‘We are not extremists’: Why Avikkal Thodu residents in Kerala are opposing an STP

Residents of Avikkal Thodu near Kozhikode beach, mostly from the fisher community, fear the plant coming up on wetland would increase flooding risk and affect their livelihood.
The graffiti on the inverted boat at Avikkal Thodu in Kozhikode says it all: “Please let us live: Children of the sea.
The graffiti on the inverted boat at Avikkal Thodu in Kozhikode says it all: “Please let us live: Children of the sea.
Written by:

Speaking at a ‘Meet the Press’ programme organised by the Kannur Press Club on September 9, MV Govindan, the newly elected State Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), sought to make a crucial distinction between the agitations against Adani seaport in Vizhinjam and a Sewage Treatment Plant (STP) in Avikkal Thodu, Kozhikode. 

The former by fishers of Vizhinjam, which has the blessings of the Latin Catholic Church, was kosher but the people behind the agitation in Avikkal Thodu were extremists, he said, alluding to the lead roles played by Social Democratic Party of India, linked to the Popular Front of India, and Jamaat-e-Islami. In July, the Kozhikode district secretary of the party, P Mohanan, had referred to the protesters in Avikkal Thodu as Urban Maoists and Islamist exremists.

Anguished by these statements that painted them as extremists, the action council formed by Avikkal Thodu residents organised a protest and burned MV Govindan in effigy.  Govindan later toned down the statement stating that he did not mean all protesters were extremists. Does the presence of an organisation which is accused of extremism take away the legitimacy of an agitation that sprang up because of livelihood concerns of a marginalised community? TNM visited Avikkal Thodu to gauge the response of residents and understand their concerns regarding the project. 

The trouble for Avikkal Thodu began when Kozhikode corporation decided to set up a sewage and septage treatment plant, under the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) scheme in the locality. Two Minimum Liquid Discharge (MLD) plants have been proposed in Kozhikode – at  Avikkal Thode (7 MLD) and Kothi (6 MLD) – under the scheme. The plant would process septage waste from hospitals, restaurants, apartments and three wards in Avikkal Thodu and discharge treated water into a canal near Vellayil beach, a densely populated Muslim majority area. The Vellayil ward alone has a population of more than 15,000.

On the roadside, next to the site identified for the proposed sewage plant lies an inverted wooden boat, painted in ocean blue with white graffiti: “Please let us live: Children of the sea.” Right next to the boat fluttered the green coloured flag of the Muslim league, the tri-coloured flag of Congress, Welfare Party, SDPI, and a red flag of the Revolutionary Marxist Party.

A flex board, which includes the names of various temple committees, mosque committees, Araya Samajams (community of Hindu fishers), youth clubs, and political parties are situated right behind the boat. The only flag missing was that of the CPI(M). 

A broad-based agitation

“Be it a Muslim or Hindu, we are resisting the plant because our livelihoods are at stake. At least 70 percent of the population here, comprising Hindus and Muslims, depends on fishing for their livelihood. SDPI and Jamaat e Islami are not banned organisations. They also have the right to take part in the people's strike,” says KS Arun Das, member, Araya Samajam co-ordination committee. Araya Samajam is an organisation created for the upliftment of the Hindu Araya community in Kerala.

Jyothi Kampuram, convener of Avikkal Thodu Action Councl, says the attempts by senior politicians to brand the agitation as one by Islamist extremists shows their inability to deal with democratic dissent. “This is a people’s movement by both Hindus and Muslims. To date, I never attempted to count the number of Muslim homes and Hindu homes in our locality. Now we are dragged to do so to prove the allegations are wrong. We all live in harmony, irrespective of our ideological and religious differences,” says Jyothi, an engineer with years of experience in the construction field.

Arundas feels that if the plant was proposed a few metres away in the Kamburam area, the majority of people who would have been opposing it would have been Hindus. “Will they call it an agitation by Hindu extremists then?” asks Arundas.

Protesters in Avikkal Thodu

Livelihood concerns

The proposed site is a 36-cent land situated near Vellayil road on the southside of Avikkal Thodu. Water from a vast network of drains and canals from East Nadakkavu to Valiyangadi flows into the Avikkal Thode. Vellayil is also one of the most densely populated wards in the Kozhikode corporation. There are at least 500 houses situated within a 100-metre radius of the proposed STP site. The canal meets the Arabian sea at Puthiyakadavu beach and it was the option to discharge the treated effluents directly to the sea that made Avikkal Thode a perfect location for the proposed STP. Vellayil harbour, which provides direct and indirect employment opportunities to the residents is situated 100 metres away from the Puthiyakadavu beach.

