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Fri Nov 24 09:53:36 MST 2000
NY Times, November 24, 2000
A Cruel Choice in New Delhi: Jobs vs. a Safer Environment
By CELIA W. DUGGER
NEW DELHI, Nov. 23 This teeming city of 14 million is one of the
smoggiest in the world, and it is parted by a river that has been compared
to a sewer. But after the Supreme Court took steps last week to compel
Delhi to clean itself up, thousands of people took to the streets in
violent protests, demanding that the dirty old factories stay open.
Mobs torched buses, threw stones and blocked major roads on Monday. Factory
owners and workers poured into the streets again Tuesday. And schools for
more than three million children were closed Tuesday and Wednesday.
The city was calm today, but workers say they will be back on the steps of
the Supreme Court next Tuesday when it holds another hearing on whether to
hold Delhi, the state that includes the capital, in contempt for failing to
close what Delhi officials estimate at more than 90,000 small factories
many of which pollute residential areas that employ close to a million
It is a classic developing-world conflict between competing priorities:
clean air and water to protect public health, and jobs to help struggling
The workers' panic rose in the last week as Delhi state officials fanned
out to shutter some of the worst polluters after contempt proceedings began
in the Supreme Court. After riots broke out Monday, Delhi's lawyer begged
the Supreme Court on Tuesday to "go slow" in requiring the state to close
the factories, citing intelligence reports that protesters planned to rush
the court itself and Parliament.
But the Supreme Court, tired of waiting for Delhi to shut down the
industries the court has issued repeated orders and deadlines for action
since 1996 had clearly lost patience, saying, "The court will not
withdraw its orders just because hooligans have taken to the streets."
The Supreme Court said it based its repeated orders to close the polluting
industries on the premise that health is the overriding concern.
Large swaths of residential Delhi are pocked with tiny factories, many of
them little more than dank sweatshops on the ground floors of tenements.
One neighborhood whose lanes are lined with these units is Vishwash Nagar,
in the northeastern part of New Delhi.
Dirty water can be seen gushing from drainage pipes affixed to the sides of
tenements into narrow open drains along both sides of the streets. The
water then flows into the Shahdara Drain, a dirty creek that feeds into the
once magnificent but now heavily polluted Yamuna River.
Vishwash Nagar's streets are clogged with bicycle rickshaws, pushcarts and
scooters, but its normally industrious workers were idle Wednesday,
standing in angry clumps in the streets under the smog that obscured all
hints of blue sky.
The factory owners, on strike against the court ruling, have pulled down
their metal shutters.
Ashok Mehta, who owns a shop that makes industrial molds, led the way into
the two dark, windowless rooms where his 10 men labor over three
oil-spattered machines. Faded posters of Hindu gods are taped to the walls.
The smell of oil fumes hangs in the close air.
"We're sandwiched between the Supreme Court, which says we're hooligans,
and the government, which is coming to close our units," Mr. Mehta said.
Two of his men had come in that day though they were not working.
Sanjay Kumar, the 20-year-old son of a fruit vendor who bicycles to work,
said the $35 a month he earns there helps his family survive. He wondered
how he would find another job if the factories were closed. His gaunt
25-year-old co-r, Vinod Kumar, who makes $55 a month after five years
there, said he is the sole breadwinner supporting his mother and father.
"If these factories are relocated or closed down, we will die with empty
stomachs," he said.
Back outside, the workers clustered together, grumbling. A portly man in a
white sweater vest stood at the fringes of the crowd, and it was not until
he had left them behind and crossed the Shahdara Drain and a busy
thoroughfare that he felt safe enough to talk, though he said he was afraid
of retaliation and would not let his name be used.
He is a real estate agent and officer in the Vishwash Nagar Residents
Welfare Association, and he wanted it known that the air, water and noise
pollution the factories produce is a curse on the neighborhood. The owners
rent the ground floors of the tenements, then don't pay up and refuse to
move, he said. Many use powerful spray painters that produce noxious fumes.
"We live here," he said. "We have to bear the brunt of this pollution."
The Delhi government moved to close down the polluting factories only in
the last week after the Supreme Court asked city authorities to explain why
Delhi should not be held in contempt for failing to act after the earlier
Delhi officials admitted in court that they licensed 15,000 industrial
units in residential areas in violation of the court's earlier orders.
But Delhi may yet get some relief from the Indian government, which has
jurisdiction over the capital city's master plan. The federal urban
development minister, Jagmohan (he uses only one name), told Parliament
today that the government may change the definition of a household industry
to allow more nonpolluting industrial units to operate legally in
"Government is keen to find a fair and just solution for all concerned," he
The court is requiring that factories operating illegally in residential
areas be closed and relocated, but some environmental researchers question
this approach. Delhi is growing at such a rapid rate that it would likely
swallow up the same industries again in a matter of years, they say.
The experts say the factories are believed to pose a greater danger to
water than to air quality. Scooters, motor rickshaws and diesel buses are
responsible for most of the air pollution that gives so many Delhi
residents persistent hacking coughs, they said.
R. K. Pachauri, director of the Tata Energy Research Institute, a nonprofit
group that researches environmental issues, said the city and the central
government have both failed to document the extent of the problem posed by
industrial units in residential areas or to help the small operators clean
up their operations.
"What we're seeing is the Supreme Court jumping in because there's a
vacuum," he said.
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