Poison in Paradise

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How burning garbage and indiscriminate quarrying on the coast could spell the death of the Andaman Islands

On any evening in Port Blair, you’ll look westwards and see the picture-postcard sunset, clear and unmediated by pollution—except for a tiny patch with what looks like a volcano sputtering and smoking. In this island paradise, it’s unexpectedly baleful.

At the tourist’s dive of Corbyn’s Cove, 3 km on the west coast of Port Blair, baleful turns toxic. Tourists say what the Andaman & Nicobar Islands (A&N) tourism brochures don’t: that you swim in these once-ultramarine waters at your own risk. At slack water, the still interstice between tides, the water is dotted with half-burnt bottles, polythene bags, things that have half-rotted. The retreating tide reveals a long, shallow intertidal zone littered with urban rubbish. At high tide, the beachers have tips of toxic foam. After a dip, your eyes sting; your skin feels coated with oily granules. “I thought this happens in over-chlorinated swimming pools,” says Shai Kollek from Tel-Aviv. “But this is not a swimming pool, this is the sea!”

The source of Kollek’s provocation lies to the right of the cove—the enormous, 4-sq-km Brookshabad garbage dump, which burns 24/7, emitting lazy, dense billows of hydrogen chloride, hydrogen cyanide, polychlorinated biphenyls and dioxins. A daytime offshore breeze blows the acrid aerosol back into Port Blair, the only urban area of the A&N Islands, while a steady urban runoff pushes ash and non-biodegradable toxins into the sea.

Dioxin—the stuff of the Vietnam defoliant, Agent Orange, which reportedly killed 500,000 civilians—has a 10-year half-life and is a guaranteed killer of marine life. Five years ago, it led the A&N administration and tourist operators to write off Snake Island, a ‘critter arcadia’ less than a kilometre offshore from Corbyn’s Cove. Financially, it hurt: it had been a hotspot for snorkellers aiming to gawk at banded sea snakes, trigger fish, grunts, goatfish and manta rays.

The Brookshabad coastal dump is fed by a rattletrap fleet of yellow Port Blair Municipal Council dumpsters that pick up about 90 tonnes of garbage from 70 locations twice a day. The upside of this diligence is that Port Blair is as clean as urban India gets. But the downside is a coastline-hugging ridge of fuming rubbish.

At night, in the tiny Brookshabad Ranchi Tikri slum of 70 families (which go way back to 1926 and the First Wave of indentured tribal labour from Chhotanagpur), the acrid reek of toxins drives children and the elderly indoors, where they hack through the night. In low-lying Prothrapur, a densely-populated residential suburb that nudges Brookshabad, people often wake up to a shroud of fine grey powder. Since most people here wouldn’t know dioxins from cherry blossoms, it has a name that was once unsuspectingly friendly but is now uttered in irony: ‘powder rain’.

Aerosol dioxin constitutes one part of powder rain; the second part is quarry dust thrown up by scores of hydraulic jacks, compressors, frontloaders, excavators, giant dumpsters and pneumatic steel drillers grinding away at the 38 open-pit quarries in Brookshabad; the third part is blast fumes—primarily sulphur dioxide, harmless when dry but a civic nightmare in the 70-90 per cent humidity. Quarry-owners in the Andamans aren’t big spenders; instead of expensive dynamite or Primacord, they use cheap ANFO (ammonium nitrate/fuel oil), which can be put together in a garage.

