FOUR MONTHS after the Maharashtra environment regulator issued two notices to a distillery company, in which state Minister Pankaja Munde’s husband and mother are directors, for polluting soil and water in a village in Aurangabad, it gave the firm consent to operate in January following a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) project undertaken by it to clean up a portion of contaminated soil.
The distillery, Radico NV Distilleries Maharashtra Limited, has Pankaja’s husband Charudutta Prabhakar Palwe listed as a whole time director (appointed May 2008) and mother Pradnya Gopinath Munde as director (appointed in December 2016). Until just before the 2014 Assembly elections, Pankaja, the state rural development and women and child development minister, was also listed as a company director.
Radico NV distillery is joint venture between N V Group and Radico Khaitan. Its website says it produces whiskey, rum, vodka and gin. The Aurangabad unit has a production capacity of 1,20,000 litres per day of extra neutral alcohol. It is located in Shendra MICD, about an hour away from Pathri village in Phulambri taluka.
In January 2018, farmer Sanjay Navgire (52) first saw tankers dumping a blackish liquid waste near his 7.5 acre millet and corn farm in Pathri. In June, after first monsoon showers, Navgire noticed the colour of borewell water, he used for crops, turn black.
“We did not co-relate until villagers started falling ill,” he said. While Navgire was diagnosed with liver inflammation in July and his wife with skin infection, his daughter Vaishali (21) suffered pain in throat and his son Siddhant (16) required a tonsil operation. But what hit Navgire the most was his cow’s death in August.
“She was pregnant when she drank that water for three weeks. The calf was born deformed. I spent Rs 15,000 on her treatment but she died,” said Navgire. Like him, over 50 villagers from Pathri, with 3,000 hutments, fell ill and several lost cattle that had consumed contaminated water between June and July.
Documents accessed by The Indian Express show that on September 11, 2018, Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) Aurangabad’s regional officer, A D Mohekar, issued a showcause notice to Radico NV following an inspection in Pathri on August 31. The notice said an inspection report by a sub-regional officer has stated that “spent wash generated from your unit was disposed through tankers in farm located at Gat no. 144 village Pathri”. The notice observed that the disposal was done in “violation of consent conditions” granted to the distillery to operate.
On September 28, villagers approach Wadod Bazar police with a complaint. On October 25, 2018, MPCB issued a second notice to the distillery under Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act and Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act. Observing that water in village well has turned yellow and traces of soil contamination have been noticed, it directed Radico NV to lift the entire contaminated soil, treat it in a bio-composting plant and take measures to improve well water quality.
It also directed the distillery to submit a detailed report on how it was treating spent wash generated in distillery on a daily basis. Spent wash is a residual waste liquid generated during alcohol production. A February 2018 study published by Department of Environmental Microbiology had indicated that for a litre alcohol production, 10 to 15 litres of spent wash is generated. It affects vegetation by changing soil alkalinity, increases livestock mortality and in humans, causes eye irritation, vomiting, skin irritation and stomach pain.
While villagers claimed that at least 12 wells have been affected in the 250-acre area, Aurangabad MPCB officials maintained it was only three.
The regional public health laboratory, on December 27, 2018, submitted a report on water sample tested from a Pathri well. The report found the water has turned “brown, turbid and had suspended particles”. Turbidity was at 328 mg/litre, crossing permissible limit of 5. Chlorides were at 2,201, permissible limit is 1,000 mg/litre. Alkalinity was at 1,980 mg/litre, permissible limit is 600, and hardness of water was valued at 2,346 mg/litre, over normal limit at 200 mg/litre.
Farmer Tejrao Jadhav alleged that the toxic soil reduced a 40 quintal annual produce of millet and corn in 2017 to seven quintals in 2018. “Even we did not eat it, fearing chemicals had seeped into our crops,” he said. “When people started falling ill due to black water, we all pitched in to purchase tanker water,” said Bhagwan Suradkar, whose son Rushikesh (15) and daughter Sarla (18) suffered skin infection. Each tanker cost Rs 900. Villagers paid for tankers until December last year. Since January, district officials have started free tankers for drinking purpose. Farming, however, has ceased due to continued contamination in soil and water.
Despite multiple notices and pollution reports, the Aurangabad MPCB in January renewed the “consent to operate” licence for Radico NV, extending it to five more years.
When questioned why no action has been taken against Radico NV, regional officer Mohekar said, “It has a very good composting plant. It was not responsible for spent wash dumped in village. We issued the notice, but company has denied its involvement.”
Shripad Patil, the distillery’s head of admin and HR, said: “The distillery is in no way related to the dumping of spent wash. When MPCB wrote to us, under CSR activity, we decided to treat the affected soil.”
In November, the distillery lifted three trucks of contaminated soil and treated it in bio-composting plant. Locals claimed 1,000 tankers of spent wash that was dumped between January 2018 and monsoons, remains percolated in groundwater.
Pankaja’s husband and company director, Palwe, who also goes by the name Amit Palwe, told The Indian Express: “I only know that the case is with MPCB. I have no idea where it stands.”
Ashish Kapoor, also a whole time director of the firm, said the distillery has zero liquid discharge mechanism. The distillery produces 4,000 tons of spent wash every day. “We treat 100 per cent of waste generated and use it for bio composting. Although we have not done anything, after the pollution board advised us, we suggested we could help farmers under CSR.”
Pathri villagers have now approached MPCB’s Mumbai headquarters. Over 150 villagers have also approached Maharashtra State Human Rights Commission. On February 4, MPCB member secretary E Ravindran called for a hearing and directed drilling in ground to measure contamination level.
Pankaja refused to comment on the case following calls and an email.