How a pristine Kerala island transformed into world’s top toxic spot

In a study, the Centre for Developmental Studies also analysed how the local body authorities were ineffective in curbing the pollution in Eloor.
How a pristine Kerala island transformed into world’s top toxic spot
How a pristine Kerala island transformed into world’s top toxic spot
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Nestled between Periyar river and its tributary Muttar river in Ernakulam district of Kerala, the island municipality of Eloor has often been in the news for the massive fish deaths along the river stretch. It is only around Eloor — an industrial hotspot with about 247 chemical industries — that the Periyar river has shown visible effects of pollution, including fish deaths and change in water colour. In fact, just a week ago, the Muttar river witnessed another major fish kill, where hundreds of fish surfaced dead on the river.

For many, it is hard to comprehend that Eloor — once a pristine fishing and agricultural village —  is currently choked by the hundreds of functioning and defunct factories, with some even emitting toxic pollutants and radiation.

The Centre for Developmental Studies in Thiruvananthapuram has managed to trace Eloor’s transition from a fishing hotspot into one of the world’s toxic hotspots. The team has recorded their findings in a 128-page booklet titled: ‘Why Do People Deny Environmental Destruction? The Pollution of the Periyar at Eloor, and Local-level Responses’.

Last year's fish kill 

Professor Devika J of the Centre for Developmental Studies, professor NC Narayanan of Centre for Technology Alternatives for Rural Areas in IIT Bombay and journalist Chithira Vijayakumar, carried out an interdisciplinary study of Eloor. In 2019, they analysed how the local body authorities slumbered without effectively doing anything to curb the pollution-causing industries.

The birth of ‘Udyogamandal’

In 1944, Eloor got a new post-office when the construction of Fertilizers and Chemicals Travancore Ltd (FACT) began there. The post-office was named ‘Udyogamandal’, meaning, ‘the centre of industries and employment’. Eventually, however, the whole of Eloor began to be referred to as Udyogamandal.

After India’s independence in 1947, the place saw an accelerated growth of large-scale industries, mainly chemical industries. As per the study report, Travancore Cochin Chemicals and Binani Zinc (private) began functioning at Udyogamandal in 1950, Indian Rare Earths Limited in 1951 and then the Hindustan Insecticides Limited (HIL) in 1954. FACT, which was already established then, obtained 450 acres of riverside land by 1957. By 2005, there were around 300 factories on the 11.21 square-kilometre island.

Periyar flowing red in Eloor

“The idea of Udyogamandal was obviously a powerful one. People were being asked to refashion their dreams of the future, and promised prosperity and progress tied to the coattails of industrialisation and commerce. The promise of job creation and wealth generation was held out as a dangling carrot to the locals. But what would happen to the jobs and livelihoods in Eloor that depended upon the land and the river, long before this ‘mandal’ was established? The answer is simple: you would end up with the Eloor of today,” (sic) reads a passage in ‘How to Kill a River: A Handy Guide’ by journalist Chithira Vijayakumar, excerpted from the booklet.

Udyogamandal, thus, began flourishing, becoming the centre of industrial development in Kerala. By around 2009, there were 79 ‘Red’ category industries — the most severely polluting industrial sectors — apart from hundreds of other industries functioning in Eloor.

Industries under ‘Red’ category are those with Pollution Index (PI) score of 60 and above, which means those industrial sectors producing excessive emissions, effluents and hazardous waste, and even excessively consuming natural resources.

Eloor’s road to pollution

In 1971, a few years after the factories established in Eloor started to flourish, Periyar river saw its first episode of the massive fish kills. Fish was their primary food of the residents on the island. The residents woke up one fine morning and saw hundreds of fish lying dead on the banks of Periyar. Then, they did not understand the reason behind the strange phenomenon. But soon, they realised that the fish died after ingesting something toxic when people who cooked and consumed these fish started falling sick.

Episodes of fish deaths were only one of the manifestations of pollution in Eloor, the study says. Just like how Periyar river (which originates from Sivagiri Hills in the Western Ghats) was being polluted, the air in Eloor was also getting contaminated. According to Chithira, people woke up to a town “shrouded in chemical mist in the mornings”. Respiratory illnesses were on the rise.

Industrial discharge turning the water black

A majority of the residents here depend on agriculture for livelihood. However, soon, the functioning of the factories would also displace the traditional livelihood of the islanders.

“Agriculture became largely unfeasible in the area, since toxic contaminants leached into the soil, making the land inhospitable for cultivation. Crops began to wither and even seeds stopped sprouting. Farms that had once been ploughed and harvested for decades began to be deserted,” writes Chithira.

One of the major incidents that the people of Eloor have not forgotten till date is how a canal  — Kuzhikandam thodu — caught fire because of the flammable toxic pollutant discharge from one of the factories. About hundreds of Dalit families lived on the banks of this creek.

In April 1990, the canal caught fire due to the burning of toluene, a toxic chemical known to cause damage nervous system and liver.

“The toxic chemical discharge was reportedly from Hindustan Insecticides Ltd and an inquiry into the matter, by the Kerala State Pollution Control Board, found that discharge from the factory was not properly treated and that caused the fire,” the study states.

The paper by Chithira Vijayakumar also accounts how people of Eloor, out of their ignorance, even started using chemical waste like gypsum for construction purposes without knowing its ill effects. Even when structures made from gypsum are demolished, the toxic waste leaches into the groundwater.

Then, in 1999, GreenPeace, an Amsterdam-based non-governmental environmental organisation, first set foot in Eloor. Based on their ground study, test and analysis of pollutants in the air, water and land, Eloor was declared one of the toxic hotspots in the world.

In 2002, GreenPeace did a follow-up study and found an elevated level of pollutants, concluding that “public and judicial intervention, agitations, government legislation did not change the situation of Eloor much since 1992”.

Even today, Eloor municipality's official website mentions the infamous tag of the local body, as if, like an achievement.

Screenshot of Eloor municipality website

'Local body could have saved Eloor'

The issue of toxic pollution in Eloor reached a boiling point when a fire broke out at the Endosulfan plant of the Hindustan Insecticides Ltd in the wee hours of July 6, 2004.

The residents scrambled to leave their houses and the island, which is connected to the mainland by bridges. Soon, a Local Area Environmental Committee (LAEC) was set up, in accordance with a Supreme Court directive. The committee constituted of local activists (like Purushan Eloor) and NGOs (like Thiruvananthapuram-based Thanal), along with local body officials.

The formation of LAEC gave a boost to the anti-pollution movement. The committee made frequent stringent flash inspections.

Binani Zinc Company was forced to halt its expansion plans, which would have further escalated the pollution of the Periyar river. As per the study, the works of LAEC for a year brought about visible changes in the area and reduced the pollution of the river. However, LAEC's success was short-lived as it disbanded a year after it was formed.

As a result, the pollution in Periyar, once again, increased. In 2006 and in subsequent years, the Periyar River stretch in Eloor started turning red in colour.

The study specifically points out the apathy of the local body officials, who could have been instrumental in bringing a change to the situation there. In order to explain it, the study compares the success of anti-pollution committee formed to check the pollution of Chaliyar river at Areekode in Malappuram district and the Periyar river in Eloor.

The stark contrast between both the movements was the involvement of the local body officials. “When the Chaliyar river was polluted, the laxity of Kerala State Pollution Control Board and inaction of state government was evident. Yet the anti-pollution committee there was formed with the active participation of local body officials,” the study states. Whereas according to the study, in Eloor, the sense of denial of the existence of environmental degradation and 'powerlessness' of the local body tamped down the anti-pollution movement.

(All pictures by Mahesh Kumar)

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