New Delhi riots over strict new pollution controls

Three people have been killed in riots in India’s capital following a Supreme Court order to close or relocate up to 50,000 polluting businesses.

At least three people were killed and scores were injured during several days of rioting and violent confrontations with police following the recent announcement that a 1996 Supreme Court order for the sealing of all polluting business units located in Delhi’s residential areas and the cancellation of their licences would be implemented. Much of the city of over 10 million people, considered by the World Health Organisation as one of the world’s most polluted, also spent days on strike to protest at a measure people believe will lead to up to 125,000 job losses. Of the 80,000 industrial units operating in Delhi, only about 30,000 have a valid licence, leaving them liable to closure.

The Supreme Court rejected on Tuesday a request from the city government to go-slow on implementing its orders, saying that the capital could not be held to ransom by hooligans. Media reports said that more than 50 people have died in the past year because their homes are too close to factories. But in an attempt to stem the groundswell of support protestors, the Indian cabinet said it would consider amending plans to save some of the units from closure, providing they adhere to anti-pollution rules. “The government has agreed, in principle, subject to observance of safeguards in respect of pollution norms, to redefine household industries,” Indian Urban Development Minister Jagmohan said.

The minister did not detail the changes, but media reports said the government would change the definition of ‘household industry’ to allow business units with less than 10 people to operate in residential areas. “These (pollution) norms pertain to the number of persons who can work in a household industries, the power that can be sanctioned and the area that can be used,” Jagmohan said.

Vijay Kumar Malhotra, a senior politician with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said that such a move would spare some 60% of business units in residential areas to continue operating.

Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, who was blamed by the BJP for causing the troubles by not taking action over the businesses sooner, herself led a march to parliament protesting against the intransigent attitude of the federal government over the factory closures. She blamed earlier BJP governments for not adequately planning for the relocation of the industrial units.

Political tempers have been so high that the New Delhi State Assembly had to be adjourned amidst unruly scenes. While some members sat in a protest outside the Assembly demanding the resignation of the chief minister, others led a demonstration asking the removal of the Minister for Urban Development, for ordering closure of the industrial units without first providing them with alternative sites.

However any moves intended to appease protestors have not done so. “We plan to highlight the plight of the workers through whatever means at our disposal,” said a factory owner belonging to the Small Scale Industries Action Front, one of the unions leading the protests.

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