Sitting in the courtyard of a small house in Eloor in Ernakulam district, 69-year-old MK Kunjappan’s eyes light up as he recalls a childhood spent on the banks of Periyar River. But as the story of his relationship with the river unfolds, it’s tainted with bitterness. A fighter dedicated to ridding the Periyar of toxic pollution, Kunjappan’s voice is full of the pain of seeing his beloved, prosperous river turn into a sluggish, half-dead sewage dump.
“For lunch everyday, we would just have a fish curry with rice. We rarely ever cooked any vegetables. Mother would prepare rice and would walk down to the river to catch a fish using a pole or a just a cloth dipped into the river. Within minutes she would be back with a juicy fish that she would cook for us. This was the daily routine. I don’t remember a single day without fish. For my mother, it never took more than a minute or two to catch fish. That was how abundant the fish were in the river,” he reminisces about the good old days.
Before the conversation can proceed further, Kunjappan says that he would like to sit on the banks of the Periyar as we talk. The river may have suffered massively thanks to more than 200 industries on its banks – many of which have been repeatedly accused of illegally dumping untreated toxic water into the river – but it is still his river.
While walking to the river, Kunjappan opens up about his life and the battle he has waged for more than 25 years to save the Periyar from an ignominious death buried in chemical filth.
“My childhood was not as colourful as yours, but it was indeed close to nature. Fishing was my favourite hobby and that was very easy to do, unlike these times. In school, I was a Pulayan (a scheduled caste) Kunjappan, and went through many experiences of untouchability.”
Growing up in a Pulayar family, Kunjappan began to think about questions of casteism, inequality and environment early on. This led him to think about politics, read books and question the things in his life that seemed wrong. It was the environment that drew his attention the most.
“Born in a farmer family, I believed that the water and soil are our life. That was the only thought I had, I did not know anything scientifically about environmental protection,” he explains.
In 1970, Kunjappan got a job as a security guard in a telecom company in Ernakulam. Travelling by cycle or bus from Eloor to Ernakulam, a distance of almost 10 kilometres, he began to notice how much the world around him was changing. But even before that, he had seen that the Periyar, the lifeline of the Eloor and Edayar villages, was not the river it used to be.
“You couldn’t know how this river would flow. It was so fast, so rich and extremely pure during my childhood. Over the years, I noticed a gradual change in the flow, colour and amount of water. But I didn’t know what the reason was for this change, and no one else was actually bothered about it.” Kunjappan says.
When we reach the river, he sits down on a stone slab beside the river and falls silent as he looks into the slowly flowing water. Brushing his memories, Kunjappan tears up as he recalls how he became the first man to take up the cause of pollution in the Periyar.
In 1971, the monsoons were much heavier than in the previous years. All the water bodies in Eloor and Edayar – the river, its tributaries and all the nearby wells were overflowing. “That was the first time we had a massive fish kill,” he said.
By 1971, the banks of the Periyar were dotted with a few industries, the largest being the Fertilisers and Chemicals Travancore (FACT). And unbeknownst to the people, the local water bodies had been receiving effluents from these industries for some time.
“When the fish kill happened, people did not know why it happened, and many of them took the dead fish home, and cooked and ate them. Following that many people fell ill too,” narrates Kunjappan.
This was when Kunjappan started thinking critically about what was happening around him. When he travelled by bus to his office, the bus often had to stop for hours because of huge smoke clouds hanging in the air.
“Vehicles were not even able to move because of smoke from FACT. That is when I realised that there was something really wrong. I just knew that this was not good for our environment, I was sure about it. But I was not able to explain it to others,” he said.
What convinced Kunjappan most was the unnatural fog he would see early every morning.
"There was only one bus service at the time and so I would start from my house on foot, before the sun rose. My only companion then was this make-shift lamp that I had made by keeping a lighted candle inside a coconut shell. As I walked to my office in the pitch dark, I used to see the air completely filled with fog. It took me a while to realise what the fog was – that it was poisonous fumes emanating from the many industries on the banks of the Periyar," Kunjappan explains.
That was when Kunjappan took the first step in his agitations for saving the Periyar. He put up a hand-written board at Eloor junction that read, “Welcome to the Eloor gas chamber.”
