Khrew, Khanmoh: Non-compliance from cement factories and lack of a proper environmental audit has left the inhabitants of Kashmir’s twin industrial hubs, Khrew and Khanmoh, vulnerable to life-threatening health problems. These factories emit a thousand kilograms of toxic fumes every day, as per experts, thereby wrapping neighbouring villages in a toxic grey cloud.
Public health is reeling, and ambient air pollution is blamed for a number of respiratory tract infections. In 2015, nearly, 20,000 people were reportedly diagnosed with several respiratory tract diseases. There are also ten tuberculosis patients here.
Environmental woes that might be considered catastrophic in some places can seem commonplace in Kashmir: industrial areas turned into dust bowls, children sickened by lead-poisoning or other types of local pollution and a prized piece of saffron-growing land covered with a thick blanket of concrete dust and turned into a desert.
At present, there are nine cement factories operational in Khrew and Khanmoh, spread over approximately 1000 kanals of land in the Srinagar outskirts. These pose an imminent threat to the survival of local flora and fauna; human life seems to be in the worst jeopardy.
A doctor working at the Khanmoh Primary Health Centre, who wished not to be named, said that he was shocked to see the number of patients with respiratory tract ailments. “I have served at Chest and Disease Hospital, Srinagar, for 10 years but was shocked to see the number of people with respiratory tract infections here. Every day, I see 40-50 cases of patients with respiratory tract infections. Allergic bronchitis, bronchial asthma and lots of COPD [Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease] are common here.” He added, “Most elderly people have severe chest infection which leads to pulmonary tuberculosis and ultimately to cancer. A large number of children here have acute allergy bronchitis, which is alarming. Skin infections like dermatitis, eczema and rashes are also common, and so is furunculosis and conjunctivitis, which people suffer from in large numbers.”
Locals blame the situation on the inefficient and inadequate pollution controlling devices that these factories are running with. No monitoring devices have been installed in these factories, leaving no check on particulate matter being released into the atmosphere, they said.
Environmental activist Adil, who is fighting against the industrial hub’s unabated pollution, said, “The chimneys are spewing untreated air relentlessly; 5 to 10 years down the line, these factories themselves won’t survive if this is not checked right now.” He added, “The cement factories are violating the Forest Act 1990 by operating under dense forest cover and are flaunting afforestation rules by not planting enough trees. They are shying away from their corporate social responsibility.”
Adil said that these factories have to seek permission from industries to extend their production, but they continue in operation without it because of influence and power. He further said that 70,000 acres of agricultural land is affected by air pollution. “These factories are flouting air control norms, and if they claim otherwise, they are lying,” he said.
Environmental experts explain that one major pollutant contributing to these areas’ bad air is particulate matter, which includes concentrations of fine dust, soot and aerosol particles less than 10 microns in diameter (known as PM 10).
The level of such particulates is measured in micrograms per cubic meter of air. Global environmental experts stipulate that any reading above 40 micrograms is unsafe. But Jammu and Kashmir allows 100. In the last six months, the average PM 10 level was 80, according to the state Pollution Control Board (PCB).
Emissions of sulphur dioxide can cause respiratory and cardiovascular diseases as well as acid rain. Cement production releases greenhouse gases directly and indirectly and is a major source of CO2, thereby contributing to climate change.
Other major air pollutants, including ozone, an important component of smog, and smaller particulate matter, called PM 2.5, emitted when gasoline is burned, are not widely monitored. Medical experts believe that PM 2.5 causes more chronic diseases of the lung and heart than the more widely watched PM 10.
The Regional Director of the Kashmir PCB, Dr Syed Nadeem Hussain, said, “I will not rule out that there is pollution in these areas as cement factories are in close proximity to each other and are emitting harmful gases beyond prescribed norms. Apart from regular industrial audits, we have set up two monitoring stations in these areas, which are checking the ambient air very closely.” He also said that all the cement factories are fitted with pollution control devices like ASPs and back filters. “Last year, we issued notice to these factories to install online monitoring devices. We have very clearly told them if they do not comply, they will be shut down.”
Mohammad Asif, a former engineer at one of the factories, explained that most of the equipment at these factories has aged and is thereby inefficient at completely controlling pollutants. Also, pollution controlling devices like electrostatic precipitators are not easy to maintain, and so most factories flaunt the rules to reduce the maintenance time. “During night hours, they completely bypass the air purification process,” he said.
According to Khrew Welfare Society, a population of 60,000 people, along with their livestock, agricultural land of almost 70 thousand kanals, saffron land, water bodies, forests and wildlife, has been seriously affected.
“Dust seems to have fogged up our life forever,” said Masarat Salafi, a businesswoman who runs a saffron firm. “Vegetables, water and almost everything is covered with a thick layer of concrete dust”.
Not long ago, she said, Khrew used to be a wildlife sanctuary, and kids would come here for recreation. But due to these cement factories, everything now stands choked. “Saffron production has gone down drastically,” she said. “The produce of Kashmir saffron has gone down from 385 kg to a mere 78 kg.
“The irony is that on the one hand, the government is pumping in huge money in the shape of the ‘Saffron Mission’, and on the other, they are destroying saffron production. Thus, a biological as well as an ecological genocide is going on,” she added
Mining of raw material for these cement factories seems to be another problem as unauthorised mining goes unchecked. “They use high intensity explosives to mine various stones. What is more alarming is that they are now mining illegally, thus posing a threat to the ecological diversity of the area,” Gowher, a local, said.
There are nearly 200-300 unauthorised quarry units operating in Khrew and Khanmoh, looting resources illegally and supplying them to these factories. These quarry units once used to be the home of wildlife like deer, leopard and bear.
Farooq Ahmad, an engineer at the Geology and Mining department, said, “The factories have been given specific places to mine raw material, and we regularly visit the sites to check any irregularity. Last year, we have seized a large number of vehicles that were operating illegally.”
In 2015, a division bench of Chief Justice N. Paul Vasanth Kumar and Justice Tashi Rabstan issued notice to the government on a public interest litigation seeking to prevent environmental pollution caused by cement plants in Khrew and Khanmoh area. The court directed the PCB to assess the level of pollution and submit the report within two months.
But nothing has happened till now as locals allege, locals said.