Nearly a month after the residents of Ramanthali in Kannur district began their sit-in strike against the functioning of the Indian Naval Academy’s STP in their neighbourhood, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan finally intervened on Thursday.
More than five hundred residents of the northern district have been protesting against the Indian Naval Academy’s sewage treatment plant (STP), alleging that the plant has been contaminating the groundwater in the area.
Thursday was the 31st day of the protest and 8th day of the hunger strike spearheaded by citizens group Jana Arogya Samrakshana Samithi (JASS), who have been demanding permanent closure of the plant.
After holding a meeting with representatives of the group, district collector Mir Muhammad Ali, officials from Pollution Control Board and the Naval Academy, the CM ordered the formation of an expert committee to study the case.
"The INA is entitled to follow the recommendations of the expert committee, whatever it may be. If the committee finds that the plant can function after carrying out maintenance work, then so be it. Or if the committee recommends otherwise, a new sewage plant should be set up," the CM said.
Pinarayi also urged the protesters to call off their agitation. However, the protesters have refused to do so, claiming that a delay of one month to arrive at a conclusion will further worsen the situation.
Why are the residents protesting?
In December last year, the residents living near the INA's sewage treatment plant noticed that the wells in their compounds had a sudden increase in the water level. This raised eyebrows, coming at a time when the state is going through drought-like conditions.
Residents found that the water in their wells had turned a mild yellow colour, with even a tinge of white sometimes. A foul smell also emanated from the wells.
"We then called for a public meeting in which many people said that the reason for the water contamination was the functioning of the sewage plant. It was then that many of the other residents put two and two together and figured that this was not an isolated incident. In the past, they either failed to notice the change, or never thought that it was because of pollution. A few months ago, some officials pumped out water from our wells in a hurry. We did not know why they were doing so. Now we suspect that the pollution has been going on for months," Vinod Ramanthali, one of the members of Jana Arogya Samrakshana Samiti told The News Minute.
According to the protesters, they found the level of coliform bacteria to be alarmingly high in the water. Soon JASS was formed to give a platform for the residents to voice their opinion.
When talks with officials of INA failed, the residents led a march to the office of the Pollution Control Board. The protesters allege that though the pollution control board found that the level of coliform bacteria in the water was high, they instructed the naval academy to carry out maintenance work on the STP.
However, the residents are not ready to settle for anything less than the permanent shutting down of the plant, that began operations in 2005.
On March 1, they launched an indefinite strike outside the Academy's gate.
Vinod alleges that the district collector Mir Muhammad Ali and the officials of the pollution control board are merely favouring the Naval Academy by not taking stringent action against it.
Though a report submitted by Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (CWRDM) to the district collector proved that the quantity of coliform bacteria in the water samples was high, the report failed to establish whether the sewage treatment plant of INA was responsible for it.
When the residents' protests intensified, Payyannur MLA C Krishnan of CPI (M) launched a parallel strike against the INA, under the aegis of Janakeeya Samrakshana Samiti (JSS).
However, the MLA's move has come under severe criticism from protesters representing JASS, who accused the MLA of politicizing a people's movement.
"The agitation we began was against the unfair practices of the plant and it is completely apolitical. After our agitation intensified, the MLA too, launched a parallel strike, which is nothing but a political gimmick. It is his party that is in power, and he did not want it to be seen as siding with the INA," Vinod alleged.
According to reports, JSS has called off the strike following Thursday's meeting with the CM.