People thought Kunjappan was insane, “They asked each other what this Pulayan Kunjappan was doing. Even then my caste was an issue,” Kunjappan smiles.
At the time, even Kunjappan could not have known that Eloor would be declared the third-most toxic hotspot in India 30 years later. But that was the eventual outcome of a Greenpeace study in 2003 – which found Eloor occupying the 35th spot in the list of toxic hotspots around the world.
By that time, Kunjappan turned into a local hero. Now whenever he cycles slowly along the roads of Eloor, people rush up to him – calling him Kunjappan Chettan (brother), they smile and talk to him with respect. His fellow residents even elected him as a ward member of Eloor Municipality.
Back in the 1970s, after conducting few one-man protests in Eloor, Kunjappan set up a unit of the Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad (a people’s science movement in Kerala). The Parishad then took the lead in guiding the protests, which began to draw more participation from the people.
By then Kunjappan was a part of the Naxalite movement in Kerala, and in 1975, he was implicated in a murder case, and allegedly underwent brutal police torture during his jail term.
“You can still see the reminders of police torture on my body. I spent seven years in jail,” Kunjappan says, showing the scars that dot his body.
Before going to jail, Kunjappan also spent time in hiding at the start of the Emergency. His wife Karthiyayani and their four children struggled to maintain their lives for all those years.
Returning from jail, Kunjappan dove back into the Eloor agitations with vigour. “Life was full of agitations – protests against casteism, for equality, for food, for clothes, for jobs and for the environment.”
By the beginning of the 1990s, Kunjappan began getting a lot of supporters to join him in the Periyar agitations. By then, Eloor had a pollution control board of its own, and succeeding protests began to make the board more effective.
“I did not know technically to explain what was happening to our Periyar. I did notice that varieties of fish had completely disappeared. My favourite fish, the ‘Kaari’, was not found any more in the river. I had no scientific studies to prove it yet, but I knew the river was dying,” he added.
“Since 1972 till now, massive fish kills have happened multiple times every year. But it was only much later that I came to know that these companies discharge effluents into the river, and that causes the fish kills,” Kunjappan says.
In 1998, the next stage of the Periyar agitations began with the formation of the Periyar Malineekarana Virudha Samithi. “By then, there were more than 200 industries on the banks of the Periyar,” says Kunjappan.
It was around this time that the protesters began to learn about scientific studies of what they had known all along. Studies were coming up, warning of the extremely dangerous situation of the Periyar, and Kunjappan began to realise that the lifeline of his youth was now close to death.
“It was only after 1998 that I began to realise scientifically, the impact of water pollution. My fellow workers spoke about scientific studies that had proved the dangerous pollution levels in the Periyar. By then it had become one of most toxic hotspots in India,” he says.
But even if the evidence came so late, it bolstered Kunjappan’s determination to continue his fight. “From 1999, studies by different agencies were coming out to support our claims on pollution. Then I knew that the initial struggles I carried out without any scientific proof were true and valid. Even now I continue my fight with that insight,” he says.
As actively as Kunjappan is involved in agitations against polluting industries, he also asserts that his agitations are not against industries per se.
“We are not against the industries. But they should stop polluting the river and all their mechanisms to treat effluents should function properly. That is our demand,” he said.
Despite his advancing years, Kunjappan is no less determined to continue his struggle for the Periyar. He can’t rest, he feels, while the river still suffers. “See the river, it has shrunk and there are no fish available. There are no permanent fishermen here now. Since the 1990s the water’s colour has constantly changed. Because of the effluents it has almost seven colours in it,” he says.
What hurts him most is the callous waste of a resource that could so easily support thousands of people. "Kerala is home to 44 rivers that have been giving so much to our people. Our lakes and rivers made sure that we were all self-sufficient in terms of rice and fish. With such a rich resource, why should we depend on someone else for our living? People are migrating to the Gulf in search of greener pastures. But why? The people are now bearing the brunt of all the neglect and pollution in the form of climate change. There is no political party in the state that wants to set things right," he laments.
But there is still defiant hope in his voice, when he declares, “I have seen all the stages of this river, my dream is that I should see its re-birth before I die,” Kunjappan says.
Edited by Rakesh Mehar
(All photographs by Lenin CV)