Nothing quite prepares you for the stomach-churning experience of standing atop the kilometre-long regulator and bridge that straddles the Eloor-Edayar stretch of Kerala’s Periyar river at Pathalam.
The water flows sluggishly by, in colours that drinking water was never meant to show off. The air is thick with the pungent smell of chemicals. As far as the eye can see on either side of the river, giant cement and steel behemoths hug the shore, theblockish smoke stacks of these factories belching smoke into the sky. The river betrays remains of past fish kills – dozens of small dead fish floating – waiting to be picked off by a convocation of Brahmini kites feasting on an easy, if toxic, meal.
244 kilometres long, the Periyar is Kerala’s longest river. Arising in the Shivagiri Hills in Sundaramala in Tamil Nadu, the Periyar flows through the districts of Idukki and Ernakulam before it joins the Arabian Sea at Cochin.
While the Idukki section of the Periyar is struggling with contamination from domestic sewage, the river between Eloor and Edayar is a horrifying spectre of overwhelming industrial pollution, thanks to around 280 industries that function on its shores. The effluents allegedly released by many of these industries have turned the water into a deep black colour, though it can also flow red, yellow or green, depending on which chemicals flow into it.
In January this year, for instance, the river went from a dark brown to red to black. In 2017 alone, the river has changed colour on more than 10 occasions.
Then there are the regular fish kills. The sight of many smaller kinds of fish lying dead on the surface of the water have now become an all-too common sight. When TNM visited the river in June, for instance, hundreds of dead Indian anchovies could be seen floating in various parts of the river. But there have also been much larger fish kills, in which thousands of fish of larger species end up dead, the last having just occurred in March 2017.
Add to this the fact that the river, which once flowed at a torrential speed, has now slowed to a bare crawl, and is near to becoming stagnant.
"As per our studies over the years, in the 1970s and 1980s, the flow of the Periyar was 2157 cubic meters per second. Now, this has come down to just a single-digit speed of 9 cubic meters per second. This happened after many check dams appeared on the river, and about 5 crore litres of toxic effluents were simultaneously being discharged into the Periyar. The river is almost dead now," says MM Zakkir Hussain, Convener, Periyar Malineekarana Virudha Samiti – a citizen’s body created to save the Periyar river.
Alarmingly, this stretch of the river is also the primary drinking water lifeline for over 40 lakh residents of nearby Kochi.
Idyllic paradise wrecked by pollution
Older generations of Eloor residents remember a much different Periyar. For them, the story of the river is one of degradation – from clean waters and abundance to pollution and near-stagnation.
"When I was very young, maybe 40 years ago, my father used to take me fishing. We used to drink water directly from the river when we were thirsty. My father would tell me that the Periyar's water was the purest, but that was in his era,” says Sasi, a 55-year-old fisherman.
He knows now that effluents were already being discharged into the river in his childhood. But back then Periyar was still alive as a river, and the pollution had not yet become visible.
“Now if we drink the water directly, we will die. Many times at night, when I’ve been fishing, I’ve myself seen water – in black and other colours – being dumped into the river through underwater pipes," alleges Sasi.
Mahi, another fisherman in his 50s, says that the degradation of the river is visible in the falling stock of fish. “When I started fishing decades ago, we would get plenty of fish just by putting a hook in the water for 30 minutes. Now we can’t get that many fish even if we spend the whole day fishing. Many varieties of fish have simply disappeared. We used to come here to bathe and wash clothes too. Now, can you see anyone taking a bath in the Eloor stretch of the Periyar. No, because we will immediately get skin diseases," he says.
Industrialisation came early to the Eloor-Edayar belt, with the first industrial manufacturing unit – the Indian Aluminium Company – being set up here in 1934. Just a decade later, the first chemical industry, Fertilisers and Chemicals Travancore was setup to manufacture fertilizers like ammonium phosphate, ammonium sulphate, soda ash and so on. Private industry wasn’t far behind, with the Cominco Binani zinc plant coming up in 1950.
