KOCHI:Ambika, a homemaker in her 50s, distinctly remember the day when she was married off to Pathalam, near Eloor some 35 years back. “The place was so green and beautiful. We used to draw drinking water directly from the river,” she says, pointing at the river, which stays still, nearly dead, on the rear side of her house.
“Now, we use piped water for drinking and to feed the plants. The river is so polluted with chemicals that the plants would die immediately if we use the water from the river,” she says.
The river in question is Periyar - the potable water source for the entire Ernakulam district, quenching the thirst of about 40 lakh people.
About three kms away at SC Colony at Eloor, the situation is more or less the same. “Clear water used to flow in these canals. The canals had an abundance of fish and other aquatic organisms,” says Kunjappan, 68, pointing at the reddish water in the canal near his house. “This is the effluent coming from the Hindustan Insecticide Ltd plant,” he says.
As we celebrate the ‘World Water Day’ on March 22, the plight of the Eloor residents is a stark reminder of the times we live in.
The frustration of the people of Eloor, an industrial area established in 1962, was evident when Thrideep Kumar assumed charge as environmental engineer at Pollution Control Board (PCB), Eloor in January 2016. “When I joined office from Thiruvanthapuram, people used to come with dead pearl spot on a regular basis. The cause of death is due to the toxic waste pumped into the river by the industrial units,” says Kumar, who has now earned the trust of the people by hearing their woes patiently.
“The situation here is very bad. The high-rise apartments on the banks of Periyar pump the sewage directly into the river,” says Kumar.
“Earlier when Central PCB officials visited Eloor, the people used to gather in large numbers to petition them about the hazardous chemicals being pumped by leading industrial units and to complain about the non-cooperation of the local PCB officials. That has stopped,” explains Mohammed Iqbal, a member of Janajagrathi, an Eloor-based forum that takes up the environmental and other people’s causes.
Last June, Sree Sakthi Paper Mills situated in the Eloor belt was asked to down their shutters by the Sub Divisional Magistrate for polluting Periyar. “We are not against closure of any unit. Our objective is to ensure that the industrial units pump out treated effluents. In the case of Sree Sakthi Mills the Magistrate found that though they had enough opportunities to set up water treatment plants, they didn’t do so,” said Kumar.
Fourteen units under constant vigil
Following complaints of pollution, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), under the direction of National Green Tribunal (NGT), conducted tests in four phases for 10 days from October 18 to 22 at Eloor, October 24 to 28 at Kalamassery, and Aluva and upper stream in two other phases. “The 7 to 8 member team conducted sample tests and instructed the KPCB to keep 14 companies under constant vigil for violating pollution norms. All the major units in the Eloor industrial belt figure in the list,” said Thrideep Kumar of PCB, Eloor.
‘Water is my birthright’
CORL will stage a hunger strike at High Court Junction open stadium with the slogan ‘drinking water is my birthright’ from March 22 to 25, demanding an end to red category industries dumping chemical wastes and implementation of alternative measures to ensure safe drinking water. The hunger strike will be inaugurated by Syro Malabar Church Major Archbishop Cardinal Mar George Alencherry on the world water day on March 22 at 10 am. Activist Medha Patkar, actor Sreenivasan, Varapuzha Archbishop Joseph Kalathiparambil and others will attend the inaugural function. On March 26, an awareness rally and a public meeting will also be organised under the aegis of CORL at Marine drive.
‘Don’t create panic’
C M Joy, president of Association of Environment Protection, Aluva, has urged various organisations not to create panic on the issue of Periyar river pollution. Joy, who received doctorate from the Cochin University of Science and Technology, on ‘Growth response of industrial affulents on phyto planto’, said: ‘there is no proof yet of major ailments caused, or anyone dying, owing to the Periyar river pollution,” he said. “The Periyar river stetches to 244 km. The problem exists in about 12-15 km stretch. There are three regulator-cum-bridges across Periyar at Pathalam, Purapillikavu and Manjummel. A solution can be achieved by opening the regulator at high-tide and closing it during low-tide. It can be scientifically operated,” he said.
Warring over a river’s fate
Amid calls for the protection of the Periyar river and steps to ensure the availability of safe potable water, a war of words has broken out between the greens over the Periyar river pollution. The Collective for Right to Live (CORL), a platform of various orgnisations, has urged the government to ban red category industries releasing toxic industrial wastes into Periyar river. The river water is highly contaminated with toxic chemicals such as Mercury, Nickel, Cadmium, Cobalt and Arsenic and pesticide like DDT. There are hardly any facilities available with KWA to remove the toxic wastes from the water. People are forced to use the contaminated water, even for consumption. Government should ban those red category industries discharging toxic wastes into Periyar,” said Fr. Augustine Vattoly of CORL. However, Periyar Anti-pollution Council which has been spearheading the save periyar campaign for the past many years said, a ban on industries would not serve the purpose. “It is a fact that these industries discharge toxic wastes into the river in blatant violation of laws. However, a large number of people are employed in these industrial units. A ban on industries will result in job loss and other issues. The need of the hour is to stop these units from discharging the wastes into river,” said Purushan Eloor of Periyar Anti-pollution Council