Kathikudam is still calling – Thasni Salim, Kerala

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Kathikudam –the small and beautiful village located in the banks of river Chalakkudy is still calling for justice. Nitta Gelatin India limited an Indo-Japanese company started in 1975 is polluting the water, soil and air for more than three decades. Kerala Chemicals and Proteins Ltd were started in the year 1975 and started commercial production in 1979. The company was renamed as Nitta Gelatin India Ltd in 2008 forgetting better attention in international markets (as the NGIL management argues).

NGIL manufactures Gelatin, Collagen, Peptide, Ossein, Limed Ossein and Di calcium Phosphate. The company uses 127 tons of crushed animal bones, 120000 liters of Hydrochloric acid and 20 tons of lime. It also uses ferric chloride, alum, caustic soda and some other unknown chemicals. The bones are collected from various parts of India and it is as old as 100 days. There will be microbial growth and it is sold as poultry food. The bones are socked in Hydrochloric acid for few days.

“We are born from our parents but brought up in Chalakkudy River, all our happiness, tears and sadness are shared with the river. A handful of water not only quenched our thirst, but also took away all the tiredness and sadness from us, it is not just a river for the people of Kathikudam” said Anilkumar Kathikudam, the convener of Nitta Gelatin action council. The common people of Kathikudam are facing a prodigious violation of fundamental rights.  The company takes almost 2crore liters of water from Chalakkudy River per day without any permission from the local panchayat or any governmental organizations. The untreated effluent is discharged back to the river. It endangers the life of humans and other animals and adversely affects the vegetation of the place. The sludge in water increases the Biological Oxygen Demand and hence the aquatic animals can never survive. The dead and stink fishes started floating on water and it attract the attention of people to the pollution created by the company. The water in the River and nearby canals is badly affected in appearance. Even rashes are appeared on the skin of the one who touch the water and later feel itching and burning sensation.
Some time ago, the effluent, in the form of fumes had a foul smell. The people are always suffered from vomiting and headache due to the smell. The children and adults are affected by serious respiratory disorders.” There is no need to open your eyes to realize that you are in Kathikudam because of the smell. If you are travelling to Kathikudam and in deep sleep you will get up in a hurry because of the smell.” A woman in Kathikudam stated. “Even our skin had the smell of these chemicals”, the one from Kathikudam said in despair.  The company took some measures to remove the smell so now you can take a breath even though it is polluted. Since the bone is initially treated with HCl, it is evident that heavy metals like lead, cadmium etc. are present in the sludge. Due to the activities and oppositions from action council, the company had cut shorted the production now.

High quantities of solid sludge are deposited in the company premise but it was covered by the soil. This sludge with heavy metal presence and dangerous ions penetrate into the soil and get mixed with the underground water. NGIL trucks were being dispatched to various parts of the state. The action council tries it maximum to block the transport of this dangerous effluent. A huge amount of sludge was deposited in Muthalamada and it created a wide protest from the local people. The sludge is mixed with urea, poultry waste, coir pith and ayurvedic factory wastes and sold as manure. Such manures are available in various names and sold in Kottayam, Idukki, Ernakulam and Pollachi in Tamilnadu.

Once, the land was a paradise, with the flow of river and its tributaries, the wind, the paddy fields. The soil of this place was nutritious and paddy, coconut, arecanut and clove were the main crops that were cultivated earlier. Coconut trees grown in abundance once, but now only nutmeg and short term crops are able to cultivate. In a place with proximity of river the coconut never yield production shows the effect of high chemicals. The pipes that carry sludge were passing through the private land and revenue road. The owners of the lands were not able to cultivate in their property due to the charge imposed by the company for destructing the company property.

“Smoking in public place is an offence because it cause cancer to the one who inhale the smoke from cigarettes, but there is no laws or rules to control the dangerous smoke that was exhaled from a factory and it is more dangerous” said Jaison Panikulangara, the one who was an independent candidate of Parliamentary election in Chalakkudy constituency. Tons of Hydrochloric acid is stored in the company premise without any security measures. In 1st November 2011, the biogas plant of the NGIL exploded with a sound. There were no casualties reported on that incident. But it shows the poor security measures installed in the company.

