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You would think that because India was formerly part of the British Empire and became an independent democracy, there would be less pollution and better working conditions than found in China. Well, you would be wrong.
You wouldn’t find it any healthier to live in many of the industrial cities of India than the industrial cities in China. India is developing more slowly, but its growth is already taking a toll on the health of its people. India’s population has more than tripled since independence in 1947, from 350 million people to 1.2 billion, severely straining the country’s environment, infrastructure, and natural resources.
In my last article, I mentioned that four cities in India were listed in the Blacksmith Institute’s “Dirty 30” of the 2007 report, “The World’s Worst Polluted Places.” Consider Vapi, at the southern end of India’s “Golden Corridor,” a 400-km belt of industrial estates in the state of Gujarat. More than 50 industrial estates can be found in the region, containing over 1,000 industries and extending over more than 1,000 acres. Many estates are chemical manufacturing centers, producing petrochemicals, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, textiles, dyes, fertilizers, leather products, paint, and chlor-alkali. Waste products discharged from these industries contain heavy metals (copper, chromium, cadmium, zinc, nickel, lead, and iron), cyanides, pesticides, aromatic compounds like PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), and other toxins.
The Indian Medical Association reports that most local drinking water is contaminated because of the absence of a proper system for disposing of industrial waste. Industrial waste instead drains directly into the Damaganga and Kolak rivers. Vapi’s groundwater has levels of mercury 96 times higher than World Health Organization standards. Approximately 71,000 people have no choice but to drink contaminated well water, as clean water sources are more than a mile away. The water is so discolored by contaminants it looks like a bottle of orange soda. Local produce contains heavy metals up to 60 times the safe standard. There is a high incidence of respiratory diseases, chemical dermatitis, and skin, lung, and throat cancers. Women in the area report high incidences of spontaneous abortions, abnormal fetuses, and infertility. Children’s ailments include respiratory and skin diseases and retarded growth.
It isn’t any better in Sukinda, in the state of Orissa, where 97% of India’s chromite ore deposits are located. Twelve mines operate without any environmental management plans, and more than 30 million tons of waste rock is spread over the surrounding area and the banks of the Brahmani River. The mines discharge untreated water directly into the river. Approximately 70% of the surface water, and 60% of the drinking water, contains hexavalent chromium at more than double national and international standards. The polluted Brahmani River is the only water source for 2,600,000 people. Health problems include gastrointestinal bleeding, tuberculosis, asthma, infertility, birth defects, and stillbirths.
The Indian economy is growing rapidly, but pollution is quickly spiraling out of control and rivers are dying by the dozens. Fully 80% of urban waste, including industrial waste, winds up in the country’s rivers. Much of this comes from untreated sewage. The Ganges River has levels of fecal coliform, a dangerous bacterium that comes from untreated sewage, 3,000 percent higher than what is considered safe for bathing. More than three billion liters of waste are pumped into Delhi’s Yamuna River each day. “The river is dead, it just has not been officially cremated,” said Sunita Narain, director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, one of India’s top environmental watchdog groups, to www.Spiegel-Online.com in reference to the Yamuna.
Air pollution is also a growing problem. The four main sources are: Vehicles, power plants, industry, and refineries. India’s air pollution is exacerbated by its heavy reliance on coal for power generation. Coal supplies more than half the country’s energy needs and nearly three-quarters of its electricity. Reliance on coal has led to a 900% increase in carbon emissions over the past 40 years. India’s coal plants are old and not outfitted with modern pollution controls. Also, Indian coal has a high ash content, which creates smog. Vehicle emissions are responsible for 70% of the country’s air pollution. Exhaust from vehicles has increased 800%, and industrial pollution 400%, in the past 20 years.