The trickle of industries turned into a flood over the years, until today, when over 280 industries function in the Eloor-Edayalar belt. Some of the most prominent of these have been the Hindustan Insecticide Limited, which produces DDT and – until the 2011 ban – Endosulfan; Merchem Limited, which produces rubber chemicals; the Indian Rare Earths Limited, which mines beach sand for minerals; the Sree Sakthi Paper Mills, manufacturing paper; and the Cochin Minerals and Rutile Limited, which primarily manufactures rutile or titanium oxide crystals
For the activists of the Periyar Malineekarana Virudha Samithi (PMVS), however, these industries are known by the effluents they have allegedly dumped into the river. The PMVS has meticulously documented this sordid record in a 60-page booklet titled Dakshina Keralathinte jeevanadi: Periyarinte maranam urappakkunnavarodu (Lifeline of South Kerala: To those who are killing Periyar)
HIL, for instance, is blamed for the high concentration of DDT and other organochlorines in the Kuzhikandam Thodu (Kuzhikandam Creek), which pours into the Periyar river. Locals, like 60-year-old Thankamma, allege that HIL’s effluent dumping has continued until as recently as a few months ago. "The companies used to release the effluents at night..this had been a daily practice for so many years. The foul smell would quickly spread, making it difficult for us to even breathe," says Thankamma.
Till 2000, FACT was accused of dumping acids and ammonia into the river. While it was operational, Binani Zinc was accused of contaminating the river with heavy metals like zinc, lead, cadmium, chromium, iron, and nickel, and was said to be the chief cause for the river turning red.
The now-defunct Sree Sakthi Paper Mills often took the blame for turning Periyar waters black by dumping heavy metals in the river. And the CMRL was alleged to be contributing brown hues to the water by discharging ferrous chloride into the Periyar.
While some of the major industries like Binani zinc and the Sree Sakthi Paper Mills have shut down for various reasons, activists allege that dozens of other polluters continue to function in the area. They also allege that some companies like CMRL and Merchem play a hide-and-seek game with the authorities, stopping effluent discharges temporarily when faced with legal troubles, but starting off again when the issues have cooled off.
It’s not just a single group’s allegations that stand against the industries of the Eloor-Edayar belt. Indeed, the degradation of the Periyar river is one of the most well-documented instances of water pollution in the country.
Two rooms at the PMVS office clearly tell a long history of mounting scientific evidence and legal proceedings that have still been unable to halt the river’s pollution. In the first room are stacked 20 massive bound volumes, collecting together nearly every media report on pollution in the Periyar over the last three decades. Besides that, are hundreds upon hundreds of photographs – of multi-coloured water, of major and minor fish kills, of pipes discharging effluents into the river and so on.
The second room is filled with documents – reports of over 100 studies conducted on the river, documented legal proceedings against various industrial concerns, as well as documents related to the numerous cases filed against activist fighting for the Periyar.
One of the first major studies to establish the extent of damage to the Periyar was a 1999 Greenpeace study of the Kuzhikandam Creek. This study found the creek and the surrounding wetlands so polluted with DDT, Endosulfan, and over a hundred organic compounds that it named Eloor the 35th most toxic hotspot in the world and the third most toxic hotspot in India.
Since the Greenpeace study in 1999, dozens of others have shown the waters of the Periyar to be contaminated with a wide range of pollutants – from persistant organic pollutants like DDT to a number of heavy metals like manganese, zinc, cadmium and mercury to excessive water nutrients like nitrates, phosphates and sulphates.
Through the years, the region has regularly received the dubious honour of consistently being listed among the most toxic spots in the country. In 2010, for instance, says PMVS leader Purushan Eloor, “IIT Delhi and the Central Ministry of Environment did a study of 158 industrial clusters in India. Of these, 88 were found to be severely polluted, and Eloor was ranked 24th among them.”