The people of Kathikudam were affected by various disorders including skin problems, cancer, asthma, various respiratory disorders, stomach problems, ulcers etc. The children were constantly ill with lung and skin infection. Due to the fumes expelled from the company the children always suffer suffocation and due to the presence of polluted air they cannot concentrate in their studies. The children born with physical and mental disorders are common. The people had to spend a lion’s share of their income for medical purpose. There are many cancer patients around the company. The company tries to bribe people not to reveal the details of their disease, and pays an amount after the death of the victims. Each one in Kathikudam is living with the fear of affecting cancer.

The people start organizing against NGIL since the early 2000. But the pollution control board and all of the state machinery which is abetting the crime by giving permissions and extending permits for the factory functioning. The water quality test shows that the water of the region is unfit for human use; moreover it is not fit for irrigation purpose.  Still there is no ban on the discharge or mandate for treating the discharge of effluents. It clearly shows the corruption and criminal conspiracy of ruling class and bureaucrats of respective departments. Chalakkudy River is the source of water for drinking, irrigation and domestic usage for thousands of people in Kathikudam and downstream. The places in downstream include Mala, Poyya, Kuzhur, Annamanada, Puthenchira, Vellangallur, Vynthala,Mambra-Chettikunnupanchayats and Chalakkudy and Kodungallur municipalities.

The action council was formed on 23rd March 2008. The females of the locality are in the forefront of strikes. Irrespective of age, all people of Kathikudam strike demanding the shutdown of the company. “We are fighting for our children; we are fighting for our family; we are standing as a shield to protect our husband and children from physical harassment. And we are fighting for justice”.  The women of the locality said in one voice. Thressyamma Mathew in her 60’s is constantly writing petitions and complaints against the company to the authorities. They had land with paddy cultivation. Her husband was the president of Kadukutty Panchayat when the company is commissioned. Within few years the water from the company leaked into our land and it became unsuitable for cultivation. She was also actively participating in the action council activities.

Jayam Pankajakshan aged 72 was the first malayalee female volleyball player of Indian volleyball team. She is actively participating in action council activities. “We are from Kathikudam. We were in Mumbai for a long period, me and my husband worked there, we took voluntary retirement and came back to this place for a peaceful life. The river side, the calm full environment, the cultivation and natural vegetation attracted us to come back and settle here to enjoy our retirement life. But the things changed. We started noticing the oil like formation on the surface of Chalakkudy River, and the dead fishes surfacing on water. The well on the river side become unusable because of the smell and colour change of water. The smell of burning dead body surrounded us. We started complaining against the company. And start fighting for justice” said Jayam.

According to the people of Kathikudam, Kerala Pollution Control Board is the most polluted department. They always took a stand favourable for the company. The high court of Kerala issued an order ;”I direct that the Pollution Control Board shall conduct regular and periodical inspections, and closely monitor the facilities provided by the company and standards of the effluents discharged by the company and shall ensure that the standards specified are compiled with. It is directed that on such inspections, if the Pollution Control Board finds that there is any failure or latches on the part of the company, the Pollution Control Board shall take appropriate stringent action in this matter.” Despite of the directions of Kerala High Court for strict monitoring the Pollution Control Board continued to turn blind eye to the blatant violation of all the environmental norms by NGIL resulting in adverse effect on the community. The people realized this attitude of pollution Control Board when the fishes on the wells start dying and surfacing on water, the people took the sample of water from the well to the laboratory in Ernakulam with an address of Kathikudam, and they said that the water is so safe. After few days they took the water from the same well and given to the same laboratory with another address. The report was shocking and said that it is so dangerous to use and it cannot be used even for any household purposes. It called the people to fight for justice and for the shutdown of the company. The need of the people is so genuine; they only want the right to live in an unpolluted environment.

21st July 2013 was a nightmare for the people of Kathikudam till the date. From 29th May to 31st May there was a massive fish kill in the river for 20 km stretch below the Chathan canal (the effluent discharge point). The people protested pointing this and people in downstream also joined the agitation. An indefinite fast was announced from 14th June. The main demand was that the company should stop the discharge of effluent into the river and to remove the effluent pipe. The people warned that if the company or government fails to do this, the action council will do it themselves on 1st July. An all-party meeting was held on 29th June. On that meeting a new study team convened by collector was appointed. The members of action council walked out because of the distrust on the study team. Later District Collector convinced them and promised them to find a solution within 20th July, and pipe removal was postponed to 21st July. But the Collector failed to complete the report within that period.

