Turn off the road at Elavupalam in Peringamala on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu road, and you can be forgiven for thinking that you have entered a forest.
Just 1.5 km off the road and past a stream, you indeed reach a small forest. Walking a little farther you come across some low-lying land – this is the proposed site for the Indian Medical Association (IMA) Kerala unit’s bio medical waste plant.
Banners have been put up all through the way reflecting the locals’ protest against the plant, which they fear would destroy the ecosystem. There is a protest pandal near the site and one at the Elavupalam junction where a group of people have been on vigil to guard the ecosystem around them.
The protests began in November ever since the IMA Kerala unit gave a notification in a few dailies about the plant. The Agasthyavanam Biosphere Conservation Forum, which looks into environmental issues in the ecologically sensitive core area, spearheaded the protests. The proposed site, at Elavupalam in Peringamala panchayat on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram, is a core region of the Western Ghats and has been notified as ecologically fragile by both the Madhav Gadgil and Kasturirangan reports. The region is also a storage hub for rare medicinal plants.
In the region lies the second largest Myristica swamp in the world and the largest in Asia. Rich in different varieties of flora, the region is also the habitat of scores of animals. Elephants have been reported to come in herds here. So the slightest imbalance of the ecology may prove hazardous.
The IMA Kerala unit bought the land in 2011; even at that time, it was notified under Ecologically Fragile Lands (EFL). The locals question why the Forest Department hasn’t taken over the land from private ownership or prevented construction when it was notified as EFL. The District Panchayat passed a resolution against the plant on January 4.
“The plant is being set up without doing a proper study and without taking steps to address the apprehensions of the people. Neither Peringamala Grama Panchayat nor any other authority has given sanction for the plant. Hence the IMA should consider setting up the plant at some other site,” the resolution said.
“The land was given to the tribal people by erstwhile kings for paddy cultivation. The land, which was allotted solely for farming, is now in the hands of the IMA after change in ownership multiple times,” said Shiras Khan, chairman, Agasthyavanam Biosphere Conservation Forum.
He alleged that what the IMA has been doing in the guise of its wing named IMAGE, which they claim is an eco-friendly bio medical waste management facility, was eyewash.
The region is also the origin of the Vamanapuram river (in Thiruvananthapuram) and Kallada river (in Kollam). “Nearly 68 small drinking water projects exist which depend on the rivers. If the plant comes up, the water sources will be contaminated and that will kill all the drinking water projects,” Shiras added.
The forest area is also a part of UNESCO’s world heritage site. Agasthyamala Reserve is among the 20 new sites included by UNESCO to its World Network of Biosphere Reserves in March in 2016.
The people of Peringamala panchayat had submitted a memorandum to the Forest Minister in the first week of January highlighting the ecological impact of the proposed plant. Divisional Forest Officer D Ratheesh on December 5 wrote to the Chief Environmental Engineer citing the ecological damage the proposed plant could cause.
“A small stream flows through the middle of the land and reaches another stream, Kalluvaramb. Kalluvaramb stream joins Chitar river, which is the prime tributary of Vamanapuram river. Kalluvaramb stream is just 150 m from the proposed site. Also, 300 m north of the site is situated the Thannimoodu tribal settlement. Apart from this, scores of animals live in the forest land near the site. The site could also contaminate the water sources in the region. Therefore, it is not appropriate to set up the plant in the region and IMA should step back from the attempt,” the DFO’s report said.
Sixty families of the Kani tribe live in the tribal settlement 300 meters distance from the site. “We will die today or tomorrow, but we are concerned about future generations. What if the region is destroyed by such a plant, where will all the human beings, animals and birds go? Where will we go for water?” Kamalakshi, an elderly woman from the settlement, asks. “They can build the plant only after killing us,” she says.
Vathasamma, another resident of the settlement, said, “We have never faced water scarcity. If the plant comes up, we fear that we will have to throw away everything that was naturally available to us.”
The bizarre fact is that the feasibility study for the proposed plant was conducted by Annamalai University. “Why did a university outside the state conduct the study? The study report goes against the facts. While it is mandatory that such plants should come up in totally dry land, the report has manipulated the facts. It says the land is situated in a dry area and that there are no human settlements in a 5-km radius, which is a blatant lie,” said Anas, a member of the Forum.
It was a green activist, Sanjeeth, who happened to see the notification in the dailies about the plant who brought the IMA’s plan to the notice of the locals and the authorities. District Collector K Vasuki held a hearing with the authorities concerned in December and with the locals on January 3, during which also the locals raised their concerns.
This is the second bio medical waste plant proposed by the IMA in Kerala; the first one was set up in Palakkad district in 2004.
If the plant comes up, at least four-five containers carrying the waste from private hospitals from the state would enter the region every day, which would damage the ecosystems on the way leading to the site from Elavupalam Junction.
“What is proposed at the plant is to set up two insulators with a capacity to treat 400 kg of waste per hour while the capacity of the plant in Palakkad is 180 kg per hour. Though they claim that it’s a service, how can it be when they charge money from the hospitals for treating waste and make huge profits out of it in due course?” Shiras asked.
From Peringamala to the Tamil Nadu border is just 60 km.
Shiras said, “We suspect that apart from the waste produced by private hospitals in Kerala, it is planned that waste from hospitals in Madurai could also be treated here.
The locals are also shocked by the support given by Health Minister KK Shyalaja for the plant. Well-known wildlife photographer Sali Palode, who is also the coordinator of the Forum, said, “Let the Chief Minister come to the region. Only those who haven’t seen the place can support the plant. It’s quite unfortunate that the CM has been misguided by the advisers in the issue. The minister is not born as a minister, we elected the people’s representatives and hence they are accountable to us,” he said.
He pointed out, “The Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute, Shendurney Wildlife Sanctuary, Arippa Eco Tourism Village, mangroves at Sasthamnada are all situated in a 10-km radius of the site, which all show how sensitive the ecology of the region is. Now that we have begun the protest, we won’t allow this to happen.”
The IMA, however, holds the view that it’s not going to waste dump in the region and that is a wrong notion of the local people. Dr Sreejith Kumar of the IMA had told TNM that there will not be any health hazards as a result of the plant.
“We are going to scientifically treat the waste; it’s a fool-proof mechanism. We have been doing this for years in Palakkad and there is nothing the locals need to be worried about,” he had said.