A young woman’s voice rises above all the noise on the other side of the police barricade. She is sitting at one end of a large gathering of men, women and children, on the road in front of the Legislative Assembly in Thiruvananthapuram.
"Vende venda, vende venda malinya plant vende venda!" We don’t want it, we don’t want it, we don’t want the waste plant, she shouts. The other women shout after her. They have walked for three days from their village Peringammala, in the valley of the Ponmudi hills, with a banner that says ‘Sangada Jada’ (Sad March).
It’s a new protest after the one that they had been holding for months, in front of the agro farm back home, went unnoticed.
“It’s against the new plant they are proposing to build at Peringammala,” Ajithakumari, a woman living close to the area, says. By new plant, she means the waste-to-energy plant that was announced by the state government, about one kilometre away from a bio-medical plant that was earlier proposed by the Indian Medical Association (IMA), and is now at a standstill.
The villagers of Peringammala reach the Assembly after walking for three days, asking to not go ahead with the waste plant proposed to be built in their panchayat. pic.twitter.com/HBPHrkc0Va— Cris (@cristweets) December 5, 2018
The first concerns that Ajithakumari and her friend Selvi voice out are about the people and jobs that the the plant would affect, before bringing up equally grave issues like the drinking water projects that it could potentially kill and the environmental hazards involved.
“There is no pipeline there, no pond. We are all dependent on the Chittar River that flows from Ponmudi, and the 38 drinking water projects attached to it,” says Mohan, who introduces himself as an Adivasi man living in Peringammala. “There are hundreds of Adivasi families living there. At least 200 people work as casual or permanent farmers. There is the agro farm and a banana farm. We never had water problems till four or five years ago, when acacia and manjyam trees were planted and these started sucking in too much water,” Mohan says.
Deepu, a biodiversity coordinator standing near him, points to the placards that the younger ones are holding. Pictures of animals and birds and rare plants. “There are so many medicinal plants, too, there,” Deepu says, and points to Dr Kamarudeen Kunju, committee coordinator of the Peringammala Biodiversity Management.
Harms of having the plant at Peringammala
Dr Kamarudeen is a wealth of information. He takes a deep breath before listing out the issues that Deepu mentioned.
“The Western Ghats is one of the eight hottest hotspots in the world. And Agasthyamala Biosphere Reserve is at the core of it. 68% of it comes in the protected area and in the remaining 32% lives a thickly populated 50,000 people,” he says.
It is in this 68% that there is a Myristica swamp (a type of freshwater swamp forest predominantly composed of species of Myristica) and he explains why that is relevant.
“In all of the world, there used to be 2000 hectares of this swamp and now it is reduced to 100 hectares. About 80% of this is in Peringammala panchayat.” Botanically speaking, these contain flowering plants that evolved from the time of the Cretaceous period that followed the Jurassic period. In layman terms, it is equivalent to a situation where dinosaurs have survived the years.
“That is one of the main reasons why the UNESCO has declared the Western Ghats as a heritage site,” Kamarudeen says.
Proposed site to build the waste-energy plant; Courtesy: Saji Palode
There’s more. Arippa in Thiruvananthapuram, close to this proposed site of the plant, is where the first bird sanctuary of the district is being planned. “With 300 bird species, which includes the Ceylon Frog Mouthed Bird, first reported from Arippa," he adds.
There is also the Nilgiri Tahr (varayadu in Malayalam), which is believed to use the space between the rocks as a resting space. “In the three censuses conducted by the Biodiversity Management Centre, a thousand of them were reported from Iravikulam, Munnar. But it is believed that the natural habitat of the varayadu is in these parts (of Peringammala).”
Hub of medicinal plants and discovery of Lakshmikutty Amma
Then there are the medicinal plants that Deepu talked of. Kamarudeen says India’s first medicinal plant, an anti-diabetic drug, was found from the Peringammala Panchayat back in 2008, years before Lakshmikutty Amma was discovered for her tribal healing methods and awarded with a Padma Shri. It’s Lakshmikutty Amma who flagged off the protest walk from Peringammala two days ago.
“The headquarters of tribal healing is in Njaraneeli, again in this panchayat. The Adivasi vaidyans (traditional doctors) collect their herbs from the forests of Peringammala,” Kamarudeen says.
There are 18 Adivasi settlements there, five of these quite close to the proposed site of the plant. The Chittar River flows on one side of the site, and opposite that is the Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute (JNTBGRI). The 15 acres of the site also host the District Agricultural Farm that Mohan talked about. “It is forest land and according to the law, the land leased for agriculture should only be used for that purpose,” Kamarudeen says.
Women farmers of Peringammala; Courtesy: Saji Palode
The Chittar River becomes the Vamanapuram River at Palode, and the 38 drinking water projects that Mohan mentioned, go to Nedumangadu, Chirayinkeezhu and Varkala, and polluting it would affect thousands of people.
Ponmudi, the tourist hill station that many flock to every month of the year, is also in the Peringammala Panchayat. “It is also a spot where we discover new species of birds and animals. Birds, butterflies, frogs. All the animals in the protected list of Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, are found in this area.”
It would affect all of these lives if the proposed plant is built with its incineration unit, which would need temperatures from 400 to 4000 degree Celsius. “This is also the place where the most rains fall in Kerala – about 300 to 400 cm. Such temperatures would make the place hotter, and cause the rain clouds to disappear. It is because of these rain clouds that rains come to Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam. So affecting them would lead to a major climate variation. The ecological impact is unpredictable. Also, all the wet waste on the raised land would lead to seepage flowing into the river, polluting it, and many lives with it.”
There are two villages in the panchayat – Peringammala and Thennoor -- both have been included in the list of 123 Environmentally Sensitive Areas in Kerala. It is after presenting all these facts that the plans are still on for the waste-to-energy plant. “That’s why we call our protest the 'sangada jada'. All that we have raised are scientific reasons, no politics. Every political party is involved in it. We are not against a waste plant or the government; it is just that the selection of the site for the waste plant is wrong.”
Women sit in front of the Assembly to protest the construction of waste plant
Panchayat president Chithrakumari P, too, was part of a meeting about the plant at the St Mary’s School near the agro farm of Peringammala, back in August. Sanjeev of Environment Protection and Resolution Committee says a committee was formed then for the protection of Peringammala, headed by Nizar Mohammed Sulfi and including Kamarudeen, wildlife photographer Sali Palode and others. Sajeev says that the panchayat president had left that meeting with promises of passing a resolution against the plant proposal.
However, Chithrakumari says the resolution (stating that the site is not suited for the plant) was sent off to the Agriculture Minister VS Sunil Kumar and Minister of Local Self Government, Dr KT Jaleel.
“There has still not been any official communication about the decision on the plant – whether it would be built or not. But the government has said that nothing that will harm the panchayat will be done,” she says.