IMAGE - the offshoot of Indian Medical Association Kerala branch, stands for IMA Goes Eco Friendly. IMA, the largest organisation representing doctors working in the private sector, had conceived IMAGE as an eco-friendly solution for treating the biomedical waste produced by hospitals in Kerala. The plant was commissioned on December 14, 2003. But far from its intended purpose, the plant has allegedly turned out to be hazardous for the environment, forcing several people to protest against this.
The permission for the plant was for it to be set up in Puthussery panchayat. Instead, the plant was set up at Malampuzha, on the border of Puthussery.
Kinvallur Sasidharan, a retired tehsildar who has been fighting to shift the plant from its current location, says, “Setting up the plant on the border of Malampuzha rather than any other part of Puthussery itself was rather mysterious. Malampuzha dam is the source of drinking water for 10 lakh people in the district. IMAGE owns 24 acres of land for the plant and the waste flows to Korayar, through the southern part of the plant. The plant has five chimneys. The chemical components released through the chimney and the waste that get mixed up in the water during rain, reach the reservoir of the Malampuzha dam through groundwater sources. This is a terrifying fact.”
The most striking thing is that while applying for permission for the plant, IMA had stated that there are no rivers, wells or water streams near the proposed site. “It was a blatant lie. Malampuzha, the largest dam in the state is located on the north and the tributary of Bharathapuzha, Korayar is in the south. It was a criminal offence giving licence for the plant.”
As per the figures of 2015, the waste from 6,897 hospitals and labs including 221 government hospitals, 1,042 private hospitals, 24 government labs, 2,417 private labs, 67 government clinics and 3,124 private clinics reaches IMAGE. In 2016, it rose to 8,498 firms. In a single day, 37 tonnes of bio-medical waste are being processed here. As per the latest information, the waste from more than 1,200 hospitals and labs accumulates at the plant.
Sasidharan asks, “What was the basis for giving the contract for removing waste from government hospitals to IMA, when it should have been done after public bidding only.”
The facts exposed and allegations levelled by Sasidharan about the plant are as follows:
The plant doesn’t have the approval of the National Green Tribunal. “It is located within 100 meters of the Western Ghats, but the plant managed to obtain the licence of the state Suchitwa Mission as well.” Suchitwa Mission is the state nodal agency for sanitation.
The licence for setting up hospitals is given on the condition that there should be a facility to process the waste inside the hospital compound. “Why this condition was forgone for giving the licence to IMA for collecting and processing waste from hospitals. What is the legal provision for transporting the waste by road from all the 14 districts to the plant without obtaining licence for that?”
As per the 1962 Government Order, number 329/63 of the Malampuzha Dam Protection Act, no encroachments and illegal activities are allowed within 1,000 feet radius of the dam.
In a day, 3,600 litres of water are diverted to IMAGE plant from Malampuzha dam reservoir. Nearly 10 lakh people depend on the dam for drinking water. Palakkad is one of the most water scarce districts in the state and the available water is not sufficient to meet the basic needs. “What was the need to give licence for a plant which requires such huge amount of water for its functioning?”
On December 12, 2012, the Palakkad Revenue Divisional Officer (RDO) had directed IMAGE to pay a compensation of Rs 63,650 for destroying paddy fields in the nearby area by allowing polluted water to flow through them, but it is not clear if the amount was paid and there is utter silence on the damage to cultivation caused by the plant.
It is feared that the existence of the plant has affected availability of rain in the district. Another serious impact is that it has affected the natural habitat of animals. With the air being polluted by chemical components released from the plant, this has forced the animals to leave the Western Ghats. Of late, instances of elephants straying into the city have become common.
On the other hand, the argument raised by IMA is that if the plant had not been set up, Kerala would have come to a standstill, without any options to treat bio-medical waste. The fact is that Kerala didn’t stall before the plant become operational which was in 2006.”
“It is learnt that the waste from hospitals is collected for IMA by a big company named GG Multiclave. Who has authorised IMA to entrust the task of collecting biomedical waste in the state to such a company. It is suspected that a multinational drug mafia is behind GG Multiclave. Does the government have any clarity on such things?” Sasidharan asks.
Sasidharan has sent a complaint to Union Minister of State for Tourism Alphonse Kannanthanam, citing the problems the plant is causing to people and the environment. Kannathantham, in November 2017, had directed the district Collector to have a meeting with Sasidharan, which hasn’t happened yet. Sasidharan’s effort is to shift the plant seven kilometres away from the current area, to a dry and deserted land. “It is to be suspected that the drug mafia is behind it. Their agenda could be to pollute the water source, thereby leading to deterioration in people’s health, creating more patients and hence generating a bigger market for drugs,” he alleges.
VS Achuthanandan’s opposition to the plant has little impact
Former Chief Minister and the senior most leader of the CPI (M) in Kerala, VS Achuthanandan, known for his firm stand against injustice, visited the plant in 2017. His immediate response was to shut down the plant. VS’s response, while it came as a boost for environmentalists, had no impact on the government led by the party he represents. “The syringes brought from hospitals to treat patients at the plant are transported to Tamil Nadu, which are sent back to Kerala with new packing for sale. A case was registered at Kasaba police station in 2014 in this connection. But no further action was taken in the case,” VS had said after visiting the plant. VS had even said that if the government won’t take action to shut down the plant, there should be strong public protest but this failed to elicit any response.
