| A campaigner for industries minister Nirupam Sen carrying a model voting machine to show villagers in Burdwan where to press the button. Picture by Pradip Sanyal
Angadpur, April 29: Binapani Dutta frowns as she catches sight of her young grandson, all covered in black soot.
'Why have you stepped out of home' Get back inside,' she shouts.
Then a look of helplessness settles on her face. 'What's the use' It's the same when he stays indoors. The fumes from the factories engulf the whole locality; how can you stop them from entering homes and the black dust from settling everywhere'
She's talking about the sponge iron units dotting Angadpur and Kamalpur on the outskirts of Durgapur town. As the demand for steel spirals ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, they are working overtime to make the most of their chance and have provided jobs to over 4,000 people.
But on the flip side, the unchecked pollution has spawned an epidemic of lung and skin disease.
'Look at my grandson. He turns jet black almost every day. Our hands are covered in grime. How long shall we survive like this' Binapani asks.
The 14 plants, in which over Rs 1,000 crore has been invested, are supposed to operate a machine called electrostatic precipitator (ESP) to take care of the pollution, but allegedly keep them switched off to cut electricity costs.
Binapani's sister-in-law Amita Dutta, who stays in the same house, is the CPM councillor from ward 37 of Durgapur Municipal Corporation. Why doesn't she do something'
'Dada, please don't talk so much before the media,' Amita tells brother-in-law and Binapani's husband Sudhangshu. But she goes on to explain that she had, during her first term as councillor a few years ago, tried to fight the plants.
'It isn't as if our party has done nothing. We even submitted a complaint to the subdivisional officer. But you must remember that if these units are shut down, so many people will lose their jobs.'
During election, that is an overriding reason not to talk about the issue. 'We'll certainly do something after the polls,' the councillor promises.
Durgapur mayor Rathin Roy echoes her: 'We'll take strong action against units spewing such pollution.'
Haripada Paria, a labourer at a sponge iron unit, washes his hands with distilled water and a chemical every day after work. He says he finds the air difficult to breathe. 'My daughter often has skin rashes. But I need the job.'
Manish Seth, plant-in-charge of KIC Metaliks in Ang-adpur, admits that residents have been protesting against the pollution. 'Yes, I have heard that many workers have developed lung problems. We are concerned. But we operate our system to channel out the blast furnace gas, much of which is later burnt in separate chimneys,' he claims.
Burdwan district magistrate Subrata Gupta had made a couple of raids to check whether the sponge iron units were running the ESPs, but nothing happened beyond that.
The Opposition has been making some noise about the pollution, but residents believe no party will do anything to stop it. 'Our Trinamul MLA is never seen here, but is now talking about pollution,' says Minati Boral, a housewife.