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Burn-and-dump in Kerala

By Surendranath C

Three years ago Grasim Industry's polluting unit in Mavoor, Kerala, was closed down following public pressure. What is the significance of this victory in a state that continues to adopt a burn-and-dump attitude to hazardous wastes? And why is it that despite several Supreme Court orders, nothing has changed in Kerala's Eloor industrial area, one of 35 global toxic hotspots?

July 2001, Mavoor, Kozhikode

Caught in the vortex of popular protest, the pulp and fibre factories of Grasim Industries at Mavoor in north Kerala, the oldest and largest private sector industry in the state in terms of the number of people employed, close down permanently. The struggle against the polluting factory had drawn thousands of people from all walks of life to the banks of the Chaliyar, the river polluted by the factory. All except the trade unions that kept asking, “Why are the environmentalists fighting just Grasim and not the more polluting industries in Eloor?”

The fact is that in Eloor too, the industrial hub of the state in Ernakulam district, the struggle against pollution has divided the community. Community residents who protested against pollution were branded green imperialists by some trade unions.

August 2004, Eloor, Kochi

On August 14, the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee on Hazardous Wastes (SCMC) directed the Kerala State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) to close down within eight days all units that have no authorisation under the Hazardous Waste Rules, 1989.

“The state of Kerala was more than a decade behind the process improvements in other states: it looked as if the state had pushed itself into a time-warp from which it was unable to extricate itself,” the SCMC observed.

More than 100 companies in Eloor were affected by the SCMC’s orders. The order triggered accusations and counter-statements between the trade unions and community organisations. Indeed, the SCMC directive should have been anticipated. As in Chaliyar, the struggle in Eloor against pollution is several decades old. In 1999, international NGO Greenpeace declared the Eloor industrial area one of 35 Global Toxic Hotspots, based on a study that found more than 100 chlorinated chemicals including DDT and its derivatives in a stream draining the effluents from three factories, including DDT producer Hindustan Insecticides Ltd.

The stream and other similar effluent drains from Eloor industries eventually empty either directly or indirectly into Kerala’s lifeline – the River Periyar.

A health study conducted by Greenpeace found Eloor residents to be far more likely to suffer from and succumb to a range of ailments than residents of Pindimana, a less-polluted riverside village, upstream of the industrial estate.

Nationwide, polluting companies have been allowed to operate without proper authorisation and/or adequate facilities to contain their pollution or toxic wastes, in flagrant violation of the law. In May 1997, eight years after the notification of the Hazardous Waste Rules (1989), the Supreme Court ordered State Pollution Control Boards across the country to show cause as to why industries without the requisite authorisation or facilities should not be closed down.

Between 1989 and 2004, and even after the Supreme Court warning in 1997, the KSPCB – like many other state regulators – did little to remedy the toxic disaster unfolding in Kerala.

It was only after the August directive of the SCMC threatening KSPCB officials with contempt of court proceedings that the regulator sprang into action. It served closure orders on 32 industrial units and ordered over 100 more to tighten up hazardous waste disposal.

The closure orders spared no one: big public sector companies such as the Fertilisers and Chemicals Travancore (FACT), Hindustan Insecticides Ltd (HIL), Kochi Refineries, Hindustan Newsprints Ltd (HNL), Travancore Titanium Products Ltd (TTPL) and several medium and small private sector units were ordered to down their shutters until legally adequate disposal practices were adopted.

Even here, it appears that the KSPCB was more intent on protecting itself from the SCMC’s ire than on forcing the industries in its care to clean up. No attempt was made either to clean up the already-accumulated wastes, or to plan for the future by requiring companies to reduce toxic substance use and toxic chemicals release from their factories in a time-bound manner.

“The sheer magnitude of the problem has only aggravated complacency,” observes Jayaraman C, an engineer who works with Kochi Refineries, a public sector oil major that was also ordered to close shop or clean up its act. “The collective feeling is that it’s simply impossible for any official agency to close down so many industries at one go and so there is nothing to fear.”

KSPCB’s dithering has won it no friends either within the community or among trade unions.

“The PCB only passed the buck and hurriedly ordered the industries to close down,” says Member of Parliament and labour leader Chandran Pillai. He acknowledges that it is time industries and labour started working together on checking pollution.