Multiple studies have documented the massive risks and catastrophic effects that such high toxicity creates for human, plant and animal life in the region. Multiple studies have found, for instance, that everything from vegetables to eggs to cow’s milk shows alarming contamination by various chemicals.
“Everything had heavy metals present in it – cadmium, zinc, copper, nickel, lead and so on were present. There was also DDT in everything. A study by the Mannuthy Veterinary College found very high levels of cadmium contamination in cow’s milk samples collected from here,” says Purushan.
In 2003, Greenpeace documented how pernicious the effects of such widespread pollution are, by comparing Eloor to Pindimana, another village on the banks of the Periyar that is very similar to Eloor, except it isn’t surrounded by industries. The results of the study were alarming, as it found that there was not only a rise in a specific set of ailments and conditions directly caused by pollution, but also an increase in a wide set of systemic disorders.
While Pindimana only reported one case of cancer, Eloor reported 13 cases. Similarly, Eloor recorded a much higher rate of nervous system disorders (1.59 times), congenital malformations, deformations and chromosomal aberrations (2.63 times), circulatory and respiratory disorders (1.59 and 1.29 times), and a whole range of other disorders.
A 2008 Kerala government study, which also compared Eloor to Pindimana found similar disparity between the two areas for asthma, reproductive disorders, allergies, muscle and bone diseases, cardiac disorders and stomach-related disorders. Eloor, for instance, recorded 72.20 asthma patients per 1,000 people as compared to Pindimana’s average of 16.2 patients. For bone diseases, Eloor stood at 189.3 patients per 1,000 people, against Pindimana’s average of less than 15.5.
As can be expected with the massive and regular fish kills that have hit the Periyar, multiple studies have also found that the discharge of effluents has been catastrophic for the acquatic life of the region too. According to a 2005 study by the Cochin University of Science and Technology, while there were 35 species of fish in the Periyar in 1980, the number had fallen to just 12 by 2005 – 23 different species had disappeared in a matter of 25 years.
This has meant the decimation of local fishing communities, says 65-year-old Chummar, looking disconsolate at the end of another fruitless morning when not a single fish was caught. The best he can hope for on most days, he says, is a fish or two for cooking and eating at home. There are not enough fish left for selling at market.
“There are no permanent fishermen in Periyar now, they all go for other work too. Younger generations of fishing families have simply moved out in search of other jobs,” he says.
The latest report submitted to the National Green Tribunal in February 2017 shows that little has changed over the years. The report states that many units neglect the maintenance of their effluent treatment plants, and dump untreated waste into the river directly. Even where they do not dump the waste, but store it in delay ponds or sludge heaps, the waste often enters the water as run-off during the monsoons, it adds.
Where the buck stops
The continuing degradation of the Periyar is certainly not for any lack of effort from the PMVS and the local population.
As Purushan describes 18 years of activism of the PMVS, “We have spent nights waiting on the river on small country boats to document secret discharge of effluents. We go take photographs, conduct protests outside the Pollution Control Board and it goes on. If you ask how successful we are, we can proudly say things have changed a lot. But we need more change.”
For victories, Purushan points to drop in number of fish kills and colour changes in the water over the years. “Earlier it was a daily routine. Since we do regular night inspections, effluent discharge is not as easy for them, but still they do it secretly.”
A number of factories have also closed down for failure to meet environmental norms. But Purushan emphasises that the Samithi’s goal is not to shut down industries, only to ensure that they keep from polluting the river.
However, one of the major stumbling blocks that the PMVS and locals have struggled against is the Kerala State Pollution Control Board. The activists allege that for many years officials of the KSPCB colluded with polluting factories so that their polluting ways were not exposed.
“A major challenge in the earlier days was the nexus between pollution control board officials and the factory owners. This meant that when we called the officials about polluting factories, the factory owners would be told about the inspection. It took us years, before we understood that officials themselves were influenced by these factory owners,” alleges Manoj, a member of the PMVS.
