Thursday, February 21, 2008

A River Returns to Life: The Story of Chaliyar

Walking on the banks of the river Chaliyar is a pleasant experience these days. The river that takes its life in the Western Ghats and meanders through the interior and backward villages lying between the districts of Kozhikode and Malappuram in north Kerala, is today full, its clean water a source of life for dozens of panchayats and the city of Kozhikode. On normal days one can see scores of fishermen in small canoes on the river, looking for a good catch.

As tourism industry is booming in Kerala, the banks of the river are now turning into a tourist spot in Malabar with resorts and pleasure boating yards coming up, giving a new lease of life and income to the people in these villages.

It is a wonderful transformation, because a few years ago Chaliyar was a stinking pool of dirty and blackish water highly polluted with chemical effluents and hazardous material like mercury that took the lives of hundreds of people in the villages around it. Often, large groups of fish could be seen floating upside down, as the effluents discharged into the water was practically exterminating the fish population in the river. Chaliyar turned poisonous as a highly polluting industrial unit, the Gwalior Rayons (Grasim Industries) was set up in on its banks at Mavoor, early in the sixties. When the factory started its production in 1963, there was no awareness about the harmful effects of industrial pollution. The industrialists freely polluted the environment leaving the poor people around with no ways to stop them as there was neither legislation nor any effective mechanism to stop industrial pollution.

Thus when the factory started its work, the people in villages like Mavoor, Vazhakkad, Vazhayoor and Areekkode, on both sides of the river, were at the receiving end. Those who visited Mavoor and other places in those days inhaled a highly noxious air, and the thick dark clouds hovering above the skyline was a regular feature burning one’s eyes and congesting the lungs.

Within one year of the operation of the factory, the villagers started protesting though it was yet to take an organized form. In the early sixties an action committee was formed with people like K Chathunni Master, a senior Communist leader, E K K Muhammed, a Muslim League leader, and others in it representing to the Government to take measures to control the air and water pollution in Mavoor. But instead of taking measures to control the factory’s pollution, the Government allowed the management to start a new division in 1972 that intensified pollution and the public agitation. It was in this phase that local people like K A Rahman, who later succumbed to cancer after almost three decades of relentless struggle against pollution, took over the leadership. As the agitation took a more aggressive turn, the Government started negotiations which led to a temporary settlement in 1974. As part of this agreement, it was decided to measure water and air pollution levels regularly for taking stricter action to control discharge of effluents into the river and air. As a result of this agreement, known as Ramanilayam Pact, the Kerala State Pollution Control Board was set up in 1974, one of the first such bodies to come up in the country.

But pollution did not stop and the public agitation became quite aggressive and even threatened to take a violent form. In December 1998 around 8000 villagers marched to the factory gates demanding its immediate closure. They also pulled down a bund that was built in the river at Elamarom, to enable the factory to take unpolluted water upstream for its use.

By the time, the environment movement had become strong in the country and there were stricter laws against polluters. Activists from all parts of the country like writer Arundati Roy came to Mavoor to join hands in the struggle of the local people. At the same time, the technology used in the factory had become obsolete and there was pressure from all parts on the Government and the management to take urgent steps: Either upgrade the technology that would ensure zero pollution level, or close down.

There was a hectic pace for the debates and discussions within the public at large and within the Government itself about the future of the Gwalior Rayons factory, owned by the Birlas, at Mavoor in the late nineties. All over the world a strong environmental movement had become very powerful and within the country the hapless villagers at the receiving end of pollution were being supported by powerful groups of concerned intellectuals and academics who had amassed a wealth of information and scientific data to prove the harmful effects of industrial pollution. From the seventies, the villagers and gram panchayats like Mavoor, Vazhakkad and others were raising complaints about rising incidence of ailments like lung diseases, cancer, etc, which had been abnormally high in these villages. According to the figures available with the Vazhakkad gram panchayat, which suffered the maximum pain because of the river pollution, there were 10 cases of cancer deaths in the village in 1993 which rose to 32 by 1998. Even the most important leader of the environmental movement, K A Rahman, a Vazhakkad peasant who had to sell out most of his properties for conducting court cases against the factory management and for frenetic public activities, was suffering from acute cancer to which he succumbed very soon. A survey conducted by the same panchayat in 1998 had found that during the period from 1993 to 1998, there were as many as 245 cancer patients in the village, undergoing treatment at the Kozhikode Medical College.

The going was getting tough for the management and finally in 2000 they chose to wind up shop and shift their operations elsewhere as they had set up more modern factories in places like Madhya Pradesh. Thus came to a successful end to the relentless struggles of the masses for almost four decades, who suffered immensely in those years.

Now, life is back in the river and in its environs. The fish life is once again plenty, and the traditional activities like fishing, collection of items like clams, etc, is thriving. The doctors in villages like Mavoor and Vazhakkad say that there is a drastic decline in chronic ailments that once haunted these villages.


Santhakumar said...

Though I will be happy to know that environmentalists' agitation led to the closure of the factory, my impression is that the loss of competitiveness of the factory for other reasons led to its closure. Closing the factory need not be the only way to improve the quality of river.

Unknown said...

Now a days chaliyar flows into death , need a second agitation.