Spinning its Wheels in India

by Gary Cohen and Satinath Sarangi

GOA, INDIA - Lakshman Kolekar and his family have tended goats and planted rice and millet along the verdant slopes of India's Western Ghats for 70 years. They have ready access to water and are surrounded by terraced groves of cashew nut, mango, coconut and banana. On grounds they consider sacred near their lush forest home, they have cremated their ancestors and have built shrines to their spirits.

 This bucolic backwater is an unlikely setting for one of the fiercest battles against a multinational company in the world today, but as Kolekar and other locals are quick to point out, they did not ask DuPont to build a chemical factory in their community. After the dramatic setbacks earlier this year, DuPont also may be wondering why it staked its fortunes on this remote mountain location.

For seven years, DuPont has tried to build a $217 million synthetic nylon 6,6 factory in the jungle highlands of Goa, India's smallest state, to capture the booming Asian market in automobile tires. Because of India's longstanding prohibition against foreign companies owning a majority share in Indian businesses, DuPont hooked up with Thapar, a prominent industrial company. In 1985, the new partnership, Thapar-DuPont Ltd. (TDL), picked the village of Keri, 30 miles from the state capital of Panjim, as the site of its future nylon factory. The state Economic Development Corporation agreed to use its authority under the national Land Acquisition Act to take the land from a local cooperative, then lease it back to TDL for a nominal rate in exchange for an 11 percent share in the project. The state's participation also guaranteed the company discount rates for water and electricity hookups.

 Over the next several years, TDL built a road to a bulldozed plateau, where it constructed several administrative buildings, dug bore wells for water and put up a huge billboard at the front gate that greeted the occasional visitor: "Thapar DuPont Limited: Better Things for Better Living."

 DuPont claimed the project would provide needed jobs in a state with high unemployment and, through the export of nylon, help boost India's push to develop an export-oriented economy.

 DuPont has learned important lessons from the 1984 Bhopal disaster, in which thousands of Indians died in the aftermath of a deadly gas leak from a Union Carbide pesticide factory. Eager to avoid the liability problems that Union Carbide faced, DuPont has written into its contract with TDL a limited liability clause that exempts the U.S.-based parent company in the event of a chemical accident or pollution problem.

For many years, local opposition to the factory was muted, principally because TDL claimed its production process was pollution free. To bolster its claims, DuPont took out a full-page ad in a Goan newspaper in which TDL President Eugene Kreuzberger reiterated the company's environmental policy: "We will not handle, use, sell, transport or dispose of a product unless we can do it in an environmentally sound manner."


Challenging DuPont

 But local activists, organized into the Anti-Nylon 6,6 Citizen's Committee, soon became skeptical of DuPont's claims. With information collected from U.S.-based environmental groups, the community pieced together a very different picture of DuPont. They learned from a Friends of the Earth report, "Hold the Applause," that DuPont had the highest pollution emissions of any company in the United States in 1989. Information from the National Toxics Campaign documented how DuPont continued to produce chlorofluorocarbons, which destroy the ozone layer, and leaded gasoline, which causes brain damage in children, long after research showed the destructive effects of these chemicals.

 At a public meeting attended by company officials and elected members of the five local panchayats (village councils) in October 1994, project opponents presented documents that showed that adipic acid and hexamethylene diamine (HMDA), the primary chemicals used in the nylon 6,6 process, were classified as hazardous substances by the U.S. government. The panchayats also raised the objection that the 250,000 liters of water required each day to run the factory would drastically lower the water table, severely harming local agriculture. Additionally, an estimated 10,000 liters a day of effluent would contaminate drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people downstream.

 Shortly after this meeting, all five panchayats voted to reject the proposed factory. Popular opposition also intensified. Villagers complained that they could not honor their ancestors since TDL controlled the land where the local cremation grounds had been located for generations. This loss was especially acute during the Hindu festival of Dussehra, which commemorates the victorious battle of good over evil, and is an auspicious time to offer prayers and gifts to the deceased.

 After issuing an ultimatum to the government to tear down an illegal boundary wall that TDL had constructed, local people took matters into their own hands. On Dussehra eve, hundreds of villagers marched to the site, bearing sticks and torches. Within two hours, they completely demolished the boundary wall, torched the guard shed and ripped up the paved road leading to the factory. Bulldozers and other construction equipment were also disabled.

 The government's response was swift and severe. Police jailed the entire leadership of the Anti-Nylon 6,6 movement under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act (TADA). The courts, however, disallowed this use of TADA, which is meant to imprison people threatening the security of the Indian state. The activists were released with no charges brought against them.

