Listening To The Darkness In Londa…

November 3, 2010 at 9:15 PMNov (Activism, Friends, Media, Musings, Slice Of Life)

On the 16- 17th of July 2010 I was in Londa after five long years. Londa is located in the Belgaum district and Karnataka Goa border on the Western Ghats. It is known for being a railway junction which was the only connecting point between Karnataka and north regions of railways prior to Konkan railways. Being close to Maharashtra the village shelters both Kannada and Marathi language, though the latter has more roots in the soil. The population of Londa is estimated as 14,000. The Londa gram panchayat constitutes of 36 villages and the land here is fertile agricultural land.

I had reached Londa cutting through the beautiful Doodh-Sagar falls, Castle Rock, the lush green forest. On the 16th evening when I got down from the train I saw a factory very near to the Londa railway station. My cousin, who stays in Londa, with whom I am not in regular touch (because of my moodiness and laziness), had mentioned a couple of times, in the past five years, about a factory that has come up in Londa and about the pollution it has caused.

Next morning my while talking to my aunt the matter of the Factory came up and she said, “Because it is raining we don’t have dust inside. Else the dust and smoke emitted by the factory reaches every house, every well and every lung here in Londa.” My cousins son (age: one and a half year) was playing around us while we were conversing. Recollecting the recent past my aunt said, “The villagers were opposing it and fighting against the factory. But they have books cases against them and they are in the court and police station most of the time with no proper time for themselves. Now others do not dare to go fight against the factory.” Akshan (my cousin’s son) was playing happily. “The dust and smoke, I am told, is dangerous and more for the kids,” said my aunt and continued, “Kids keep putting their hands into their mouth every now and then. Imagine the dust entering their lungs.”

My phone rang and the conversation was interrupted. Once I was done with the call my aunt told me that their neighbor was in the forefront of the battle against the factory. When I expressed my desire to meet him I was told that he had gone to the court and will be available only in the evening. “What time in the evening?” I asked. My train to Delhi was at 18:30 hrs. “No clue,” was the answer from my aunt. Keepig my fingers crossed I had lunch and took a nap.

It was around 17:45 that I got to know from my cousin’s friend (Sheenu) that Chimanrao Banekar, my cousin’s neighbor, was back at home. I rushed to Mr. Banekar’s house immediately with Sheenu who in the house of Mr. Banekar introduced me as Prashanth’s cousin and a former journalist with The Hindu. Mr. Banekar then started narrating the story of Kundil Sponge Iron Limited unit in Londa.

The factory was established in the year 2003, said Mr. Banekar. While establishing the factory the villagers were told that it is a steel plant which the villagers believed as they believed the promise of jobs to local people. It required environmentalist Shree Hari to inform the villagers that the factory was not a steel plant but a sponge iron one. Mr. Hari, said Mr. Banekar, gave an insight into the ill-effects of such a factory to the environment and health of the village. This knowledge made some villagers to come together and oppose the establishment of factory. More people joined in, said Mr. Banekar, when jobs were not given to the local population.

The pollution being caused by the factory became visible only in the year 2005 when dust started accumulating in our houses and dust particles in the drinking water, remembered Mr. Banekar. With the impact of the so called development becoming visible the villagers started taking morchas and also blocked the Highway once. This, he remembers, did not move the authorities. “In spite of us giving memorandums and appeals the Deputy Commissioner did not pay a single visit to our village,” recollected Mr. Banekar.

Meanwhile the people from the factory is said to have given labor contracts and mine supply contracts to the local leaders which was a strategy to weaken the fight against the factory. But Mr. Banekar along with his friends Sashikanth Sawanth and Pradeep Joli collected Rs. 1.5 lakhs from the villagers and filed a petition against the factory. This was in the year 2008, as Mr. Banekar remembers. This led to the closure of the factory for two months. But the factory administration sought permission for dumping, cleaning and painting. It was granted and factory started its complete operation within a few days, states Mr. Banekar.

My phone rang. It was my cousin indicating that the train is about to arrive. I asked Mr. Banekar if he could walk with me till the railway station and give me further information. Mr. Banekar started walking with me. While walking he pointed at some coconut trees and said, “Over 100 coconut trees have gone dry after the factory was established.” As I was staring at one of the coconut trees, he said, “And around three fetal deaths.”

“All this angered the people,” said Mr. Banekar and recollected the October of 2009 when the villagers entered the factory to question the authorities there. The agitated villagers ended up assaulting the then manager of the factory Mr. Paul. This incident further weakened the movement he said because many cases were filed against the people making everyday lives of the people troublesome.

But still there were people who were ready to fight for the cause who broke the road that was leading to the factory and staged a ‘raasta roko’ which as Mr. Banekar remembered, led to the closing of the factory for 25 days.

The restarting of the factory disappointed the villagers further and they went to the M.L.A. Prahlad Rehmani who called for a meeting where it was decided to visit the factory immediately on the very same day. “The visit resulted in the pollution officer declare that 90 per cent of the factory is causing pollution,” said Mr. Banekar and added to it, “But no action was taken against the factory later.”

Following this the school and church in Londa wrote to the Panchayat demanding for the closure of the factory which was harming the village. This created some ripples and finally the M.L.A. arrived to the village on 10 January 2010 and held a meeting in a temple. Many farmers are said to have threatened to commit suicide as their agriculture and farming was being affected seriously because of the factory.

“No representative of the factory arrived to the meeting that day,” recollected Mr. Banekar. “When contacted over phone they made damaging statements about our people, especially women. This made us take a protest rally in the village,” added Mr. Banekar. During the protest march, Mr, Banekar said, some men appointed by the factory authorities threw stones at public properties which led to cases being booked against 250 people of the village. “This almost broke our movement,” said Mr. Banekar.

But on 24 April 2010 advocate F.S. Patil is said to have given petition to the D.C. and the hearing is on. Meanwhile the permission of Pollution Control Board gave to the factory ended on June 30 and is yet to be renewed, informed Mr. Banekar. The people of the village, he said, have written to the D.C. asking him to see to it that the permission is not renewed. He also informed that the license of the factory is only till December 2010. “We need to intensify the movement now and see to it that their permission is not renewed and that their license is not renewed.”

We were already on the railway platform and the train had arrived though there was some ten minutes for the departure. I thanked Mr. Banekar for all the information and moved towards this friend of mine who had come to the station to see me off. I have known him since class ten. I was a regular guest to Londa and he my cousin’s neighbor then. He asked me, “Are you also plotting against our factory?” I did not know what to say. I stood silent. My friend is now working at Kundil Soft Iron Limited. “The owner S.C. Barua is a very influential man. Once when these people managed to close the factory down he told all of us that he will get it reopened in 15 days and he did,” recollected my friend and said, “He says that if these people had asked him in a friendly manner to shut down the factory he would have,” said my friend and added, “He says that he is so aggressive now because the people got aggressive against him.”

The train whistled. I got in. Saw my cousin’s son. Waved at him. Took the window seat. The sun had disappeared. The train moved. I kept looking at the lush green forest and fields as it was being swallowed by the dark night…

21 July 2010

1 Comment

  1. juber said,

    may i knw ur name pls..

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