Although the Constitution of India guarantees free and compulsory education to children between the age of 6 to 14 and prohibits employment of children younger than 14 in any hazardous environment, child labour is rampant. According to the article, “The Hidden Factory: Child Labour in India,” in The South Asian, May 7, 2005, many consumer goods are “the products of a hidden factory of countless children, many as young as five years old, toiling for tireless hours, under harsh, hazardous, exploitative, often life-threatening conditions for extremely low wages.” The article states: “India has the largest number of working children in the world.” Credible estimates range from 12 to 15 million child laborers. What is even more horrible is that a large percentage of these children are de facto slaves, bonded to their jobs, with no means of escape or freedom until they can repay their parents’ loans. The major industries using child labor are:
Carpets – An estimated 50,000 to 1,050,000 children, as young as six, are often chained to carpet looms in confined, dimly lit workshops, making the thousands of tiny wool knots that become expensive hand-knotted carpets for export. Recruiters or organized gangs pay landless peasants cash advances to “bond” their children to their jobs. The children suffer from spinal deformities, retarded growth, respiratory illnesses, and poor eyesight.
Brassware – An estimated 40,000 to 45,000 children, as young as six, are involved in brassware production, including jobs like removing molten metal from molds and furnaces, electroplating, polishing, and applying chemicals. If they survive being injured from molten metal and exposure to furnaces operating as high as 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, they often suffer from tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases due to inhalation of fumes from the furnaces and metal dust.
Leather – As many as 25,000 children, from 10 to 15, are involved in the manufacture of shoes. They suffer from respiratory problems, lung diseases, and skin infections from continuous skin contact with industrial adhesives and breathing the vapors from glues.
Gemstones – Children are commonly engaged as “apprentices” in the gem polishing industry. The learning process takes five to seven years and they work an average of 10 hours a day. Major health issues include tuberculosis and respiratory diseases.
Glass – This industry employs an estimated 8,000 to 50,000 children as young as eight. They work in an inferno due to the intense heat of glass furnaces (1,400-1,600oC) and suffer from skin burns, tuberculosis, respiratory diseases, mental retardation, and genetic cell damage.
Silk – An estimated 5,000 children, mostly girls from five to 16, are employed in silk manufacturing, which includes sericulture, dyeing, and weaving the silk. Chemicals and boiling water in the dyeing process are common health hazards; skin burns from the boiling water and respiratory diseases from the chemicals often result.
Agriculture –Parents pledge children as young as six to landlords as bonded laborers. The number of bonded laborers is not categorized by adults and children, but the total is estimated to range from 2.6 to 15 million. Children are involved in all types of agriculture and are completely controlled by their masters, receiving a bare minimum of food and lodging. More than 90% of bonded laborers in India, many of whom became bonded as children, never had the opportunity to go to school.
Mining – A 2006 report, “Our Mining Children,” prepared by a team of non-profit organizations, described the condition of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in the mining industry.
Karnataka, for example, is a state with vast mineral resources, of which the Bellary district has the most extensive range. Minerals mined include iron ore, manganese, quartz, gold, copper, granite, and decorative stones. India is the fourth-largest iron-ore producer in the world. As a result of new government economic policies, a shift to privatization, an open market economy, and wide-open markets in China, South Korea, and Australia, mining companies have bought up thousands of acres of land in the district since 2000.
All of the mines visited by government teams had child laborers, some as young as five. It is estimated that as many as 200,000, or 50%, of the workers are children. The mining economy is only profitable because of large-scale child labor and the flouting of social and environmental laws. The mine owners say they only employ the adults, but as the families live at the mine site, the children join in the work. The parents force their children to work because they say they cannot survive otherwise.
As you can see, India is not any better than China for products to be made--the pollution is just as bad, working conditions are as bad or worse, and child labor is rampant. Make the better choice, Made in USA!Michele Nash-Hoff is the president of ElectroFab Sales, a sales agency specializing in helping manufacturers select the right processes for their products. She is past president of the San Diego Electronics Network, the San Diego Chapter of the Electronics Representatives Association, and the High Technology Foundation. She is the author of two books, "For Profit Business Incubators" and "Can American Manufacturing Be Saved? Why We Should and How We Can." To contact her, click here.