Five dogs turned blue in Mumbai.
That was a story that journalist Deepak Gharat broke this past week. He was following up on a story in the industrial zone of Taloja, home to about 1,000 pharmaceutical and chemical factories. Every week, there's something going wrong over there, he says. Industrial waste catches fire. Dead fish float up to the surface of the local river en masse.
Last week, he noticed a canine of unusual hue snoozing under a truck. Unable to believe his eyes, he took pictures and mailed them to his newsroom.
Puddles for the pooches
Some people, like local animal rights activist Arati Chauhan, suggested the dogs turned blue because of waste in the local Kasardi River, where the dogs were thought to have gone wading.
That theory appeared in many media outlets but does not appear to be true. The dogs hang out at a pigment and detergent factory about 2 miles away from the river, and they're too territorial to venture that far, says Gharat.
"The dogs go looking for food in the dye factory compound," Gharat found.
Locals have seen the dogs crawling on their bellies under the factory's gate to loll in the ubiquitous puddles of cool, blue water in the grounds.
So they're definitely not swimming in the river and instead are picking it up from the dye in the stagnant water on the factory grounds, Gharat observed.
Gharat confirmed with a local vet that the dye on their fur had dried to leave behind a powdery, blue residue.
While the dye isn't permanent, it's toxic to the dogs, who lick their fur to groom themselves and end up ingesting the chemical.
The dogs are lucky it's monsoon season, because the dye washes off after several rainy rinses. After activist Chauhan and her organization, the Navi Mumbai Animal Protection Cell, filed a complaint, the local chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals checked the dogs, including one with an eye infection. All the animals have been given a clean bill of health, and the dye has been scrubbed off. The factory has put up a temporary net under the gate to prevent dogs from getting back in.
Not fine for fish
So the problem with the dogs was apparently cosmetic. But the media attention pushed the state pollution control board to shut down the chemical factory, identified as Ducol Organics & Colours Pvt Ltd. The factory was releasing untreated chemicals into the river and toxic residual dye powder into the atmosphere, violating India's Water Act from 1974 and the Air Act from 1981.
That's not a problem for dogs, because they don't appear to drink from the river. But it is a problem for fish.
Last year, local fishermen complained that their catch volumes had dropped by 90 percent. They had the water tested at the municipal environment laboratory. Measured against guidelines from the Central Pollution Control Board, a national regulatory body, the pollution in the Kasardi River was 13 times over the safe limit for fish to survive, and 40 times over the limit for human consumption.
At the source of the Kasardi River, 24 miles away, the water is used for agriculture, drinking and washing clothes, says Gharat. "But where the industrial zone starts in Mumbai, the water is totally chemical."
Factories were set up in this area in the 1960s, he says, and more than 300 of them make chemicals.
V.M. Balsaraf, a professor of applied chemistry at the Datta Meghe College of Engineering and a researcher of groundwater pollution in Mumbai, is surprised at the sudden brouhaha over the river pollution. "We have found heavy metals and chemicals in the area water. Most of the industries don't have treatment for sewage," he says. "All our water sources are successfully polluted, they've become gutters. Even birds and animals have nowhere to drink water."
Chauhan, the activist, has asked the pollution board to plant more trees, clean up the river and stop the dumping of untreated waste in the area.
Shutting down the factory, though, is shortsighted, she says. It would be better to hold all the factories accountable rather than depriving some workers a livelihood, she suggests.
"People are saying just implement the law, get the pollution under control," echoes Gharat, who says that fixing the treatment plant, monitoring waste discharge and punishing offenders would be a good place to start.
But he and the activists are afraid that official action will taper off once the memory of the blue dogs fades away.
Chhavi Sachdev is a journalist based in Mumbai. Contact her @chhavi