“My granddaughter is only eight months old, and she coughs so heavily when she sleeps.” These are the words of nana Prema, living in a village of 300 people. No one is surprised when they see heavy black smoke – this is just the iron and steel factory.
Global factories usually have strict regulations, in theory. Iron factory in Sri Lanka, Ekala, was supposed to complete an environmental impact assessment before they have opened the factory. The factory was opened in 2003. No one has ever heard about the assessments being carried on, not to mention their completion.
“The company was opened, though local people do not work there,” Anushka Kahandagama, both the resident of the area and the researcher at the Center for Women’s Research (Colombo, Sri Lanka), says. “These are Indian immigrants who work there – they know how to do that, whereas we do not.” And the only employment opportunity created is housing and catering of these immigrant workers.
Even if the locals do not work in the factory, their health is influenced – asthma and other respiratory diseases, eye smarting and itching are particularly common. “We all get asthma during the windy period. My son is working away and does not come home frequently. When he comes, he gets sick because of the dust. He can’t bear the dust,” Prema says. Even if the air is full of dust during the period of south-west monsoon, people suffer a lot. Two people died last year, and the doctors refused to prove this is caused by the factory. “They do not want to be included into the likely law cases,” Kahandagama says.
People are terrified. This is not only because of illnesses, but also because of the threat of restriction shutdowns. At first, the case was filled, and court has ordered to the local authority to analyse the situation. After nothing has happened, the representative contacted the authority just to find out that no order exits. This was followed by several protests. The factory’s work was stopped for two nights. Now it is working again without any restrictions.
“We run a small family food business. If someone finds iron dust in our products, it is the end of the business.” Moses, as well as hundreds of other people, has to spend his leisure time while cleaning, sweeping, washing and mopping. “In the morning, you find iron dust on the plant leafs and blackened floor, even in water tanks,” inhabitants complain. Besides, now they have to buy water – the spring waters are polluted. Animals suffer too.
The company knows – no one is satisfied with the current state. But they have a very powerful tool too – bribery. “They bribe the activists or community leaders with money, food, especially – expensive milk powder that everyone wants to use, but cannot afford to buy,” Kahandagama says. Besides this, the majority of the residents of the community lack of involvement into the issue, they are not well-educated either. “Communities just do not have a voice against powerful politicians and the factory. And there are currently no factors that could make the locals change their behaviour,” Kahandagama says.
There are three social classes of people living in the community – air force and police officers; uneducated older settlers that depend on day-to-day businesses and middle class, attached to private sector. The latter ones do not have time to fight against arbitrary actions of the company. The older settlers do not have a voice against the officials – “They are not educated, they suffer from poverty and they are easy to guide with money”, Kahandagama stresses out. “Retired air forces and military officers, maybe a few of the newly settlers – these are the only ones who are still active.”
“Prevailed poverty is a huge problem, and there is not much you can do without international regulations,” says Kahandagama. As it was said before, these regulations often exist, but certain companies (often coming from developed countries) just choose to work around them. Besides this, the iron factory is outside the industrial estate, therefore, really close to the living area. “It is a common problem – the factories are now being established so close to where people live, and there is nothing we can change,” Kahandagama says.
Engineers say that in order to produce steel bars, 50% of scrap iron and 50% of sponge iron is needed, the latter one being imported from abroad. Despite that, iron and steel factory mentioned relies on scrap iron – it uses about 90% of this. “It produces a huge amount of toxic gases,” Kahandagama says. “And these are the local politicians who supply scrap iron to the factory. These are very good businesses ran in the Northern part of the area. Locals are not even allowed to go there.”
“You need a framework to tackle the issue, but you cannot rely solely on that. You have to change something from the grassroots, and the only way to do that is talk to the community itself, see what they have to say,” Kahandagama thinks. It is only that they need a support from the developed countries. “Developed countries comfort from the wealth they exploit in developing countries,” says Kahandagama. Consumers in this case cannot be of much help as industry does not deal with them directly.
“We have been living here for ages. Before the factory was started, we were here, and we were happy,” says Moses.