New Delhi Streets Flow With
Acid From Industrial Complex
By Ashok Sharma
Associated Press
NEW DELHI, India (AP) -- In the home of Asia's biggest -- and most primitive -- stainless steel complex, choking yellow fumes fill the air and acid flows through the streets of the Wazipur neighborhood.
In a hellish daily ritual that results from ignorance of safety standards, greed and official neglect, 22-year-old Satish Kumar empties plastic containers of hydrochloric and nitric acid into a vat on the roadside. He wears gloves and high rubber boots, but no mask to protect his eyes and lungs from the fumes.
Kumar coughs, recovers and then jumps into the tub. For hours, he stands there shuffling small sheets of stainless steel in an acid bath to wash away carbon impurities left on the metal's surface from the manufacturing process. He is paid 1,300 rupees -- about $30 -- a month.
Looking for work, Kumar traveled more than 600 miles from his village in Bihar, considered India's most lawless state, to find this job in the capital. "This is another kind of lawlessness," he says.
Kumar works for one of about 1,000 small factories that clean steel in Wazirpur, then dump the acid into storm drains. The cleaned-up steel sheets are used to make glasses, bowls, spoons and kitchenware both for export and domestic sales.
Wazirpur "is a hell for nearly 100,000 people who eke out a living," says Dr. Balkrishna Sharma, who runs a clinic in the neighborhood. Many workers suffer from asthma and don't stick to the job for more than three or four years.
When the monsoon rains come in July and August, an acid lake spreads through the neighborhood, which also is home to a squatter community of hundreds of people. The streets run black with chemical wastes. Residents wade through acid solutions sometimes up to knee-deep.
"We have no choice. We have nowhere else to go," says Mohini Devi, who lives with her husband and three children in a mud hut in the industrial complex.
New Delhi officials long ago promised to clean up the area, but made no progress. So, last year, India's Supreme Court intervened, naming a five-man study committee that has recommended building a $2.3 million waste treatment plant for the area. Factory owners are to contribute half the cost.
The local government has allotted land for the proposed plant and work is expected to start soon. The project also is to include construction of proper drainage and the paving of roads. No date for completion has been set.
Industrialized countries have switched from acid baths to an advanced and safer electroplating system. But, with India's low labor costs, that process would increase manufacturing costs for Indian steel makers. And it also requires an uninterrupted power supply, something the Indian electric grid doesn't provide.
"We can't adopt that technique in the face of power shortages," says Parsuram Sharma, a spokesman for a local factory owners' association.
Conditions in the steel-making district are worsened by poor maintenance. The area has huge craters instead of paved streets, allowing toxic pools to accumulate.
"For six to seven years, the authorities haven't bothered to repair the roads," says Nirlesh Garg, owner of a steel plant.
The government collects at least $4.7 million every month from the district through income tax, excise duty and sales tax, but the owners' pleas for infrastructure improvements have been unanswered, Sharma, the owner assocation spokesman, says.
"Whenever we approach the state governor, chief minister and industry minister, the stock reply is, 'Government has no money."'