Mired in Faith

Guruvayur, a township in Kerala's Thrissur district and famous all over India for its centuries old Sri Krishna temple, is still remaining obstreperously and obstinately orthodox in its ritualistic religiosity. If a non-Hindu gets darshan of the Krishna here, the temple will be polluted and Krishna will need to take several baths. It was only recently the head priest had conducted punyaham (cleansing ritual using water) following the entry of Mercy Ravi, wife of Union Minister for NRI Affairs Vayalar Ravi, who happens to be a born Christian.

But a recent analytical test conducted by Environmental Engineering Laboratory of Department of Civil Engineering at Government Engineering College in Thrissur is pointing to the other side of the coin. It proves beyond doubt that the water being used by the Brahmanic high priests to conduct the cleansing ritual itself remains impure. As per the report, the MPN count for coliforms in the temple tank comes around 1100/100 ml and the BOD (3 days, 27 degree centigrade) remains 22.8 mg/L. The permissible level of MPN for drinking water is 50 and for bating water 500 as per Central Pollution Control Board. The BOD permitted is 2 and 3 mg/L respectively. It would not be a Herculean task to find out the reason behind the severe pollution of the temple tank, which continues to remain a symbol of `purity' and `cleansing' for millions of devotees.

Excreta and human and non-human organic waste from 110 odd lodges and an equal number of marriage halls, chatrams run by Guruvayur Devaswom Board and restaurants are making the temple tank polluted. But astonishingly, there is no hue and cry for the cleaning up of the tank though the elements of orthodoxy are still vocal of the need to bar entry of non-Hindus. The god is bathing in water contaminated by human excreta as there is no working septic tank for any of the lodges and restaurants in the temple town.

If the affairs of the god have dipped into such a pathetic condition, what would have been the survival struggles of his own people living just outside the township? Take a trip to Chakkamkandam backwater region by keeping a firm grip over your nostrils. The excreta and other organic wastes of Guruvayur are now being let out into what used to be a rain-water drainage system which leads to the back waters in a way that affects about a dozen panchayats outside Guruvyur Municipal limits, translated in people terms more than 1500 families - most of whom are dependant on backwaters for their livelihood, be it fishing or coir making.

K .V. Rugmini is a devote Hindu and she often visits the temple to pary to her favourite god. Now-a-days, she demands only one thing from her favourite god. ``Please find some solution to the free flowing of human excreta through the open drainage system to the backwaters. My house is very close to the drain and the children feel vomiting tendency whenever sit for food. More over, the water in my recently constructed 5 feet depth well remains extremely polluted. Only the god can prevent the ever growing number of visitors to the temple,' she said.

Puthuveetil Amina is a 65-year-old woman. She lives alone in her old house just in front of the drainage. The water in her well also is not potable and has no access to pipe water. So she is drinking the same filthy water.

According to Manikantan, who used to fetch fine varieties of fish from the backwaters to make a living, no one in the entire district buys fish from the region. No takers for shell fish varieties like mussels as well. Those who engaged in fishing started opting other means of survival due to poor demand and the infection of skin diseases due to contamination of water. Human excreta were seen flowing over the water in the entire backwater region. Except for the high pollution, Chakkamkandam has immense tourism possibilities. A holiday home with about a dozen cottages was constructed close to the backwaters eyeing on the visiting tourists but the promoter is accumulating losses due to the absence of visitors. The Kerala Home Minister, who also in-charge of tourism, had refused to drink even tender coconut water at the inaugural of the holiday home due to the severe air pollution.

``In October, last year, the whole of Kerala rose in outrage against three containers of Garbage that was imported from New York to Kochi by a private company. A good part of the outrage was against using Kochi as a dumping ground for garbage generated in the US. Though what is happening in Chakkamkandam Backwaters is repetition of the same story, it is not invoking the same outrage somehow,' wonders Bobby Kunhu, a lawyer turned environmental activist.

``The question here in the first instance is how these lodges run without a working septic tank. Logically follows the question on how the Guruvayur Municipal Corporation allows these lodges etc to function thus,' he asks. ``The legal questions have been answered by the Supreme Court of India long back. Justice Krishna Iyer delivering the judgment in Municipal Corporation of Ratlam vs. Vardichand and Others AIR 1980 SC 160 accepted the use of sec. 133 CrPC for removal of public nuisance and observed that a responsible municipal council is constituted for the precise purpose of preserving public health. Further, in M.C. Mehta vs. Union of India WP 12739/1985, Justice Bhagwati upheld the principle of "Polluter Pays" in the case of Oleum Gas leak from a private company called Shriram Fertilizers and diluted the principle of locus standi holding the state equally responsible for the pollution,' he further says.

In the case of excreta from Guruvyur lodges, the facts take a grotesque turn, where in the first place the Municipal Corporation has not enforced a legal obligation on the part of the lodge owners to construct and operate functional septic tanks to deal with human excreta and other wastes on one hand. And then facilitates the release of the same into an area outside their jurisdiction, which on top of all illegalities falls within the Coastal Regulatory Zone. To add insult to the injury that the Corporation is inflicting on this hapless people, they have also planned a sewage treatment plant filling parts of the backwaters that is outside their jurisdiction. The comedy of this plan is that the plant was planned at a cost of Rupees 4.4 Million in 1982, when Rs.5.5 Million already had been spent, and all one gets to see of it is an asbestos tool shed on a part of the backwaters that has been filled for this purpose.

``The canal leading to the backwaters has become a breeding center for mosquitoes and the putrefaction of wastes takes place all along the course of the canal,' pointed out C.F.Goerge, a member of the local action committee.

``As per an independent study, the backwaters have been partially filled with the sludge from the decomposition of the night soil. The mangroves in the backwaters which recess at many places are in the dying stage,' he added. Most of the coir manufacturing units around the backwaterl have been closed due to extreme level of pollution. Skin and intestinal diseases are very common among the Chakkamkandam people. ``The ruling Left Front Government is only concerned about the cleanliness of Guruvayur Township. It has conveniently forgotten the surrounding villages. If the sewage treatment plant is set up here, the effluent, treated as well asuntreated will be disposed in to the backwater directly, making it a dead and infectious lagoon,' he pointed out.

The impunity with which the lodge owners and the Guruvayur Municipal Corporation has acted without consideration for the livelihood and hygiene of over a dozen adjacent panchayats, directly affected by the pollution and the proposed sewage plant can be evidenced by a petition filed before the Kerala High Court O.P. No. 19891 of 1997, where the affected communities went unrepresented and the material facts were not placed before the court, thereby obtaining an order clearing the way for the sewage plant. Further, till date there has been no effort at consulting with the populations that are directly affected by the pollution or would be affected by the outdated proposal for a sewage treatment plant.

``The questions that need to be asked here is whether the residents around Chakamkandam Backwaters should pay for the profits being made by the lodge, hotel and auditorium owners of Guruvayur? Should the Guruvayur Municipal Corporation be complicit in facilitating this profit? And finally, does not the Municipal Corporation have a responsibility to enforce working excretion disposal mechanisms - septic tanks or otherwise in these establishments?' asks Bobby.

But the civil society around Guruvayur is in one voice against the sewage plant. ``The Government should construct septic tanks for each and every hotel, lodge and restaurant in Guruvayur. That would be more economical and more scientific. Bothe the twon ship and the rural areas would be freed from all kinds of pollution,' points out Laila hamza, member of the local panchayat. As an independent who won the election with the support of ruling leftists, she is now earning the wrath of party men for leading the civil society uprise.


More by :  K. A. Shaji

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