The Chemical Hub – what are the socio-economic costs and why should we bear them?

September 18, 2007

Translated by Kuver Sinha, Sanhati

Chemical Pollutants and their Types.

The chemical industry and pollution have become almost synonymous these days. In the face of sustained environmental activism in developed countries, many governments have been forced to take steps on this issue. In 2001, the Stockholm Convention declared twelve specific chemical products to be the “dirty dozen”, in an effort to protect the planet. After that, a number of other chemicals have been added to the list – dioxins, furan, DDT, aldrin, dieldrine, certain insecticides containing chlorine, etc. These are called Persistent Organic Pollutant or POP compounds. In other words, not only are these harmful, they can remain intact in the environment, and may be bio-accumulative. It is thus possible for these products to enter into the food chain. For example DDT sprayed on grass may be consumed by livestock, enter the human body through milk products, and be passed on to progeny. This kind of chemical product is called PBT or Persistent Accumulative Toxic chemical. Another category of compounds is the “Carcinogenic, Mutagenic, and Toxic to Reproduction” compounds, or CMR compounds in short.

Petrochemical industries lead to both POP and CMR compounds. That is the reason Europe and the USA have stringent laws controlling the production of these chemicals. Developed countries have not only built up a system of controlling the production of POP, CMR, and PBT products, they also closely monitor the amounts of such materials in industrial waste.

It isn’t difficult to guess to what extent such control is possible in a country like India . Not to speak of extra workers’ protection, or control over the handling of dangerous chemicals, whose effects are demonstrably life-long.

Where do the Chemical Industries go?

Sustained research on the effects of pollutants created by chemical industries, and their effect on the environment has forced developed countries to think afresh. In Europe , after the REACH law was created, multinational chemical companies have started to move off . The new law entered into force on 1 June 2007. REACH stands for Registration Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals. Compliance with this law calls for immense environmental responsibility – such responsibility cuts into profit – and companies move elsewhere, closing the logical cycle. The German company BASF has openly declared that this law isn’t realistic – it would lead to such towering production costs that people wouldn’t even use chemicals anymore. But Europe has not yielded an inch. The US has similarly remained steadfast in its compliance laws. But, of course, the first world cannot forgo the use of chemicals, which are often indispensable, for example, in medicine, in the fabric industry, in the manufacturing industries, etc. Thus, their societies need chemicals, and need them cheap and clean.

For that there is the Third World – us. Where there is no environmental responsibility, there isn’t workers’ protection or wages, where even the most basic safety measures are flouted so that costs can be cut (remember Bhopal ?). In this context, it is relevant to mention that although REACH bans the manufacture of many chemicals, it doesn’t ban the import of the finished product!

It is a lie to say that anybody is lending us a helping hand by investing. Investment is coming because of its own interests. And it is these investors who have been welcomed with red carpets by governments in the country, from the Central to the State, from Right to Left. For example the “Maharashtra Unnayon Parshad” – who said, in their April 1998 report “The Green Movement in the West has presented a golden opportunity for India to dominate world market in chemical products. Allied Corporation (now AlliedSignal), American Cynamide (now a part of American Home Product), Dupont, and many other companies have stopped manufacturing in the US . In the worldwide quest for cheap labor and loose environmental laws, India enjoys a special advantage…”

The various ruling political parties in India are fighting tooth and nail to curry favor with chemical companies, selling out the health of our people and our environment in the process. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya has declared that he is not ready to lose this deal to Maharastra.

Is There Really a Plan of Development Here?

It is clear from this initiative that the government does not have a plan for development at all. We have not been informed which chemicals will be produced. Who are the investors? What is their policy and procedure of using chemicals? Is everything being left to the whims of the investors? Not only are they being given land on a platter, special economic zones (SEZs) are being created for them, and such regions are not subject to the rules of the Pollution Control Board. We are hearing that the labor laws of the country will not be applicable there either, in spite of the fact that it is precisely for this kind of industry that worker safety is most important. Workers should be given extra compensation in this hazardous industry, and since the health effects are often lifelong, the government should assume long-term responsibility.

