As pollution plagues Periyar river, experts urge anti-industrial stance at Eloor

Eloor, a municipal island along the Periyar river in Kerala, is home to several industries that pollute the river and adversely harm its ecosystem.
Periyar River
Periyar River
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The Periyar river in Kerala is one of the state’s most important lifelines, necessary for the functioning of life throughout its long stretch. However, the river has been subject to rampant pollution for several decades, particularly near the Eloor industrial regions in Ernakulam district. Despite environmentalists’ clamour through the years, little has been done to improve the condition of the river, thanks to the presence of several industrial units in the region. A webinar on 'The Toxic Pile of Eloor Edavar, Kerala's Industrial Capital- Whose responisbility?’ was held on October 22 by a group of environmentalists.

The idea of the webinar was to discuss future interventions to address the impending issue of pollution and ecological destruction in the region. In the discussion, it was pointed out that the periodic discolouration of the river is a relic of environmental pollution in the Eloor-Edayar belt. The water takes on many colours as it flows here, as a result of the wide variety of chemical pollutants let out be the industries. Earlier this year, in April, the river turned black, which was a new phenomenon for the residents.

According to its organisers, this webinar was held because the pollution “issue persists as one of Kerala's oldest and unresolved environmental issues.” Purushan Eloor, an environmentalist who has been at the forefront of protests against the pollution of the river, emphasized in the webinar that, "Where pollution becomes the biggest threat to drinking water, we should understand that there is no alternative to drinking water.” The Eloor-Edayar industrial belt had been declared as a toxic hotspot by the environment group Greenpeace in 2003. Purushan also pointed out that the discoloration of the river is caused by the release of untreated and partially treated effluents from the industries situated on the river banks.

The local communities’ struggle against the pollution of the river has been going on for the past decade. According to Purushan, the major achievement of the movement is that it helped highlight the issue of industrialisation as a legitimate one that needs to be addressed. However, despite their efforts, pollution continues to plague the local community as well as the environment.

"More than 21 lakh tonnes of hazardous and toxic waste is being stored in seven ponds located inside the company premises.  The hazardous waste is laced with heavy metals (lead, cadmium, zinc, chromium, hexavalent chromium, cobalt and copper) and acids. Also, industries that were manufacturing now banned pesticides have left hazardous wastes in the region”, Purushan said.

Advocate Ashkar Khader, who has been the legal counsel for local environmentalists since 2012, talked about the Health Insurance Program instituted for the residents of Eloor in 2009, based on a Health Study Committee Report. He explained how the programme failed to benefit the local people. The report recommended health insurance to the residents of five selected wards in Eloor Panchayath, and the project was stopped after a year when the government in power changed. “The programme ended up benefiting the insurance providers more than the local community,” he said.

However, one of important outcome of the litigation, he said, was the removal of around 6,153 metric tonnes of plastic waste stored on the banks of Periyar by the now-closed Sree Shakthi Paper Mill.

Advocate Harish Vasudevan emphasised the need to shift the liability on to the state. Instead of focusing on the names of the companies, he suggested that the movement should fight for the right to have the local communities’ lands and ecology restored.

“It is disheartening to hear that much of the legal battles happen with the lawyer of Pollution Control Board (PCB) and not with private companies. PCB lawyer is supposed to protect the interest of the state. And the PCB should not be spending money to defend or legitimise pollution. To change this, we need to go back to the basics where we say that, we don’t want to know who is polluting, all we want is our water back. We do not want to know who is polluting; it is the duty of the PCB to see that it is removed,” Harish said.

Dr J Devika, an academician and activist who also studied about the Periyar pollution pointed out how the absence of a good metaphor adversely affects the anti-pollution movements. “On a subconscious level, we are relating the struggle in Eloor to institutions such as the United Nations or the Supreme Court, the committees appointed by the SC etc. These are all extremely important. However, it is equally important to articulate this as an issue that affects Kerala. This should become Kerala’s issue and not just a concern of Eloor or the people there. And that’s where metaphors come handy. We shouldn’t downplay the importance of poets and poetry in mobilizing people,” she said

Jayakumar, another environmentalist at the webinar, spoke about the organisms and pollutants that enters one’s body when one consumes polluted water, calling it a “body burden”. Elaborating on this, he said, “I am scared to test Purushan’s blood. I won’t do it, no matter how much you force me. I had once witnessed this when we tested Dr Mohan Kumar’s blood during Endosulfan campaign.”

Jayakumar suggested, the least the Kerala Disaster Management Authority can do is remove the hazardous and toxic waste from the river. The burden on the environment from the hazardous and toxic wastes in the Eloor-Edayar region is huge. “The absence of any kind of will to resolve the issue in Eloor is alarming and paints a disastrous picture of future,” he said.

Environmentalist Sridhar Radhakrishna, who was moderating the webinar, pointed out that industrialisation witnessed a paradigm shift from the Nehruvian era, when it was “industrialise or perish”, to what we now experience as “industrialise and perish. This is not just because of pollution, but because the mounting toxic wastes in the region is so huge in amount that it will be hard for the industries to fix this without financial leakages. Sridhar explained that managing the 21 lakh tonnes of toxic and hazardous waste is difficult; and even if it is possible, transforming them into benign substances, as many industries claim thy do, is a “herculean” task. 


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