“The orders were unilateral and highly dangerous to the workers’ interests,” argued P K Gurudasan, Secretary, Centre of Indian Trade Unions. The Kerala High Court also found the closure orders unjustifiable on the grounds that no show-cause notices were filed prior to the closure orders. The court directed that the KSPCB’s orders be treated as mere ‘show-cause notices’ and gave the industries 15 days to file their response. Separately, Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy requested the SCMC on September 14 to grant a month’s time to comply with its orders.

But even after a month, “the state government, the PCB and the industries have not shown any interest in carrying out the Supreme Court orders,” said Tapan Chakarabarty, a member of the SCMC.

Fifteen years after the notification of the Hazardous Waste Rules, five years after the reminder by the Supreme Court ordering the immediate implementation of the Rules, and two months after a Supreme Court-appointed committee ordered the closure of all units in violation of environmental rules, nothing has changed. SCMC member Tapan Chakrabarty put it simply: “The state government, the PCB and the industries have not shown any interest in carrying out the Supreme Court orders.”

“The stipulated time is over,” the SCMC observed after a review in mid-October. Responding to complaints by community members and environmental organisations, during its October visit the Committee also uncovered and aborted attempts to sabotage the Local Area Environment Committee set up by the SCMC to supervise the implementation of SCMC directions. The SCMC had directed KSPCB to set up Local Area Environment Committees (LAEC) with representation of industry associations or industrial units and local environment groups. The LAEC in the Eloor-Edayar region was granted powers to conduct an environmental audit of all the 247 industries in the area and to report to the Supreme Court on industry’s compliance with all environmental laws.

The LAEC functioned smoothly for a while and gathered data from more than 100 companies. But it soon came to a grinding halt following a decision by KSPCB chairman Paul Thachil to expand the committee by including trade union representatives and three more officers of the PCB.

“This was an attempt to dilute the environmental agenda of the Committee and silence the community representatives in the Local Area Environmental Committee,” said V Purushan, a member representing the community group Periyar Malineekarana Virudha Samiti in the LAEC.

“The ground realities in Kerala are terrible,” observed SCMC member Dr Claude Alvares. Shooting down the reconstitution of the LAEC, the SCMC member said, “The decision to alter the composition of the LAEC by the PCB was unilateral.”

“Pollution is a technical problem, but we have only been seeking political solutions to technical problems,” reiterates pollution biologist Dr K T Vijayamadhavan, retired professor, St. Joseph ’s College, Kozhikode , and a member of the Society for Protection of Environment – Kerala (SPEK). The scientist was one of the first in the state to send out warning signals on heavy metal pollution during his participation in the Save Chaliyar struggle.

Mavoor’s partial victory

The closure of Grasim Industry’s polluting unit located at Mavoor on the northern bank of river Chaliyar has brought some cheer to the local community. Three years after its closure, the River Chaliyar has regained its original serenity. All visible signs of pollution -- the blackish brown water covered with patches of dirty white froth, the pungent stench, the dead fish floating on it, have been flushed out from the surface. Irimeen, Malan, Paral, Braal and many other local varieties of fish and mussel have returned to the river in plenty, supplementing the food of the local people and restoring the traditional occupations of thousands of fishermen and traders downstream of Mavoor.

“Ever since its inception in 1963, Grasim had flouted the recommendations of scores of expert committees on pollution control and process alteration. Grasim had also not cared to adopt sustainable practices of extraction of raw materials,” points out P K M Chekku, a leader of the Save Chaliyar agitation since 1975.

The closure decision nevertheless represents only a partial victory, local activists say. On the one hand, at least 2,000 company workers – who once fought against the community’s environmental concerns – are jobless. On the other hand, no plan has been put in place to restore the damaged environment or care for the long-term health effects on the community.

Only registered industrial workers got their compensation; casual workers numbering around 600 still march in protest in Mavoor town demanding a share of the retrenchment compensation.

“At least the children are happy because the respiratory diseases that had afflicted almost all of them have disappeared,” says N A Rahman of Vazhakkad, the village that had borne the brunt of air and water pollution from the Grasim plant. However, other health effects linger and continue to take their toll. “Deaths due to chronic impact such as cancer and cerebrovascular diseases are still being reported from the Chaliyar villages,” observes Dr P K Dinesh, a doctor who has been running the Vazhakkad Medical Cente since 1980s.