 By November 1994, tensions in the area had created the atmosphere of a showdown. Police vans parked along the narrow roads leading into Keri and Savoi-Verem villages. TDL hired more than 75 security guards to camp out at the factory site.

Meanwhile, local village men guarded the entrance roads to the site and monitored any outsider coming to the area to work on the project. Villagers also instituted a total boycott of the project. Shops refused to sell any food or supplies to anyone working at the factory. When one of the locals took a job with TDL as a public relations officer, his family was shunned by local villagers. His wife soon convinced him to resign.

 The opposition movement was also aided by several key allies. The Goa Foundation, an environmental organization led by Claude Alvares, filed a writ in the Goan High Court, challenging TDL for violations of several national and state laws.

 The writ alleged the government violated the Land Acquisition Act because land purchased under this law can only be used for public purposes and cannot be used to acquire land for a company. Once the land was illegally expropriated, TDL failed to get the necessary legal clearances under various environmental and industrial siting laws. Additionally, the writ argues, TDL withheld vital information regarding the impacts of adipic acid and HMDA, the two hazardous chemicals to be used at the site.

Finally, the Goa Foundation intercepted an electronic mail message from DuPont to Goan project manager Sam Singh, in which DuPont acknowledged that the company had not considered and taken appropriate measures regarding four critical areas of pollution control: groundwater protection, waste water treatment, solid waste recycling and air pollution control. The e-mail memo, dated October 13, 1994 - nine years after the project application - also raised the question of who would pay the $100,000 consulting fee needed to design these pollution control systems.

 "Not only is DuPont completely dishonest and cynical regarding its concern for India's environment, it is cheap as well," says Alvares. "DuPont is willing to invest tens of millions to make a hefty profit, but it doesn't want to invest a paltry $100,000 to figure out how to avoid poisoning the local Goans."


Opposition gathers force

 Despite his belief in the merits of the case, which has yet to be heard, Alvares advised the villagers in early 1995 that "people should never depend on the courts to solve all their problems."

 This message was not lost on the anti-nylon activists. On January 18, 1995, 500 protesters rallied in front of the Goan Legislative Assembly and demanded that the project be scrapped. At the rally, they accused both Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao and Goan Chief Minister Pratapsing Rane of being public relations agents for U.S. multinationals.

 Two days later, three leaders of the Anti-Nylon 6,6 Committee, including its coordinator Dr. Dattaram Desai, were arrested by Goan Superintendent of Police S.K. Gautam. No charges were brought against them. But, according to Desai, the police took the three to the police station in the nearby city of Ponda, where police stripped, handcuffed and beat them. They also forced the three activists to fill in trenches that had been dug in the road by local factory opponents. When news of the arrests circulated through the surrounding villages, 1,200 people converged on the police station and forced the police to release the activists.

 The arrests ignited the already tense situation. Two days later, 500 protesters disrupted a clinic providing limited health services that was presided over by Goan Chief Minister Rane and Indian Minister of State for Chemicals and Fertilizers Eduardo Faleiro. The activists forced a meeting with the officials and demanded punitive action against the offending police and immediate cancellation of the nylon project. They demanded a response within three days. The stage was set for a decisive confrontation, which came 48 hours later.


Opening fire

 On the morning of January 23, a busload of U.S. DuPont officials, accompanied by three police jeeps, were met by 70 protesters, mostly women and children, sitting in the road leading to the factory. When the women refused to let the bus pass, police advised the DuPont officials to return to the state capital Panjim. In Panjim, they met with Chief Minister Rane and demanded that more aggressive action be taken against the activists. By 4:30 p.m., two busloads of police returned to the scene. According to eyewitnesses, the police opened fire without issuing a warning to disperse.

 Nilesh Naik, age 25, was shot in the chest, while others received minor injuries. The villagers retaliated by burning one police bus and three jeeps. Naik died soon after admission to a nearby hospital.

 In response to the police action, the opposition movement called for a general strike in Ponda. The next day, an angry crowd gathered outside the TDL office there. Forcing their way inside, according to eyewitnesses, they burned hundreds of files, computers, fax machines, three pistols and a suitcase containing more than $7,000. The protesters also burned a TDL jeep and a fire engine that arrived to put out the blaze.

 The government then issued an order banning the assembly of more than four citizens for any reason. The protesters, however, informed the police that only the police would be prevented from gathering in public places. They advised the police to lock their station gates and spend the rest of the day inside, which they did. From mid-morning onward, anti-nylon protesters controlled the city of Ponda. There were no reports of personal violence or vandalism.