Believing that low-explosive ANFO wouldn’t count as a national security issue, a cartel of Andamanese quarriers attempted to smuggle 10,000 kg of ammonium nitrate, 2,468 gelatine sticks and 6,000 detonators from Chennai into Port Blair. Two were caught on 21 June 2011. Today, there are 23 quarriers in Veer Savarkar district jail who— absurdly—face charges of terrorism. Many are prominent members of the Andaman Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI). In the run-up to India’s next General Election, the governor-administrator, Lieutenant General (retd) Bhopinder Singh, a Congress repeat appointee, apparently can’t understand the Central politics of denying them bail. They are the Islands’ traditional go-to guys for funds and their incarceration is costing him the unconditional support of bodies such as the ACCI, Andaman Tamizhar Sangam and Kannada Sangam, which represent the richest one-sixth of the local population, and which distress him by flirting with the Islands’ BJP unit. Flirting right back, the BJP local chief, R Mohan, sympathised at a July 2012 confab “that most of the arrested persons are actually very reputed and well respected individuals of Andaman society and it is unfair to treat them like terrorists”.

In 2009, the Congress had lost A&N’s sole Lok Sabha seat to the BJP. Since it is Bhopinder Singh’s job to prepare the financial ground for a re-appropriation, he went for the most desirable quid pro quo: the pristine forests, uprooted to get at construction raw material. Brookshabad, says Kuldeep Rai Sharma, president of the A&N Territorial Congress Committee (ANTCC), has largely been hollowed out and is now good for only two more years.

He could be right. Four or five of Brookshabad’s quarries are already below sea level. Abutting quarries form a seawall around these low-liers, else the sea would have closed in by now. “We know the integrity of this seawall is not at all assured,” says a quarrier, “but until the administration gives us other land, this is what we have.” It does worry him that the next tsunami, or a significant storm surge, might smash through the natural dyke. Brookshabad held firm during the 26 December 2004 seaquake-tsunami, but only by deflecting the kinetically-weak waters through the Corbyn’s Cove inlet.

Profits aren’t peaking, either. With 20-mm quarry metal at Rs 9,000 a truck and sand at Rs 17,000 a truck, construction material in the Andamans is the costliest in the country—and the sequestering of 86 per cent of land in the ‘protected forests’ category keeps costs high.

In the A&N administration’s Disaster Management Plan 2012, the ‘hazards/disaster agents’ list makes no mention of quarrying and blasting. ‘Man-made disasters’ is listed at number six, and ‘Geologically related disasters’, ‘Chemical, Industrial and Nuclear related disasters’ and ‘Accident related disasters’ at numbers 10, 11 and 12 respectively—and it tries to make no connection between any of the four. ‘Terrorist outrages’, the least likely and which have never occurred, tops the list. The document weakly acknowledges, though, that ‘the coastal areas prone to tidal floods may have [water reactive and corrosive] acid sulphate soil’ and that ‘their organic matter content is [in] decline’, meaning that the coastline is losing the trees that bind the soil.

I ask Shibu Varghese, who owns Port Blair’s prettiest and most eco-friendly hotel-resort and is an epistolary thorn in the administration’s side, which he rates as a more critical issue: death through dioxins and quarry dust, or life through construction? Explosions, he says, grinning.

Brookshabad is the home of three follies: dioxins, quarry particulates, and unstable World War II Japanese munitions. It’s not a rabble-rousing issue, and the only visible legacy of the war are numerous, perfectly-preserved shorefront circular pillbox machine-gun emplacements. But some oldsters here recall that when the Japanese broke through the beachhead at Brookshabad in March 1942, they went through a 300-man Sikh militia like a nihontõ through butter.

“When they departed,” says Varghese, “they left behind huge underground ammo dumps, many in Brookshabad” all packed with Ooshivaku and Angayaku main charges, Bakufun primers, Shimose booster charges and Chakatusuyaku paper-wrapped explosives. After 68 years, moisture-absorption and molecular degradation “could have destabilised the ammo, which the blasting could set off—so I don’t know why no one’s paying attention. A bunker full of bombs exploding will, without fail, destroy Brookshabad, and the Army cantonment with 10,000 troops, and Port Blair. Even if the chances are remote, the possible scale of damage should make everyone sit up.”

The A&N administration isn’t given to validating stories of buried Japanese munitions, even if caches have been documented: unexploded ordnance found near the airport in October 2009; and, in the past decade, two huge arsenals unearthed—and gingerly defused—in Port Blair’s Aberdeen Bazaar and Arong village in Car Nicobar.

