A River Reborn

It is no more the Picasso imagery of a wounded horse by a poisoned river refusing to drink as in his Guernica. The mighty river Chaliyar, which regained its pristine glory, is quite flowing westward through the terrains of Mavoor and Vazhakkad, no more polluted by the pulp factory of Grasim Gwalior Rayons. Gone are the days when people lived on both sides of the river had fallen victims of cancer and respiratory ailments. As far as the locals are concerned, the swelling fish wealth of the river is a clear indication of its recovery from a 40-year-long spell of toxic effluent discharge. The river which once turned black and tar-like has already regained its crystal clear waters.

Now it is about a decade since the polluting factory was closed down by the Aditya Birla Group following immense public outcry. Local people and environmentalists do not remember any mass fish mortality in recent years though it was common till the winding up of the factory. Though the closure of Grasim factory had rendered about 2,000 workers jobless, the villages are now happy as they regained their traditional access to the river. Fishing is now a profitable business and that makes several employees of the former factory happy. Cattle population is increasing as there is no dearth of water for washing and drinking. Health expenditure of the locals has also started witnessing a drastic fall as no more presence of toxic wastes. People can swim and bath freely in the river without the fear of exposure to chemicals. The rebirth of the river has a flip side as well ' indiscriminate sand mining.

"It is not just that several of our favorite fish varieties are back, even they taste better than what it used to be during the toxic days,' claims Babu Varghese, one of the leaders of the agitation against the pulp factory. Babu was among the few who started the Save Chaliyar Campaign decades ago in a modest way. Leaders of the campaign are now a happier lot as their local brethren, who once disassociated with them in the name of industrialization and job creation, started experiencing the benefits of a toxic free life. With the closing down of both the pulp and fiber divisions, there is no effluent discharge into the river and no release of toxic fumes into the air. So Mavoor is now unpolluted, healthy and water surplus.

"The factory had eaten about 90 per cent of the bamboo wealth of near by Wayanad district by paying nominal price to the government and throwing its fragile ecology out of gear had caused illness ranging from respiratory diseases to skin rashes and cancer to the people lived close to the river. There were high incidence of chronic bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma and skin diseases in the area at the height of the Save Chaliyar Campaign,' recalls C Surendranath, a leading journalist who risked his profession to lead the campaign.

"The Chaliyar struggle was unique in many respects. It won ultimately on a giant industrial group which was least concerned of the human beings and environment. It had ultimately given rebirth to a dying river. It was in fact a coming together of humans to save their lifeline,' opines noted environmentalist Sugathakumari. Interestingly, mainstream political parties including CPM, Congress and BJP along with their trade union wings had tried their maximum to weaken the public protest and to promote the Birla venture.

K A Rahman, president of Vazhayoor Village Panchayat, was the rallying point of the agitators since the beginning. Working relentlessly for the Chaliyar, Rahman finally succumbed to cancer gifted by the emissions from the factory but said, even while dying, that his people would continue the struggle. Ultimately, his people won over the might of pr-industry lobby. Rahman's name can be seen in the cancer death register that he himself introduced three years before his death. Though incomplete, the register itself remain a symbol of the determination of Rahman to fight the mighty. As per the entries in the register, 213 people died of cancer in Vazhakkad village aloneafter facing the brunt of the mercury and cadmium discharged into the river. Another 79 died in the nearby areas.

"There was not enough fresh air to breath; nostrils reeked of mercury. Diseases devoured their victims at a frightening pace. Malformation of babies had multiplied. Cancer, heart attacks, respiratory diseases, failing vision and retardation of mental faculties were quite common here,' recalled Abdurahman, who operates a country boat in the river linking Mavoor and Vazhakkad.

Vazhakkad was in a fact a small village with 30,000 populations. Among them 60 people were found to have cardio-pulminary afflictions when the factory was operational. As many as 176 had tuberculosis, 134 had chronic asthma and 134 had lethal ulcers and another 650 had kidney and vision troubles.

"There was an immediate drop in bronchial diseases among children within the two years after the factory closed down. The number of people affected with various diseases is getting narrowing down by each passing year. New cases of severe diseases are very few and far between now,' pointed out Dr P K Dinesh, a local physician. 

But the situation was very severe in the past. A 1981 study by medical experts revealed that 23 per cent men and 21 per cent women in the village had respiratory ailments and 14 and seven per cent respectively had chronic bronchitis.

Though the area is now free from the pungent smell of sulphides, aged victims of the Grasim factory are still languishing in the region without any compensation. According to M P Abdulla, one among the sufferers of the pollution caused by the factory, no comprehensive study was done on the impact of the pollution on the local population. But even Abdulla remains happy as the closure of the killer factory saved his children and grand children from the clutches of chronic diseases.

Way back in 1963, came Aditya Birla Group's Gwalior Rayons to Mavoor as it was then called, the biggest private venture in the state, igniting hopes and stoking dreams of jobs and industries and development for the residents of Mavoor. In the state government's efforts to bring in industries, sops of various kinds were offered to the factory. The first casualty of it was the river Chaliyar. The company was given free hand to take maximum water from the river for industrial purpose and to empty the wastes into the same river.

What was also destroyed along with the advent of the factory was the forest wealth of Wayanad. A hill station close to Mysore and Ootty, the deforestation changed Wayanad's climatically condition severely. Now there is no salubrious climate in Wayanad. It is estimated that since 1963 to 1974, bamboo and other forest wood was given by the State Government to the factory at a subsidized rate of Rs 1 per tonne. According to studies, it is estimated that the subsidies alone were worth Rs 3,000 crore on this count. Power was given to the company at 40 paise per unit and no charge was levied on the water taken by the company from the river.

"For the company, all these meant profit worth millions. But for the poor people of Mavoor and Wayanad, this had been a means to unquantified ecological devastation and massive loss of natural resources; a means to floral, faunal and human calamity. Everybody is happy of the closure of the factory but no one is asking the industrial firm to compensate for the poison the factory spewed into the river, the toxic fumes it belched into the atmosphere and the heavy metal sludge it dumped on the earth's surface,' points out Surendranath.             


More by :  K. A. Shaji

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