It was in 2003 that Greenpeace declared that the Eloor industrial belt, lying along Kerala’s Periyar river, was India’s third-most toxic hotspot, and the 35th-most toxic in the world.
More than a decade of activism and research have followed, with the Periyar – lined by over 200 industries – becoming a cause célèbre in the debate over development and eco-conservation.
But decades before global attention turned to the Periyar, there was Kunjappan. A former Naxalite, who was briefly in hiding and then imprisoned during the Emergency, Kunjappan has been a river warrior fighting for his beloved Periyar since the 1970s.
Back then, there were no scientific studies to show the multiple ill effects of the effluents being dumped with impunity into the river. But what drove Kunjappan was what he could see with his own eyes – that the Periyar, whose banks were already dotted with chemical and other industries – had deteriorated since his childhood.
From a river that flowed plentiful and strong, with water clear as glass, the Periyar has, over the years, turned sluggish and sickly – its waters too dirty to touch, let alone drink. And where his mother could catch a basketful of fish and prawn from the river in minutes, the adult Kunjappan found a Periyar in which fish species began disappearing one by one.
It was in 1971 that Kunjappan saw his first fish kill. Back then, people did not understand what that meant, and ate the dead fish only to fall ill themselves. And the air in the region was so polluted that vehicles would sometimes stop for hours waiting for patches of industrial smog to clear.
Starting with a series of one-man protests, Kunjappan built up the struggle through the Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishad (a people’s science movement in Kerala) through the 1970s and the 1980s. Finally, in the late 1990s, the Periyar Malineekarana Virudha Samithi came together as a powerful citizen’s movement to save the Periyar from industrial pollution.
As scientific evidence has built up about the immense threat to the Periyar, Kunjappan has gone from being an eccentric troublemaker to a respected member of a strong citizen’s movement. But though there have been victories for the movement – following interventions of top courts, multiple industries have improved their waste treatment facilities or have been shut down – the river is still under massive threat.
But seeing his initial instincts proved right with mounting scientific evidence, and seeing his lone protests grow into a full-fledged movement, have only bolstered the 69-year-old eco warrior’s determination to save his beloved river. “I have seen all the stages of this river, my dream is that I should see its re-birth before I die,” Kunjappan says.