Much of that changed when the Supreme Court, in 2004, took the KSPCB to task over the sorry state of the Periyar river. Among the many recommendations that the SC-appointed Monitoring Committee made were the immediate closure of units – 197 in all – that did not adhering to the Hazardous Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, 1989, the supply of piped drinking water to those affected by pollution in the Periyar with funds from polluting industries, and the creation of a fund of Rs 2.5 crore, levied from the polluters and to be used for cleaning up the river.
The SCMC also appointed a Local Area Environment Committee, which conducted an environment audit six months later. While the LAEC remained active, pollution levels dropped, and there seemed hope for the Periyar. However, when the body became defunct, effluent discharges began to rise again. While plans were proposed, closure notices issued to a few companies and initiatives like the 24X7 Periyar River water quality monitoring station were unveiled, they made few dents in the growing pollution problem. Finally, in 2016, it fell upon the National Green Tribunal to take the KSPCB to task again. The Central Pollution Control Board, which submitted its report on Eloor to the NGT in March 2017, also took the KSPCB to task for letting companies function with inadequate or absent effluent treatment systems.
Over the years, the PCB has received criticism from various quarters, and is accused of being inefficient at best, and corrupt at worst. While some socially conscious officials of the Board like Eloor division Executive Engineer MP Thridip Kumar are seen as genuinely supporting the cause of the Periyar, the Board in general is not seen in a kindly light.
But activists point out that it isn’t only the PCB to blame, but successive governments which have shown little political will to act against polluting industries and save the Periyar. "Despite numerous studies, and us submitting solid proof that most of the private and government-owned industries here are directly discharging their effluents into the river, we are still awaiting a solution. No political party will take our side, because they are all accepting a fair share from the companies to turn a blind eye towards the harm they are causing," alleges Mahesh, another member of the PMVS.
Reaction of industries
While there have been some tentative attempts to curb pollution by some of the industries in the Eloor-Edayar belt, activists and even government officials allege that the response has more often been one of belligerence.
In November 2016, at a meeting attened by MLA PT Thomas, for instance, Thridip Kumar publicly alleged that he was being targeted by CMRL for issuing a notice against it.
“The day I issued a notice against the company, because they discharged effluents through the pipes meant to discharge rain water, an enquiry was ordered against me in the department (PCB). CMRL also provoked the trade unions, and they conducted a march to the PCB office against me. On top of that, they gave a number of fake complaints to the police, and I had to spend days in police stations giving statements,” the officer said in the meeting.
Purushan has some of the same allegations to make against the Eloor industries, as he shows off a large bundle of papers – constituting the case files of various complaints filed against him.
“I am not sure how many cases they have filed against me. The trade unions have even given a number of cases against me alleging that I am a Maoist. They also alleged in police complaints that I am an anti-national. Also, they have made up fake evidence against me, like photos of Facebook posts that weren’t actually not posted by me. CMRL has also filed a number of complaints against me. That is how they threaten activists and genuine officers,” Purushan says.
Activist Adam Kutty says that the industries do not only use fear to suppress dissent against them. “To gain local support these industries have offered money, jobs and many other facilities. Earlier the companies had a trend of helping families financially, if there was any weddings in their houses. They give money, gold and other things to locals, so that they won’t protest. There are instances where they have distribute electronic goods, study materials, and so on as gifts. All these they claim to be charity activities, but the intentions behind them are something else,” he alleges.
PMVS activists, however, are very clear that the opposition that is repeatedly built up against them among trade unions and workers is based on false premises. “Our protests are not against any industries and we don’t want them to close down. We know that industries are necessary for a region’s growth. But we are against pollution, against killing a river that was once the source of livelihood for about 22,000 fishing families. Proper effluent treatment plants that function properly are what is necessary for each industry here and that is what we are demanding,” says Purushan.
Edited by Rakesh Mehar
Photos : Lenin CV