The main concern of the residents is that the water discharged from the treatment plant  would affect the availability of fish. “People would also be be hesitant to buy fish because of apprehensions regarding the effluents discharged from the plant which processes septage,” says Thalhath Vellayil, vice chairman of the Avikkal Thodu Action Council and Kozhikode district convenor of the Theera Bhoo Samrakshana Vedi, a forum to save coastal land. Thalhath, once an active member of the CPI(M), left the party along with the late TP Chandrasekharan and later Joined the Revolutionary Marxist Party (RMP). 

In an attempt to convince the residents that the proposed STPs are environment-friendly, few of them were taken to Thiruvananthapuram in March this year. The 40-member team including Kozhikode Mayor Beena Phillip, Corporation Secretary KU Biny, a few officials, councillors, and selected members from Avikkal Thodu and Kothi visited a sewage treatment plant in Thiruvananthapuram Medical College. Action Council members allege that none of the residents who had raised concerns against the plant were invited. “They picked a few CPI(M) supporters as part of the team,” alleges T Dawood, Chairman, Avikkal Thodu Action Council.

The 5MLD plant built by Kerala water authority under the AMRUT scheme for Rs 14 crore, can treat 50 lakh litres per day. The treated water is used for cleaning, irrigation and flushing of toilets in the hospital. The team members washed their faces using the treated water, clicked photographs, and circulated them through the media. The Action Council members visited a similar plant in Muttathara with an installed capacity of 107 lakh litres per day to find out if there was truth in the claim that the treated water can be used for non-drinking purposes. “From what we saw there the Medical College plant visit felt like a staged drama,” says Dawood. 

“Residents called me inside and showed me skin rashes. They light incense sticks to escape the foul smell while eating,” says Jyothi Kampuram. The treated water from the plant in Muttathara is discharged to Parvathy Puthanaar, a small canal near the plant.

On July 2, following an anti-STP hartal called by the Action Council, the area witnessed a tense situation. Police caned the protesters and used tear grenades to dispel crowds after they tore down barricades and pelted stones. On July 30, the Kozhikode north MLA Thottathil Raveendran convened a people’s assembly to find a solution but Action Council members allege that no one from ward 66 was invited. “A few of the residents reached the hall but most of us who asked questions were expelled,” says Irfan Habeeb, Convener, Action Council. The residents of ward 66 then gheraoed the MLA resulting in baton charge by the police. At least 13 cases were registered against the residents and of these five are non-bailable.

 A Jana Sabha (people’s assembly) of the ward no 66 held on August 6, 2022 at Puthiyakadavu madrasa auditorium had 540 attendees but only two people voted in favour of the STP. 

Irfan Habib alleged that the STP was intended to serve the rich apartment owners in the city. “Building permission was denied for many flats due to absence of STP which is mandatory. If an STP plant is constructed builders lose valuable space,” alleges Habib. After the STP is constructed, the septage waste will be transferred through pipelines to the collection pits situated at the Kozhikode beach and Bhatt road beaches, he said.

Avikkal Thodu: A canal with many encroachments

Increased risk of flooding

Besides livelihood concerns, residents fear the plant is not suited for the area and is at risk of being flooded. The plot identified for setting up the plant is part of a two-acre land marked as wetland since 1937. The Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act 2008 prohibits the reclamation of wetland but one acre and 13 cents got levelled due to continuous disposal of garbage, including plastic waste, over the years. If the remaining 87 cents too gets levelled, at least 300 houses in the area will be under flood threat, says a fact-finding report on Avikkal Thode sewage treatment plant, released on August 21, 2022.

Many houses in Avikkal Thodu were flooded during the monsoon

During this year's monsoon, water had entered at least 100 homes in the area, says Jithun Raj, joint chairman of Avikkal Thodu Action Council Jithun Raj, while showing the photos on his mobile. “Avikkal Thode is a wetland. Reclaiming it any further would aggravate flooding risk,” says Thalhath. Residents say setting up an STP in an area with flooding risk would be unwise and costly in the long run.

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute