Environmentalists across the world are happy about one positive impact of the COVID-19 lockdown — the drastic drop in air pollution mainly due to reduced traffic in major cities. Same is the case in India too. But contrary to this, some industries are using this lockdown season as an opportunity to dump hazardous chemical waste in water bodies. River Periyar, the lifeline of Kochi in Kerala, is a case in point.
Over the past ten days, the Periyar has been flowing down in multiple colors, resulting in massive killing of fish and earthworms. There are 282 factories in the Eloor–Edayar industrial belt on the banks of the Periyar. Many of these make chemical products. The industrial pollution in Eloor, identified as one of the toxic hotspots in the world by Green Peace, has a long history of struggles and people’s movements since early 90’s. Those who raised their voice against contamination of the river are still doing it.
“There was a massive fish kill that lasted three days last week. Yesterday (April 1), we also witnessed dead earthworms floating across a stretch of two to four km down the banks of the river near the Pathalam regulator,” says Purushan Eloor, one of the founders of the Periyar Malineekarana Virudha Samithi. He also says that he was informed by the Kerala Water Authority (KWA) that they had to stop pumping water for drinking purpose as the river was highly polluted. Following alarming levels of pollution, the regulator was opened for an hour to let the contaminated water out.
People said the water was flowing, at times, in red, yellow, and most of the days, in thick black. “The companies under public sector are closed following the lockdown but private ones are making use of this opportunity. They employ migrant workers and release the chemical waste and untreated effluents into the river,” says Purushan.
River Periyar, which originates from the Western Ghats, flows 244 km, giving water for irrigation and drinking to millions of people before ending up in Vembanadu Lake, the largest lake in Kerala.
The Eloor-Edayar industrial belt, developed between 1950 and 70, is the largest in Kerala and has the highest agglomeration of chemical industries, bone meal factories, and tanneries in the State. There are 79 red-category industries in the Eloor industrial belt. Endosulfan and DDT also are manufactured in Eloor. Both these have been eliminated or banned by many countries in the world.
The struggles by environmental activists and the people had brought Eloor to international attention.
The media and environmental organisations carried out several studies on pollution that only confirmed that the Eloor industrial belt is one of the worst-polluted area in the continent — something the residents knew from their lived experiences.
A recent study carried out by the Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Thiruvananthapuram, indicates the gives the gravity of the problem. “The Periyar brings with it the noxious pesticides from the cardamom gardens of the Western Ghats at its start and all the waste from nearly 10 municipalities and over 40 village panchayats. Just before it merges with the Kochi Lake, it turns into a river of deadly poison. Industries which draw amply on the Periyar’s waters return to it untreated toxic waste. In 2015, it is estimated that the Periyar changed color 44 times. At least 23 massive fish kills were also recorded.” Sakkeer, a native of Eloor and an activist against pollution, says that it happens every year. “We have lost count now. We often see the river flowing in multiple colours and fish kills,” Sakkeer says.
“The companies are misusing the loopholes in the law,”says Purushan Eloor. The clearance from the Pollution Control Board is deemed granted if an industrial unit does not get a response in six months. “Many units misuse this provision,” he says.
He assumes corruption plays a role too. The officials deliberately sit on files without responding. “There is a more ‘serious’ provision in the Hazardous Waste Management Rules of 2016. It stipulates that no product or byproduct of a company can be considered hazardous waste. This makes things very easy for them. All they have to do is to reclassify the waste as products.”
“We have been trying to bring the attention of the police and the authorities to this issues since the first day of the lockdown. We have taken photographs and videos and sent it to them but everyone says that this is not important now,” says Purushan Eloor.
In a collective attempt to bring the matter to the Chief Minister’s attention, he sent a petition to the CM.
“By the time, the COVID scare is over, Periyar would breathe its last,” says Purushan Eloor.