The ‘polluter’ hasn’t ‘paid’. As a result, the social divide between those who fought for their right to a clean environment and those who defended their jobs has survived the closure of the industrial unit.

The sediments of the river may still contain harmful heavy metal deposits, including mercury. A 1988 study by Dr M N Muraleedharan Nair, scientist at the Centre for Earth Science Studies (CESS), had found that sediments of the river had retained mercury upto 2 ppm even 32 months after the factory had suspended production during 1985-1988. But unaware of whether such contamination still exists, people now catch and eat the fish that breeds in the river and even the effluent treatment pond.

The fight in Chaliyar seems to be over, at least from the community’s side. There are no demands for on- and off-site clean-up, and neither have the authorities considered this need.

The Report of the Committee on Public Accounts (1998-2000) is a rather belated indictment of the negligence of KSPCB. Even in 1993, the board had found mercury, zinc, copper, lead and chromium in excess of the prescribed limits in Grasim’s solid wastes dumped in open paddy fields. No action was taken against the company.

Nothing seems to have changed with regard to KSPCB’s attitude to polluters. Take the case of Travancore Titanium Products Ltd (TTPL). The public sector TTPL has been accused of polluting the coastal seas of Thiruvananthapuram for nearly half-a-century. On earlier occasions when the PCB had ordered its closure for non-compliance with the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, it was the government that came to its rescue. Ministers had directly intervened to prevent the company’s closure and prosecution.

In October 2003 a division bench of the High Court allowed the company 30 months to set up an effluent treatment plant. Following the SCMC’s orders, the KSPCB once again ordered the company to shut down. The High Court, however, quashed the closure order arguing that the order was issued under the Water Act rather than the Hazardous Waste Rules. Community residents who are part of the Periyar Malineekarana Virudha Samiti (PMVS) say that going by the track record of the KSPCB and the state authorities in Kerala, this legal loophole may have been deliberate.

Activists contend that even the SCMC’s well-intentioned interventions are fraught with problems, and do not come up with solutions commensurate with the problem.

“Even the SCMC and its simplistic solution to the problem of hazardous wastes -- just dumping wastes from all the industries in a pit -- has to be opposed,” points out Prof. M K Prasad of Kerala Sastra Sahithya Parishad (KSSP), the organisation spearheading the people’s science movement in Kerala. “What we need is not quick-fix solutions but some long-term thinking on future impact and options,” says Prasad.

It is a fact that all landfills leak. Many observers comment that the SCMC has been cowed down by the magnitude of the hazardous waste problem, and has succumbed to the burn-or-dump mentality.

“Landfills and incinerators are like ticking timebombs – slow-motion Bhopals planted among communities. Unless pollution laws legally require industries to move towards safer raw material, products and processes, and force polluters to reduce the quantity and toxicity of their wastes, there is no hope for India,” says R Sridhar, a toxics activist with Thiruvananthapuram-based environmental group Thanal. “The SCMC has shown an integrity and dedication not evident in many government committees, and it is up to the SCMC to show the real way.”

On October 17, community residents from Eloor called a Human Mass Gathering (Manushya Sangamam). At least part of the objective was to begin a dialogue with the labour organisations. Hearteningly, senior labour leaders like the CPI state assistant secretary Panyyan Raveendran acknowledged the labour movement’s shortcomings in combating pollution and urged it to join hands with communities and environmental groups to hold polluters to account.

Community groups and environmental organisations like PMVS and Thanal say they are aware of the dilemma faced by workers. They say the trade union leadership has to bring the labour movement out of its 1950s agenda of fair wages and working hours. “The fight for a safe workplace and for a clean living environment for communities is one and the same. We are hopeful that trade unions will realise this and start viewing communities as their allies in the fight against pollution. What happened in Chaliyar should not happen again,” says Sridhar.

(Surendranath C is a freelance journalist based in Kerala. He is associated with The Quest Featrues & Footage, Kochi, an alliance of independent journalists. He can be contacted at  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

InfoChange News & Features, December 2004