Most importantly – who will be the consumers of the produced chemicals? If the target is the international market, it is difficult to justify why we should bear the social costs. Foreign companies come and go – that is the lesson that history teaches us. We have seen this in Argentina , Mexico , in South East Asia and elsewhere. It is worth noting that the government plans to develop the chemical hub in the pattern of Brazil – raw materials will come from outside, and be processed on our land and water, using our cheap labour. The produced material will again return abroad. Before we embark on this endeavour, efforts should be made to fix our national policy on chemical usage, and we should cautiously decide on the materials that we need ourselves.

Questions must be raised about the disposal of waste products. The first world has zero tolerance on this issue. We have not been told what our government’s policy will be in this regard.

An example will elucidate the magnitude of this issue. In the US , areas which accumulate dangerous levels of chemical waste are called Superfunds. The US Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program is a federal program to clean up the nation’s uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. Till January 2002, Dupont itself was responsible for 19 such areas, including a hazardous site in Newport Delaware , which threatens 10,000 people who live within a radius of one mile. Drinking wells placed within a 3-mile radius may cause organ damage, respiratory problems, or cancer. Groundwater in such areas has been banished, residents receive water from a Dupont constructed line. Dupont also had to remove 10,000 yards of wetland sediments – a $37 million investment just for that. The land is still, of course, off-limits for future development.

It is imperative that we think about the future of areas surrounding the proposed chemical hub. Bengal is one of the most densely populated areas of the world – orders of magnitude more so than Delaware , for example. Is there any policy of waste disposal?

Chemical Companies and Agriculture

It is important to evaluate the impending chemical venture in the light of the government’s recent foray into Genetically Modified crops, and the silent entry of Monsanto cotton in Bengal . On August 3,2007 , West Bengal Minister Agriculture Minister Naren Dey announced the beginning of BT Cotton field trails. When asked about BT Cotton cultivation in the state, Agriculture Secretary Atanu Purakayashta has said there is no bar on cotton cultivation.

Today, the main application of the chemical industry is in agriculture. From seeds, fertilizers, insecticides, etc. to the way farming is done, crop diversity, and even peoples’ food habits are being changed by the chemical industry. What is available in the market and what is not, which crops are grown in which areas – everything is being decided by the interests of agricultural business.

Chemical companies are either buying off the seed companies one by one, or entering into pacts with them. For example Monsanto. They have bought out seed companies like Kargil and Dekalb, and established total control over the international seed business. Dow Chemicals and Monsanto have recently entered into a pact for allied business all over the world. Monsanto, Dow AgriBusiness, and other companies are now developing seeds in their labs, seeds such that only a particular chemical, only a particular pesticide and fertilizer are needed for it. A total package. A farmer is thus forced to use this complete package. In addition, the seeds are terminator seeds – if seeds are collected from the produce, that seed is essentially useless. The farmer is forced to buy seeds (and hence the package) next year, year after year.

It is clear that there is a nexus between the chemical industry and agribusiness. It is one thing if seeds and fertilizers remain under the control of farmers – it is quite another if such control is taken away by companies and agriculture is then declared to be unprofitable. The price of farming is increasing, farmers are not making profits from agriculture, and much of the profit is being sucked out by international chemical companies, and their satellite seed companies.


The government is basically giving land to whoever wants it, without a coherent plan for industrial development. There is no clear strategy of deciding which industries should be developed where, why exactly they are necessary, and how they fit into the overall scheme of development. Everything is being left to the investors.

When the whole world has set up stronger and stronger control over chemical industries due to the hazards involved, how well-advised is it to set such an industry up in a densely populated country like India , or a state with the huge population of West Bengal ? Where the government has no infrastructure for protecting public health, no machinery for controlling environmental pollution, what is the pressing reason to set up a hazardous chemical industry? Will we be the beneficiaries? What is the overall plan of industrial development? What products are being produced, and what are the laws of their use?

This article is an excerpt from Chemical Hub – Ak Nihshobdo Ghatak, published by Platform