One by one we pass through villages of smell. We are in the Cuddalore district, going through an industrial area known as the Sipcot region. And different parts of this area are neatly segregated by smell. We begin with burnt cabbage, move on to a strong smell of detergent, then to shit, to dead bodies, to rotting bones, to chikoo, ending finally with nail polish.
None of these smells are actually caused by the objects that they remind us of. Instead, they come from a toxic compound of chemicals being manufactured or released as affluents by the 20-something companies in the Sipcot region, which have been devastating the health of the residents of the 20-something villages in this area.
"I can close my eyes and tell you by the smell which area we are passing through, which factory is causing the smell, what are the chemicals involved, and what side effects they are having on people, " says Nityanand Jayaraman, an independent journalist and activist who is taking me through this area. Also an authority on the Bhopal gas leak, he has been spending the last few years trying to force government action on the Sipcot region companies, which, he says, are destroying the environment and the health of the region.
"Many of these companies opened around 20 years ago," he says, ironically, around the time of the Bhopal disaster. "And if you go around the villages here, you will notice that most people born after that, who are below the age of 20, have respiratory problems, skin diseases and, in many cases, stunted growth."
We stop at a village called Sonnamchawdi, where I get into a conversation with A Muthulakshmi and S Barathi, two ladies who are part of a women's health group.
"We are not originally from here," Muthulakshmi tells us. "We come from other areas, but we married into this village. Ever since we got here, we have been having fevers, headaches, colds. Sometimes we feel giddy, sometimes we faint. And when we go back to our parents' home for a visit, or if we go out of this area for whatever reason, then we immediately get better. But when we live here, something or the other is always wrong with us.
"And the girls of this village," she continues, "do not reach puberty before 15."
Jayaraman, who is standing nearby, gives me a knowing look. He had told me earlier that the first impact of any environmental pollution is a hormonal one, and women generally start having problems before the men do.
"Micro-levels of chemical activity are enough to cause hormonal disruptions," he had told me. "These can work in two ways. Either they can mimic hormonal activity -- for example, causing ovulation when it is not due. Or they can block hormonal activity."
The girls of Sonnamchawdi, it is clear, reach puberty so startlingly late because of such hormone disruptions.
It is not just the women who suffer here, though. All the men in the village have also had problems, and one boy shows me his leg, which is completely disfigured by eczema. As much as their health, their livelihood is also threatened.
"It is very difficult for us to sell our fish," says one of the fishermen there, Dhanakodi. "Everybody says that it is tasteless." They do their fishing in the nearby Uppanar, which, according to them, has had affluents released into it by numerous companies. But at least they catch some fish now. A couple of years back, even that had stopped, when they found that they could not enter the water. When they did, they would develop burns on their skin. They could not fish for three months, barely managing to survive while waiting for the fire in the water to calm down, while a sample of that water was sent for testing. It was found to contain hydrochloric acid.
Jayaraman tells me of another incident recently when more than 20 people fainted near a factory. When he complained on their behalf to the administration, he was told, "Oh, there is nothing there, the villagers are just fainting because of hysterics."
On hearing this, I call up a gentleman named Kumar, who is the district engineer of the Pollution Control Board, which is supposed to monitor these things. "Oh, there is absolutely no problem with pollution in this area," he tells me. "Especially water pollution, none at all, we take regular samples, the Uppanar has not had problems since fifteen-one-two-thousand," by which I presume he means January 15, 2000.
I ask him about the hydrochloric acid in the water that burnt so many fishermen a couple of years ago, and he immediately passes the buck, as happens so often in government -- "oh, I have just been here for six months," he says.
"And what about air pollution?" I ask. "Oh, we monitor it regularly," he says, "no air pollution at all." I find that somewhat ludicrous, given the mass of anecdotal evidence that I have been given. Then S Pugazhenti, a local villager who also acts as an environmental monitor, enlightens me on why the PCB finds nothing in the air.
"They had come here not long ago and put monitoring devices on the top of huts," he tells me. "For the three days that those devices were there, the smell of rotting bones went away."
"Have you guys ever tried to send an air sample from here for testing?" I ask Jayaraman.
"Yes," he replies. Using in innovative device that local people call 'the bucket,' they had collected samples of air at people's nose-level, and sent them to a laboratory in America. The lab found 22 dangerous chemicals in the sample, and found it way above the standards for air pollution sent there by the USPA, the regulating body. On some perimeters, they were more than 21,000 times above that level.
"And what are the standards set by our authorities?" I ask.
He smiles weakly. "There are no standards in India to regulate these things," he says. "They say they are 'working on it.' Care for some lunch now?"
I take in a deep breath of the putrid air around me. "I don't think so," I say. "Some other time."
Amit Varma is travelling around the tsunami-affected areas in Tamil Nadu, and is writing on his experiences in his blog, India Uncut. This article have been adapted from there.