Over the years, the in-facing bank of towering 50-70-ft evergreens that soundproofs the blasting has thinned. Locals say that there has been an increase in the number of detonations they can hear inland and out at sea—for instance, from the upper deck of line boats such as the INS Pilomilo, which steams in twice-weekly from Neil Island.

The sea carries sound, but the wide-spectrum thud of ANFO camouflages the training racket of troops of the crucial Andaman & Nicobar Command, India’s only integrated defence staff and theatre command. Eventually, a division will be prepped, at ranges such as the Chinthe 200 Long Range and the Kumaon Small Range at Brichgunj, for duty in North Andaman, a listening post for any Chinese military churning in the Burma-owned Coco Islands located just 21 km north across the channel from Landfall Island, Diglipur. It’s in no one’s interest to rein in Brookshabad’s quarries.

From out at sea, the 60-65-ft Brookshabad rockface is a vertical wall of exposed shale, with house-size rocks tumbled at the waterline. The shore used to be a 40 m slope of scree and vegetation, with a visible intertidal zone. Some locals say the force of the December 2004 tsunami pummelled the Brookshabad seaface into a bluff; some say the blasting guillotined it; it’s likely a bit of both.

A length of South Andaman’s west coast that I have only a walker’s measure of has the sea eating into a newly-vertical bluff. A tidal clobber complements the saltwater’s corrosive reaction with ancient coralline and limestone, carving out deep overhangs and shelves of a stark, frightening beauty.

Two years ago, on Neil Island’s ethereal Sitapur Beach, I was blocked by a highrise of treacherous talus, limestone crags as large as buses and an acre of sprawling, uprooted evergreens—the end of just another skirmish in the oldest battle on earth: between sea and land, invincible force versus immovable object. Every year, said the only entrepreneur on Sitapur Beach, a weathered Bengali selling green coconuts, the sea takes another bite off the island.

Six years ago, powder rain decimated an entire family in Prothrapur. The A&N administration hadn’t bothered about the collateral lethality of quarrying and burning non-biodegradable garbage until old Ammini Varghese wrote a letter to the chief secretary, who was also the chairman of the quarry-friendly Quarry Review Committee. Dated 7 July 2007, it read: ‘I am residing at Prothrapur village bounded by Prathrapur Brichgunj Main Road and quarry approach road. I am a heart patient with chronic diabetics and undergoing treatment at MV Diabetic Centre, Chennai, for the last seven years. Being near to the quarry at Prothrapur village, myself and family have all adverse affects from pollutions, dust and sound.

My daughter-in-law expired 3 years ago, suddenly by suffocation and reaction mainly due to pollution arising from dust and sound. My eldest son is suffering from nose bleeding and piles and undergoing an operation at Nedra a few days ago. The younger son is suffering from multiple diseases and is treated at many hospitals at Chennai and Cochin. My husband Mr Varghese is suffering from breathing troubles and undergoes treatment at Chennai and Port Blair recently.

We firmly believe that pollution is the reason for the illness of all members of the family. A dozen quarries are operating in the Prothrapur area, which generate large volume of sound as well as dust. If we are compelled to have this pollution on a continuous basis, our last breath is not far off. Therefore I request your kindness to eliminate the pollution caused by quarries at the earliest for leading a smooth life in our village.’