On 21st July 2013 thousands of people gathered in front of the company for agitation. They start marching by 12 in noon and the police blocked the people. There were almost 750 policemen. The agitation was peaceful and people revoked from the move and shifted to the front of NGIL. There were many social activists including Sara Joseph. The people decided to continue the agitation until the company shut down or all the agitators were arrested. Most people from outside Kathikudam left the place and the things had changed in a sudden. They were thinned to hundreds. The police started arresting the agitators. The women and children were arrested first. Once they were removed the police started attack. The people alleged that the policemen were coming out from the factory premise. The people ran for shelter. The police chased them and ran into the houses, beat them brutally and the house were totally vandalized. Even women and children were not spared. The police destroyed the electrical devices like computers, laptops and mobile phones. The leaders of the action council and youth volunteers are selectively attacked. This indicates a pre-planned attack to suppress the agitation. 100 people were admitted in various hospitals.

The action council organized an attention seeking program in the names “Kathikudam Vilikkunnu (Kathikudam calling)”and “Kathikudam Keralamanu (Kathikudam is Kerala)”. It attracted the attention of people from various parts of India.  Infinite hunger strikes, cultural activities, ect. were conducted. The students from various parts marched to Kathikudam with a tagline ‘vidhyarthikal Kathiludatekk (students to Kathikudam). Prominent leaders like Medha Patkar, Sara Joseph, Simon Britto, Xavier ammal the Koodamkulam activist, Sachidanandan, Binayak Sen and so many others. Welfare party of Kerala is supporting the council directly. Political leaders like V S Achudanandan, V M Sudeeran, T N Pratapan, G Muraleedaran etc came to Kathikudam to show solidarity to the activities of the action council. The action council was a family now. They celebrate all the festivals together, whether it is Christmas, Eid, or Vishu. The people used to assemble in front of the plant and discuss various things including their strike and other issues. They organize cultural activities here.

The support for the company from politicians is so clear. The action council alleged that leaders of right and left stand in favor for the company. The company took almost 20 million litres of water from Chalakkudy River. If a liter cost about 10 paisa the company had to pay a sum of 20 lakhs rupees. It creates a huge loss to the panchayat, water authority etc.

The action council members are charged by a number of cases. Even Maoism and terrorism cases are charged on them. Anilkumar Kathikudam was charged by 57 criminal cases including the attack on company, destroying the pipe etc. Most of the people of Kathikudam had a number of criminal cases but they are not ready to move back from their aim. They are ready to fight against the company until the justice is granted. The case is under the consideration of National Green Tribunal, Southern Zone Chennai. Due to the wide protest the company cut down its production now. The management use strategies to suppress the agitation using various criminal acts like bribing, unlawful intervention of police, mafia and political support.

Jananeethi team prepared a report on the pollution of Kathikudam and they did scientific test on the samples of water. The scientific analyses of samples from various places in locality are collected. All the Samples show that the water is acidic in nature and it is not suitable for irrigation purpose. Calcium levels in all samples are high in all samples. The presence of lead, cadmium, chromium and Nickel indicates that it is highly unsafe for drinking. They noticed the presence of heavy metals like Nickel in the river water also. The soil is also acidic in nature. The scientific studies show that the lead in the body can cause disruption of biosynthesis and haemoglobin leading to anemia. Hypertension, kidney damage, nervous disorders, infertility, miscarriage, diminished learning ability and behavioral disorders may happen due to the consumption of lead. The Lead in water damages the biological nature of aquatic animals and plants. Nickel consumption in smaller amount is recommended, but in higher amount increases the risk of cancer in lungs, larynx, nose, prostate, lung embolism, respiratory failure, birth defects, asthma and chronic bronchitis.

The effect of globalization is adverse for the developing countries always. Even though the Nitta Gelatin is a Japanese enterprise, and it operates in Japan without any environmental issues. The 2/3rd of the produced materials are imported to Japan and it gives profit to an international corporate. The authorities of India are putting the life of their people in a dangerous situation. Most the established political parties or bureaucrats never want to raise their voice against this gigantic firm. But the people of Kathikudam have no aim to give up or move back from their fight. They are ready to die for survival. The union carbide factory and the Bhopal tragedy and the Plachimada incident are in front of us. The international giants are exploiting our land, air and soil for their personal profit. We are sitting still and allowing them to exploit us. Here the people of Kathikudam are fighting for their land, air, soil and river and for the survival of themselves and the future generation.

Thasni Salim
The author is a student of MA Mass Communication, MG University, Kottayam

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