives of the residents and those who own the factories.
It has been six months since the committee was constituted, but it has not met even once,” alleged Vijay. “In 2012, the then CM, Prithviraj Chavan, had directed the concerned department to take action and shift these factories out of the residential area, but nothing has happened and they are running their businesses freely,” he added.
In the last 13 years, four major accidents have taken place in gold smithy units in Bhuleshwar, in which 38 people have died. On 31 May, 2001, a cylinder blast took place in one such unit, Phophalwadi, killing 24 people, including children.
After this incident, then Additional Municipal Commissioner Ajit Kumar Jain in his inquiry report (August 18, 2001) stated: “The gold smithy units’ refining work is polluting the air in the area and this has serious impact on health.” He had also recommended shifting these units to the Anjeerwadi and Mazgaon industrial zone.
In April 19, 2005, the then Maharashtra State Human Rights Commission President, Justice Anand Mane, had passed an order stating: “It is true that residents are facing serious health problems from hazardous chemicals being released due to refining, melting and polishing activities being undertaken in these units. Municipal authorities are not taking measures to prevent the release of the chemicals”
The other side
General Secretary of Mumbai Suvarnakar Sangh, Ramesh Gujarathi, said, “Very little pollution is caused by gold smithy units. The acid used by the workers causes some pollution, but it is not that harmful.
Some of the chimneys, if they are below the permitted height, should be raised above the building level. If there is a better place where this industry can be moved, the government should look into the matter.”
BMC chief Sitaram Kunte said, “I will look into the matter and instruct officers to take safety measures.” Assistant Secretary (Technical), MPCB, P K Mirashe said, “The pollution is caused by the acid used in polishing and refining. We will meet and discuss he issue.
The committee (set up on the orders of the environment secretary) has experts of NEERI and MPCB and action will be taken based on the observations and suggestions of members.” Assistant Commissioner (C ward), Dr. Sangeeta Hasnale, did not reply to our calls.
I live on the fourth floor of the Narnarayan building and all of us suffer, at least, from constant headaches, cough and cold due to the smoke from the chimneys right outside our windows. Over the past 15 years, the number of chimneys has increased drastically. We open our windows very rarely because of the fumes. The factories are operated mostly in the night and early in the morning so that no one can see the toxic fumes - Neeta Soni (45)
Every morning, we wake up to find our houses full of the hazardous smoke and we can't even breathe properly. The fumes have also put an end to our children's outdoor activities. They used to play on the terrace in the evening, but now there is too much smoke - Anjana Shah (40)