Emotion and syntax too uneven, this clearly wasn’t a letter that Ammini had written by herself. The Prothrapur-Brichgunj-Brookshabad belt has many eco-activists frustrated by the administration’s apathy. This includes activists in the Department of Ocean Studies and Marine Biology and Department of Disaster Management run by Pondicherry University, which adjoin Brookshabad. The letter’s writer seems to have caught on that Bhopinder Singh, a 41-year army veteran who had taken over as governor the previous year, worked obliquely. Singh had launched a populist quarry clean-up campaign in June 2007, using gubernatorial diktat to halt 15 SCUs in Prothrapur and six quarries in Brookshabad, and close the Brichgunj-Brookshabad Road to heavy vehicles transporting stone chips. Then, he set up a committee headed by the chief secretary under his direct command to look into whether or not his judgment had been fair. On 4 July 2007, after an hour’s huddle with quarriers and ANTCC leaders, the chief secretary shot down his decision—which had been a gauche plan all along, designed to gain Singh a measure of public trust as a green governor while retaining his equation with quarriers.

There was much public kvetching. On 12 July, five days after she had handed in her letter, Ammini died of pulmonary complications. Bhopinder Singh’s plan had worked fine.

Dioxin toxicity in the ‘catchment zone’ comprising Brookshabad, Brichgunj and Prothrapur—13-sq-km that once teemed with Blue Rock Pigeons, Andaman Teals and Andaman Serpent-Eagles—has shot up since 2007. The 2011 Census noted the population growth rate of Port Blair as almost triple that of A&N. And one of the most detailed reports yet on urban waste, ‘Sustainable Solid Waste Management in India’ (August 2011), declared that Port Blair generated the most per capita daily waste: 760 gm in 2001 (population: 99,984), rising to 867 gm in 2011 (population: 131,779). Much of this, of course, is rubbish. The surveyors gave their statistics no wiggle room to include high-polluting short-stay tourists in Port Blair. The town does not produce mountains of waste; it just handles its waste very badly.

Give paradise a committee of bureaucrats at full bay and it begins to lapse. According to Sathya Murthi, who watches the world transact with A&N from behind his hotel’s front desk, the Andamans’ descent has been a long drawn out story.

Yet, something did change on 29 November 2012. It was on a lazy Thursday that anticipated the usual long weekend that the administration ‘auctioned off’ 38 quarry sites—for the first time; behind closed doors; with no public oversight. For 30 years running, quarrying licences had been annually renewed in a private-government danse de tradition that filled the establishment’s coffers with copious extralegal cash.

This time, though, quarry land was ostensibly sold to bidders for three years (ending 30 June 2015); and because the auction was held four months after the earlier quarrying licences had expired on 30 June 2012, the bidders behaved like maddened crabs in a barrel. (Bhopinder Singh had also stopped meeting them since June, which rattled them because he had promised, among other things, to relocate them from Brookshabad within two years.)

The quarriers stampeded over the reserve price of Rs 4 lakh per site on their way to Rs 55-80 lakh for each explosives-permitted site, and Rs 32-63 lakh for each no-blasting site. “The going rate for the annual renewal of a licence was Rs 1 crore,” says Shibu Varghese. “This three-year unconditional lease costs a great deal more.”

Plenty of official sleight-of-hand went into making the auction costs viable for quarriers. In a gazette notification dated 23 November 2012—a week before the big sell-off—Bhopinder Singh reduced the minimum distance of ‘Stone Crusher Units’ located on the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) to 100 metres starting not from the edge but ‘the midpoint of the ATR’, and SCUs on ‘Rural Road’ (defined as ‘other than ATR’) to 50 metres. Two days later, after a meeting with ‘representatives from the Andaman & Nicobar Quarry, Crusher Materials Contractor and Workers Association’ (sic), the minimum distance on all roads was reduced to 50 metres from the midpoint. Singh had found himself up against stringently-applied Central legislation on land-use in the Andamans: the only loophole was a 2.5-metre difference between the ‘edge’ and the ‘middle’ of a road, which could add up to 250 sq metres for a quarry with a 100-metre frontage.

Worse still was the administration’s redefinition in November 2012 of protected geospatial features. ‘Commercial Area’ was changed to mean ‘all sites excluding the one[s] used for agriculture and housing purposes’—sanctioning the vast, protected forest zone to exploitation for the first time in Andamanese history. ‘Water body’ now means ‘water sources used for drinking purpose/supply of potable water only’—meaning that the thousands of standing pools and ponds in the Andamans are finally open to filling and reclamation.

