Nepali Times
Against paper pushers


Ever since the Bhrikuti Paper Mill was built on the banks of the Narayani in 1984 with Chinese assistance, there have been questions about its poisonous effluents flowing downstream into the Royal Chitwan National Park.

But even though environmentalists had been concerned, it wasn't a serious issue because the pollution did not directly affect people. In recent years, the urban sprawl of nearby Narayanghat means there are more and more people living next to the mill. The state-owned factory itself has been privatised and its capacity increased from 11 tons of paper a day to nearly five times that.

Forced to breathe dust and soot, bear the foul smell and incessant noise, anger has been building up. In 2000, two young local lawyers filed a petition in the Supreme Court and its verdict required the government to come up with permissible levels of pollution for both aid and water and restrict the plant to those thresholds.

Three years after that verdict nothing happened and the people of Gaidakot decided to take matters into their own hands. Two weeks ago, they barricaded the mill and forced it to close down for 11 days. The mill was finally allowed to re-open on 5 December after management assured it would install dust filters and treat effluent.

But in the week after the plant re-opened, the signs were not good. Toxic effluent is once more flowing into the Narayani in big frothy blobs. The dust and noise is back, although there is less soot and smoke because the mill has stopped burning rice husk as fuel for its furnace.

Sharada Dhakal was a Gaidakot resident who took part in the anti-pollution agitation that stopped the mill last month because the dust and smoke was making her baby sick. "We couldn't even stay in the balcony of our house, the baby's eyes would become red and I would have to take her to the doctor," Dhakal told us. Other residents living within a one km radius complained of allergies and noise pollution.

Bhrikuti's effect on the Royal Chitwan National Park and the inability of the government to ensure effluent treatment has been worrying conservationists for a decade. (See: 'Pollution alarm on the Narayani', #139) The Narayani's once abundant fish stocks are depleted, sightings of the endangered Gangetic fresh water dolphins are rare and the population of water fowls and other aquatic birds have dwindled. The depletion of fish has threatened the IUCN's world-famous gharial conservation work in Chitwan and surveys have shown that only seven percent of gharials released into the Narayani from the breeding centre in Kasara, survive.

"We had counted up to 70 gharials in the Narayani where it enters the park, now we estimate there are only 20 left," says the warden of the Royal Chitwan National Park, Shivaraj Bhatt, "This is primarily due to toxic effluents being pumped into the Narayani from the paper mill."

The national park boundary is a few km downstream from the paper mill and a 12 km stretch of the Narayani with its oxbow lakes, flood plains and wetlands, is located inside the sanctuary. For more than a decade, environmentalists have been trying to get Bhrikuti to treat its effluent without success. Finally, it took action by Gaidakot's communities to shut it down temporarily.

Former warden Ramprit Yadab who has worked for 20 years in the park says, "The mill is the single biggest threat to biodiversity in the Naryani river and we are fed up with the mill giving everyone the run-around. It is time to think about the national park itself suing the mill owners."

Confronted with unprecedented people power that actually shut down the plant, the management at Bhrikuti finally appears to be taking the pollution seriously. Madan Adhikari of Bhrikuti's administrative section told us that the company is in the process of refurbishing the plant's machinery and getting rid of obsolete polluting equipment.
"We will repair the water treatment plant and a dust scrubber. That should improve the situation," Adhkari told us, adding, "But it is impossible to have a plant that has zero pollution." According to the agreement with Gaidakot's agitators, Bhrikuti has been given a four month ultimatum to clean up its act.

The people rose up because they didn't see the government taking any action against a polluting factory but Sharada Dhakal and others are still skeptical that the mill will keep its word. For now, at least the laundry hanging out to dry on her terrace is not blackened with soot by the time it dries. But once the furnace is fired again, she is worried about what it will do to her baby.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)