Wugang is a town with a population of about seven or eight lakh people, located in the Hunan province of China. There are number of copper and manganese mines in this region, as the soil is rich with these minerals. Numbers of smelters, to extract the metals from the ore, have come up around Wugang town. There is a small village called Wenping on the outskirts of Wugang town. In the month of May 2008, a manganese smelter called ‘Wugang Manganese Smelting Plant’ was commissioned in this village. As reported by the people staying around this factory, thick black smoke and fine dust was always observed being emitted from the funnel of this smelter.
A week back, it was observed that 1354 children living in the nearby villages of this smelter had very high levels of lead metal, in their blood and have been diagnosed as poisoned with lead. About 70% of the poisoned kids are below 14 years of age. According to Chinese health specialists, a level of 100 Micrograms of lead in the blood is a very safe level. Many of the children in this group have lead levels around 200 Micrograms, making it very dangerous for their nervous system.
What is even more surprising is that there is a Kindergarten, a Primary and a Secondary school within 500 meters of the smelter. People have now started taking out their children from these schools and number of complaints have been launched against the smelting unit. After observing the anger of the people, local authorities decided to suspend operation of the smelter from 31st July and it was closed down eventually on 17th August.
Later on, it was found out that the management of the smelter, commissioned the same even without taking the clearance from the environmental authorities. The police have arrested two senior officers of the smelter. Local villagers have been extremely agitated with the state of affairs and have been protesting. On 8th August they even burned a police vehicle.
This smelter was built with an investment of 1.76 million US$ and 120 workers were working in it. The local authorities were expecting that the smelter, would contribute at least, one million US Dollars, by way of taxes. As many as 100 other smelters in the Wugang region have been now asked by the authorities, to get their machinery inspected by environment specialists.
There is another sad twist in the story now. The Chinese health authorities say that they would consider the kids as poisoned, only if lead levels in their blood, have crossed the level of 250 Micrograms. The parents of the affected kids are feeling helpless and have requested the medical authorities to treat the children.
Any Government, Chinese or Indian, wants to encourage, new industries and entrepreneurships essentially to uplift the living standards of the people of the region, where the industry is set up. I feel that the Wugang episode is kind of a warning bell for such efforts. If this new industry is going to affect and harm the health of the very people, whose standard of living is expected to be improved, the new addition is in fact worthless and better not to be there. For any law or rules, there are always loopholes. This episode is a prime example of how corrupt officials in collusion with some selfish industry people, can try to make undue gains without bothering in the least about the bad effects their actions may have. The answer to questions like, How a polluting industrial unit was allowed to be set up within 500 meters of existing schools? Or, Why no guaranty was ever taken from the management, that the smelter would be pollution free? Is hidden in these corrupt deals.
Meanwhile, the physical discomforts and mental torture faced by the poisoned kids and their parents continues. Who would take the responsibility of the mishap? Who would foot the bill for the medical expenses? Who would ensure that there are no long-term effects of the poisoning? These are the real questions facing these poor people now.
24 August 2009