The following is an account by Chandrima S. Bhattacharya, a journalist with The Telegraph, who, along with two colleagues, was reporting on an environment group’s visit to Himadri Chemicals in Hooghly on Friday. A crowd pounced on the car of the three reporters and assaulted the driver in the presence of policemen.
The Telegraph had published an extensive report last week on complaints of pollution in the vicinity and fears among villagers that it might be causing cancers. Himadri had denied all the allegations.
Around 3.15pm on Friday, my colleagues Jayanta Basu and Uttam Dutta and I were approaching the main gate of Himadri Chemicals at Mahishtikari in Hooghly. We were there to report on the visit of a team of environmentalists who wanted to find out whether the coal tar distillation was causing pollution and, if so, its impact on the health of residents in the vicinity.
On Friday afternoon, three members of the Central Pollution Control Board, led by senior official Paritosh Kumar, had already visited the factory and carried out a probe for over five hours.
The environmentalists were approaching Mahishtikari through the road that passes by the factory.
They phoned us to say that there was a “barricade” near the main gate and they had not been able to proceed. We had already reached the village by another road. After being told of the barricade, we headed towards the factory and were nearing the main gate.
We saw a crowd of around 50 people shouting slogans and blocking the road. Around the crowd were several policemen.
We parked our car on the side of the road and remained seated within. On seeing us, the crowd rushed towards us and shouted obscenities.
Around 15 people surrounded the car. Some were carrying rods.
One rod flashed across the windscreen. The men, led by a slogan-shouting woman, swore that the factory would not shut down, pummelled the car with their fists and kicked at it. (The villagers this newspaper had quoted in last week’s report had stressed that they were not demanding that the plant be shut down. All they wanted was an independent probe to dispel their fears or, if anything untoward was found, remedial measures.)
A few closed in on the car and first pulled the right front door open and then the left. Two or three men caught hold of the driver, Bijoy Roy, and hit him repeatedly on his chest. They also tore his shirt.
Then they tried to drag him out. He was almost out of the car but he somehow managed to slip back into the vehicle and shut the door.
The crowd tried to hit Uttam, my colleague who sat beside the driver, but he managed to shut the door. Bijoy then used the central locking system to secure the doors. We felt lucky that our car was new and the window glasses held.
But the blows kept raining on the car, and more men kept coming towards the car, for five more minutes or so, making us feel that the windows could break and we would be forced out.
Just then — and finally — the policemen acted. They swung their rods and restrained the crowd enough to allow Bijoy to start the engine and nudge our way through the crowd and into the safety of the highway, on the other side of which lie the vast ruins of the Tata factory.
The car was dented in several places and stamped with muddy footprints. One of the rear lights was broken.
We met the Hooghly superintendent of police at Chinsurah and lodged a formal complaint about the assault.
The environmentalists, led by Naba Datta, Biswajit Mukherjee, Arunava Majumdar and Sasanka De, could not carry out their investigation because of the violent protest. Mukherjee could manage only a brief look at the water discharge.