A former employee’s experience
Jaya (name changed) used to work at the plant till 2010. One day, a syringe got accidentally stuck on her left foot. She sought treatment at a private hospital for several months. The only assistance given by the company was Rs 7,500. “I was also given bus fare twice. I had approached the company authorities seeking financial help for treatment a couple of times. They sent me back promising they would give money, but it never came. I continued treatment for some months, but stopped later as I was unable to find the money for it. I had also stopped working at the plant fearing that the syringe would get stuck in my other foot too,” she says.
Were the staff not given boots to protect them from such occupational hazards? “We were allowed to wear leather chappals, no boots were given.” She is still suffering from the pain that radiates from her foot to the ankle. “It still persists,” she says. Living in a house - the construction of which is only half completed, with her only son, she is now doing other daily wage works.
Jaya’s house is in a one-kilometre radius from the plant. “We were paid Rs 90 per day as wages. Our job was to segregate waste. There were all types of waste, human organs, blood… We would notice some organs while we segregated the waste. The two things that were burnt at the plant were waste cloth and cotton, while some materials like syringes were recycled.”
The workers, all from financially backward families, in the surrounding area of the plant were paid Rs 90 per day for working from 9 am to 4 pm. Following the protest by some activists, the wage was raised to Rs 130. “But when the wage was raised, working hours were extended to 8.30 am,” she says. When asked why she opted to work at the plant and why workers like her continue risking their health, she says, “We have to live, we need work.”
Activists continue waging fight
People like Gopalan of Malampuzha and Veliyodi Venugopal are in the same league as Sasidharan and have been trying for years to expose the adverse impact of the waste treatment at the plant.
Gopalan and Venugopal, in their sixties, have been consistently resisting environmentally hazardous initiatives, sometimes becoming part of protest groups like Samyuktha Samara Samithi (Joint Action Council) and at other times acting alone. Venugopal says, “The real culprit in the issue is the government. There was no environmental impact assessment (EIA) study done before sanctioning the plant. It’s strange that the authorities including Health, Forest department and the local bodies did nothing while the plant was being set up. The danger posed by the plant became evident years later. Despite the arguments raised by many about the health and ecological impact, the authorities are still having a carefree attitude.”
He continues, “What we need is a people’s commission to be appointed to study the issues. People in the area should be made aware of the hazardous impact of the plant. We have been leading protests to open the eyes of the authorities, but nothing has been done so far. We are ready to join hands with all others who have been genuinely vocal on the issue.”
The real issue, Gopalan feels, is that the people who either work there or live near the area don’t have awareness about the plant. “Even for raising wages, we launched the protest. Several of the workers are suffering from various health issues, but they are given strict warning that they shouldn’t speak about it. The advantage the workers see is that they get work near their home.”
As part of the Malampuzha dam protection committee and Forum for Malabar Rights, late Professor PS Panicker was at the forefront of the fight against the plant. “After his death, mine is somewhat a lonely struggle, though I am associated with people like Venugopal,” Gopalan says.
The groups have staged protest multiple times and are planning to continue with the agitations.
A joint action council, with representatives of various organisations, is also planning to produce a documentary film to make people aware of the issues with the plant.
Ravindran PM is a retired Air Force officer who has collected details through RTI, of the violations committed by IMA for setting up the plant.
“Almost all the claims made by IMA for getting licence are wrong,” he says. “The plant has been functioning without the mandatory licence under the Factories Act. In August 2015, the State Human Rights Commission had directed the plant authorities to immediately get the licence under the Act.”
The Commission had also directed the Puthussery grama panchayat to take necessary action if those who run the plant failed to obtain the licence.
The serious lapses on the part of IMAGE authorities are with regard to two conditions stipulated by the State Pollution Control Board while giving licence for the plant. “First, the limiting standard for suspended particular matter (SPM) is 150 mg/normal cubic metre (Nm3), that of nitrogen oxide is 400 mg/Nm3 and of hydrogen chloride is 50 mg/Nm3. Second, for the licence to be given, it is mandatory that the sound level (Leq) measured at a distance of one metre from the boundary wall of the site shall not exceed 55 dB(A) during daytime (6am-6pm) and the industry shall not be operated during night time,” Ravindran says.
He adds, “Also, only two vehicles (for transporting the waste) have been authorised as per this letter of July 5, 2006. Though these two vehicles had not even applied for authorisation and were granted one, five vehicles that had applied for authorisation as early as on February 2, 2005 have not been authorised, though another one on the same date had been authorised.”
The applications themselves speak of the fraud perpetrated by IMA and Kerala State Pollution Control Board. “When comparing data in the applications, in one, it says the area of land is three acres 30 cents; in the other, it is seven acres 17 cents. The plant is located in the catchment area of Malampuzha reservoir - the only source of drinking water for the population in Palakkad municipality and six gram panchayats, apart from many others down the river Bharathapuzha. In spite of this, in their application for the licence, on the column asking for distance from the nearest water resources, it was specified as ‘nil’.
Meanwhile, refuting all allegations, state IMA President Dr EK Ummer said, “Not a single drop of water is leaked from the plant, the air holes are tightened to avoid contamination. We had secured all the licences needed to operate the plant and the authorities are aware of it. The attempt to shut down the plant failed because the papers are ‘pukka’. How can we function if there was no clearance for our papers? There is no environmental damage caused by the operation of the plant, and it is completely adhering to the standards.”
Courtesy for visuals inside the plant : Nerkannu, Kaumudy TV