When travellers from southern Chennai set out for the city’s northern industrial hub, they know they are getting near their destination because of their noses.

As the road from the state capital nears Manali, an industrial enclave around 20 km north of Chennai, the air is increasingly suffused with the sulphurous odour of crude oil. This heralds the presence of the Bharat Petroleum refinery. A few kilometres on, sulphur makes way for the fetid stench of garbage in the city’s biggest dump yard. After that, there is the Chennai Petroleum Corporation plant to negotiate. By the time travellers arrive in Manali, the air is laced with the pungent smell of ammonia emitted by the Madras Fertilisers Limited plant in the vicinity.

Once a collection of 20-odd villages, Manali is now a town structured around a single arterial road. It is home to around 40,000 residents, and 17 highly polluting industries, according to the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board.

Manali’s residents have been battling the arbitrary and sudden release of ammonia gas from the Madras Fertilisers Limited plant for years now. The gas has seeped into their daily lives, becoming an unavoidable part of their routine.

“The first thing I do [when the gas is released] is to take my children inside and shut all doors and windows,” said P Devi, a 35-year-old resident of Manali. “We are never given any warning before this happens. We are suddenly surrounded so much gas that we cannot even breathe.”

Ammonia pollution

Madras Fertilisers Limited is a Public Sector Undertaking under the administrative control of the Union Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers. Since 1971, it has been involved in the commercial production of ammonia, urea and NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium) fertilisers. Ammonia is used in the production of urea, which is the key ingredient in the chemical fertilisers produced by this plant.

The village of Harikrishnapuram, which has been swallowed into Manali town, is now a jumble of streets that abut the compound wall of Madras Fertilisers Limited. In this village, even children can list the effects of exposure to ammonia, which they are subjected to regularly.

The Madras Fertilisers Limited plant.

On its website, the Collaborative on the Health and the Environment – an international partnership of almost 5,000 individuals and organisations in 79 countries whose primary mission is to strengthen the science dialogue on environmental factors – shows that there is strong evidence to link diseases such as acute and chronic bronchitis, asthma, olfactory alterations and rhinitis to ammonia exposure. Studies also show that pulmonary oedema, or the collection of excess fluid in the lungs, is linked to exposure to ammonia.

The Air Pollution Manual compiled by SIPCOT Area Community Environment Monitors, an initiative to involve villagers in the fight against pollution by engaging them in environmental and health monitoring, says:

“Symptoms [of ammonia exposure] include burning sensations, headache, dizziness, wheezing, shortness of breath and nausea. Over exposure could lead to damage in the central nervous system resulting in unconsciousness and convulsions. Intense ammonia exposure can also cause death.”

Pollution for years

The childhood memories of Shankar, 40, the secretary of Harikrishnapuram village, are speckled with recollections of exposure to ammonia gas.

“When we were kids, we used to go to a nearby ground and play,” said Shankar. “At that time, if ammonia was released, we would not be able to run anywhere in time. We would be suffocating. So my friends and I used to jump into the water in a nearby tank and try to stay underwater as much as possible until the gas had dispersed.”

Today, when asked about their everyday experience of living in an industrial area, many residents offer similar responses. For instance, they say that they hang their laundry out to dry every day, and return to usually find tiny black spots all over their clothes. Often, residents say that the release of gas by the fertiliser plant is accompanied by a loud sound of machinery, which goes on for an hour or two. Sometimes, this happens late at night, disturbing their sleep.

“[When this happens] even if we are standing next to each other, we cannot hear each other,” said T Nagalakshmi, a resident of Manali. “We’ve all gone quite deaf because of the noise.”

The Harikrishnapuram area in Manali town in northern Chennai.

Not just the air, residents say that their borewells have been rendered unusable too, as they believe the groundwater has been contaminated.

“[If] we take some water in our hands, we can smell the ammonia in it,” said Pratap, a resident of Manali. “The water here is ruined. Earlier, this place was known for its pure groundwater. My relatives from Vadapalani [21 km away] used to gather water from here to drink. It used to be so fresh.”

Struggle to breathe

Workers at the Urban Primary Health Centre at Manali say that the worst effects of ammonia gas are felt during the rainy season, which lasts from November to February in Chennai.

At this time, because the air is heavy with moisture, the gas is unable to rise and disperse. Instead it settles, causing a number of respiratory problems among local residents.

“A number of children and elderly people get admitted for asthma and wheezing during the rains,” said a lab technician. “Now, on a daily basis at least 20 people come in to buy medicines for wheezing.”

At Anand Hospital, a private health centre in Manali, doctors said that respiratory problems, especially allergic bronchitis and asthma are the biggest health concerns for people living in Manali and neighbouring areas. Children between the ages of one and five years, and the elderly in the age group of 60 years to 70 years are the worst affected, they say. They add that these health problems keep recurring and will remain for as long as the patient continues to live in Manali.

While 20% of the patients admitted to Anand hospital complain of respiratory problems, 10% arrive with heart issues. The residents of Harikrishnapuram said that over the past five years, there have been quite a few premature deaths due to heart disease. In the past year itself, three or four people died due to complications related to the heart. Although they are not sure this is related to pollution in the area, they say this is a trend they cannot ignore.

Neither can they ignore the premature hair loss among residents, including children. Several residents reported that many children have to apply hair dye as their hair starts greying right from the age of eight or nine.

Srinath is just 14 years old. His hair is greying prematurely.

Sidestepping the issue

Alarmed at the deteriorating quality of air and water in the area, the residents of Manali have often protested against the pollution by Madras Fertilisers Limited. However, these protests have always been short-lived. The residents of Manali said that political parties would eventually take over the protests and negotiate with the company and the State Pollution Control Board. Things then went back to normal.

“Every now and then I call up the general manager [of the fertiliser plant] and complain,” said D Durai, the municipal councillor of Manali who is a member of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam political party. “They reduce the emissions then. But soon, they go back to releasing high amounts of ammonia.”

Durai said that many families have left Manali taking the advice of their doctors. The air and water pollution has rendered Manali so unfit a place to inhabit that hardly anyone wants to buy land in the town anymore, he said. “The value of our land has gone down drastically,” said Durai. “In the beginning one ground would go for Rs 30 lakhs to Rs 40 lakhs. Now there is no one to buy it for even 20 lakhs.”

Ramesh Kumar, who works with the municipal corporation, said that the factories around Manali should work towards developing the town. He said that if the 50-odd companies in the vicinity took social responsibility seriously, Manali would be the most developed town in Chennai.

But this has not happened, he said. Instead, residents have often been told that the government classified Manali as an industrial area many years ago, and it was up to them to move out of town if they were uncomfortable with the conditions they lived in.

Now, even the residents have lost the will to protest against the ammonia pollution in the area.

“If you see an accident while walking on the road, you sidestep it and walk on,” said Kumar, the municipal corporation employee. “The ammonia pollution is like that. We keep smelling it and going about our work.”

The industrial town of Manali in northern Chennai.