 On the following morning, the body of Nilesh Naik was brought to the Ponda bus station, where a crowd of 400 people gathered to escort his body to his village, Savoi- Verem, and then on to the factory site, where the body was to be cremated. The body was displayed in an open van and garlanded with flowers.

By late afternoon, the procession had swelled to more than 4,000 people, who converged on the deserted factory site, known locally as Bhootkamb (the place of spirits). Leaders of the Anti-Nylon 6,6 Committee had negotiated the previous night with TDL's security force to vacate the factory site. Factory officials were advised that their presence would provoke violence, and they agreed to leave the site, escorted by committee members.

 Many prominent Goans spoke at the funeral service, standing on a platform made from the dismantled factory signboard. Naik was praised as the first martyr of the Goan environmental movement. The crowd renamed the plateau in his honor. But before Naik's pyre was lit, a large explosion went off at the factory site and a huge billow of smoke rose from the TDL administrative complex, where an electricity generator had been blown up.

 Company officials were stunned. "We were completely shaken up over this issue," said TDL Manager Sam Singh following the event. "But we have no plans to move the factory from Goa."

 After several meetings with both Thapar and DuPont officials, the government remained largely silent on the fate of the nylon plant, although Goan Chief Minister Rane, who had removed many administrative hurdles for the plant, complained that opponents of the factory "were against the development of Goa."


Redefining "better living"

 The proposed chemical plant has assumed strong symbolic value in India, where the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and new liberalization laws have opened the country to foreign investment. One of the most protected Asian markets over the last 50 years, India has seen an explosion in foreign investment recently, from $67 million in 1990 to $1.2 billion in 1993. Power plants, oil refineries and food processing factories - industries associated with massive polluting - account for more than half of this investment.

 A rejection of this chemical project, the largest single investment in Goa's history, could signal a more fundamental rejection of the corporate-dominated, export-oriented industrialization being promoted by the ruling Congress Party in Delhi.

 This symbolism has not been lost on the largely illiterate and barefoot anti-nylon opposition. On December 19, the anniversary of Goan independence from the Portuguese in 1961, anti-nylon activists hoisted the Indian flag in front of the factory gate. They repeated the exercise on Republic Day, the day after Naik's funeral. The Committee's coordinator, Dr. Desai, says that the struggle against DuPont should be seen in the larger context of the independence struggle against the recolonization of India by multinational corporations.

 Thapar DuPont officials argue that projects like theirs will be beneficial to the Goan economy. They point to the 650 full-time jobs they say their factory would create, and, after the January uprising, they promised that 80 percent of these jobs would be reserved for Goans.

 But Kalanand Mani, director of Peaceful Society, a Goan rural development organization, argues that with an investment of $217 million, each job will be created at a cost of $333,000. The group has developed an alternative economic plan that it projects would enhance the horticultural and grazing activities, creating 4,500 jobs at a fraction of the nylon plant's investment costs. "We need development that enriches the natural and cultural heritage of Goa, development that involves the participation of the people, not projects that benefit only one percent of the population," Mani says.

 The anti-nylon movement has been remarkably non-partisan. Its membership includes people from every political party, as well as Catholics and Hindus, the two principal religious groups in the state. Since the killing of Naik, major institutions, including the Catholic Church and the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, have thrown their full support behind the campaign.


The struggle's future

 Since the January uprising, Lakshman Kolekar has taken to grazing his goats again on the grounds of the still deserted factory site. Each day, he passes the newly-erected shrine to Goa's first environmental martyr and offers prayers to Nilesh Naik along with his ancestors.

Kolekar's prayers that the spirits of the place will keep Thapar DuPont from returning to the site have been answered. By February 1995, TDL had begun negotiations with the Indian state of Karnataka to shift its nylon 6,6 factory from Goa to Karnataka. Political pundits in India claim that Goa's ruling Congress Party could no longer run the political risk of supporting the project against such fierce popular opposition.

The Karnataka government is eager not to repeat the traumatic events that shook its northern neighbor. "We will not tolerate a Goa-type agitation against TDL in Karnataka," said Industries Minister R.V. Deshpande in a recent interview.

 Even before the official announcement of TDL's departure from Goa was made public, the anti-nylon movement was heralding DuPont's ouster as a major people's victory against polluting industries and multinational corporations in India.

Goa Foundation's Claude Alvares says, "The recent events are a sign of hope that the people of this country have begun to resist the takeover of their resources by multinational corporations, even if they have to die while doing so."

 But movement leaders acknowledge that their work will not be completed until DuPont is denied permission to operate its polluting plant in any Indian state - which is why they are busy contacting their counterparts in Karnataka to warn them about an unwelcome guest that is about to land on their shores.