For longer than anybody can remember, paddy in Comilla's Burichong upazila was processed by hand. Sunshine was enlisted for drying; the crop was boiled manually to facilitate de-husking. It was laborious work. Thus when mechanised mills arrived around a decade ago the community was excited. Mills promised jobs and higher incomes. Larger amounts of paddy could be processed easily. But many locals have since changed their minds. Adverse health and environmental impacts have shown that while industrialisation should be a blessing, it's not a blessing for everyone.
“Four years ago I lost sight in my right eye and the eyesight in my left eye dimmed due to flying ash from the mill,” says Abul Kashem Mia, 50, a rickshaw driver. I spent Tk 42,000 on treatment, which meant I had to sell my cow.”
Abul, who supports a five-member family, says around thirty people have suffered eye damage from the airborne ash emitted from automated rice mills.
“It's become difficult to farm my land,” says Delwar, 28, from Paruara. “While working, I inhale ash and it causes asthma attacks. We can't farm properly due to this hazard. Nor can we keep chickens and ducks because the canal water is contaminated by runoff from the mill.”
His neighbour Kashem, 55, echoes such sentiments. He too suffers from asthma and also contends that domestic animal rearing has been adversely impacted.
Another neighbour, Nurul Islam, 65, reports he has lost nine ducks due to the rice mill pollution in the adjacent canal. “About a hundred ducks have died in our village,” he says.
Even migrant day labourers avoid working in the area. “We don't like to work there due to ash,” says one, Mukul Mia, 45, from Khaliajuri in Netrakona. “The ash causes breathing problems and burns our eyes.”
Abdur Rob, the chairman of automated rice mill operators Rubel Agro says they are trying to reduce the ash hazard with further technology development. “While some mill owners have not taken any measures to reduce ash discharge,” he says, “around eighty percent of owners have. It's a fact of life that we must control pollution and make our rice mills environmentally friendly.”
Yet when this correspodent visited the areas of Dayarampur to Kongshonagar to observe some of the around thirty automated mills in the upazila, it was found that open piles of ash were a sight common to almost every mill. Nearby crops, and even the leaves of trees, were most often coated with ash.
The deputy director of Comilla district's environment directorate, Samsul Alam, meanwhile claims to be unaware of the problem. “All of the automated rice mills in Burichong upazila have obtained government clearance,” he says. “We never receive health-related complaints regarding the mills.”
Many mills are owned by influential people, which might be one reason that ordinary villagers are hesitant to lodge formal complaints with the responsible authorities.
“There are rules governing the operations of automated rice mills,” says Comilla district's civil surgeon, Dr Mojibur Rahman. “If those rules are violated and people suffer for it, then the government will follow their procedures.”