The A&N Islands have often been invoked to amend existing legislation “even when we, the Islanders, have not said a word,” says Alex Rajan, a hotelier in Diglipur. The Coastal Regulation Zone, 1991 notification—drawn up under the Environment Protection Act, 1986—was serially amended 25 times in its decade-long existence. Initially, the amendments were because of ‘no objections invited’; from September 1999 to January 2011, however, the amendments were ratified by the fuzzy “rationale that the local people of the A&N Islands faced difficulties”.

The CRZ notification was bifurcated into the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification, 2011, and the Island Protection Zone Notification, 2011. Although Jairam Ramesh, India’s then minister of environment and forests, made an anodyne announcement that the notifications were meant to preserve coastal ecology and promote “economic activity that have necessarily to be located in coastal regions”, it was no secret—not from him and his ‘expert committee’ anyway—that what’s good for Chilka, Kutch, Karwar, East Godavari, the Krishna Delta or Gulf of Mannar wasn’t necessarily good for the A&N Islands. Under Ramesh’s watch, the coastal no-development zone’s exclusion limit was reduced from 200 to 100 metres of the high-tide line, ostensibly to meet the ‘increased demands of housing of fishing and other traditional coastal communities’. The Andamanese saw the reworking as a betrayal: fishing and other communities here live not so much on the coast as just inside a coastal tropical forest.

Ask an Andamans fisherman what he fears most, and he won’t say “Tsunami” unless he means it as a joke. He’ll say, “Floating trees.” Parimal Bairagi was a fisherman until his leg was mashed between a submerged tree riding an offshore current and his ‘dungy’, a leaky motorised fisherman’s flatboat.

Ecological apprehensions in the Andamans of today almost mirror the apprehensions of early anthropologists and ethnographers. In 1866, S Kurz, curator of the herbarium of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Calcutta, noted the profusion of dead trees ‘…in sandy soil … or else bordering the sea where the shores are very steep…’ It was an anomaly that might explain why the trees were ‘just dying by the influence of the sea water’, but first he would have to unravel the anomaly itself. Gravity ‘cannot be the case here,’ he wrote, because of ‘the shores at the places where I made the observations being level for some thousand paces inland’.

The flotilla of trunks forced from him this statement: ‘A more evident fact proving the sinking state of these islands can nowhere be seen more clearly than in these Straits.’ His dispatch referred to ‘the report of the Andaman Committee, dated 1st January 1858’, which stated ‘that the sea encroached some 40 or 50 feet since the first settlement at [Chatham] Island … so that the store house that stood there has been destroyed by the sea since the abandonment of the place in 1796’. In short, the sea was retaking the coast. At the end, this expert of desiccated flora was left confused by the alien life-dynamics of this near-equatorial forest; this little excursion left him wondering whether bioforensics ‘might give us some guide to determine the rapidity with which these Islands are becoming submerged’.

A geological assessment of the Andaman Islands aimed at establishing their coastal integrity has never been carried out. The studies that followed the life-altering ‘tsunamigenic’ intervention were mostly short-termist and shortsighted. But the too-brief ‘Probabilistic Risk Assessment’ (2011)—which was prepared using field surveys, ground-penetrating multi-antennae radars, satellite imaging and ArcGIS (Geographical Information System) software for digitising and layering—let it slip that the ‘South Andaman Island is one of the most natural disaster prone zones, [frequently] to earthquakes which are often most destructive and also inherently poses various vulnerable natural hazards such as catastrophic tsunamis, coastal floods, coastal land subsidence and landslides etc.’ In Corbyn’s Cove, there was ‘simultaneous erosion and accretion’ and the ‘beach cliff rocks were eroded’.

The ‘beach cliffs’ is an anonymising reference to the Brookshabad rockface. If the quarrying continues, the sea will, without a doubt, win.