The Kanjikode industrial park in Kerala is in the news for good as well as bad reasons. The 300-acre park is the second largest of its kind in the state and the state government has recently submitted a proposal to the defence ministry to establish a defence production unit there.
But the grime side of the story is that industrial pollution in the region has assumed alarming proportion. According to the tribals and the Dalits who reside in the region, Kanjikode is a hell. As many as 42 iron-smelting factories along with the soft drink giant Pepsi's bottling unit are violating the pollution control measures and industrial safety norms. Almost all the residents near the park are suffering from bronchitis, asthma, cancer and kidney diseases ever since the establishment of these units.Eight-year-old Samadhana Prabhu goes to the local government hospital every week since he is suffering from severe respiratory ailments. The doctors have advised the poor Dalit family to shift their home outside the highly polluted Vivekanada Colony in Kanjikode. But they have no place to go.
"We are not against the industrial units. There are over 498 industrial units. Due to these iron smelting units, Kanjikode is another 'Bhopal' in the making. A slow and silent death is in store for us,' said 50-year-old Pushpa who resides in the colony.Even the flowers and trees of the colony have turned black due to the emission of black waste from the Kairali Steel, a steel-smelting unit. The residents even hesitate to dry up their white clothes in open place. The walls of most houses have already turned black.
"In the last six months, two men died due to respiratory ailments. The hospitals and the district administration had confirmed it. But the factory owners were not ready to give even a paltry compensation to the victims' families," said Pushpa.
"The Dalit families, now living in the Vivekananda colony, were the ones who gave land to establish the park. Accepting the rehabilitation package of the then United Democratic Front (UDF) government, they moved to the colony. However, the government even allowed many polluting units to operate in their residential area," said SB Raju, a trade union activist. Worse, 16 of these units are located on the banks of Korayar, a major tributary of Kerala's largest river Bharathapuzha. Due to the direct dumping of industrial wastes into the river, water has turned arsenic and about a kilometer stretch of its bank is deposited with the solid wastes.
Moreover, a sponge iron unit has recently been established close to the Malapuzha drinking water and irrigation project site in Bharathapuzha. Once operational, the factory's waste and fly ash would contaminate the water source of over five lakh people.
Significantly, these 42 units have employed about 13,000 labourers mostly from Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh. Even the Palakkad district labour office has no information about them. But the local citu office reveals that they work in extremely inhuman conditions. There is no fixed duty hours or minimum wage. They work in a high-temperature environment. "They have provided us gunny bags to cover our bodies. One will pump water on these bags to make us cool. But that is quite inadequate when the temperature rises up to 1,500 degree Celsius,' said Masud (name changed), an AP Steel employ, who hails from Bihar."The workers there are mere slaves. The middle men and the commission agents recruit labourers from North India. Once they join the work, any demand from their side even for basic needs would be suppressed mercilessly," said R. Sreevatsan, a citu leader. "They are not even allowed to speak to the local people," he added.
In the previous year, at least seven workers were died in explosions which took place in the factories. The normal daily wage in Kerala is around Rs 150. However, these workers get only Rs 35 as the recruiting agents would also get a cut from their salary.
Following the intervention of Palakkad MP, NN Krishnadas, Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan sent a legislature committee to study the situation there. However, the locals say that there is a lobby within the CPM to protect the interests of factory owners. "These units are using lethal toxic and explosive materials as raw materials," says T. Suresh, president, Pudussery panchayat.
"Parts of missiles, tanks, chemical equipment and even nuclear wastes are being imported from overseas to re-cycle there," he added.According to a study by the Central Pollution Control Board, no such factory is permissible in Palakkad district, considering its demographic aspects. A top official of the Kerala State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) also confirms the people's grievances. "The villagers had filed complaints on air and water pollution," admits ST Jayaprasad, Member Secretary, KSPCB. "The board members visited the area and directed the factory owners to institute a number of remedial measures," he added. But hardly anyone believes this. Says eminent writer Sukumar Azhikode: "It (KSPCB) is not a board that controls pollution but one that is controlled by the politicians."
Most factories do not possess the panchayat's license to smelt iron. Undoubtedly, these are owned by powerful politicians. The locals say a former industry minister (who is reportedly close to the current Industry Minister Elamarom Kareem) owns many. The police, taxes and power department officials confirm that he was instrumental in granting the units clearance, bypassing the objections raised by the departments concerned.
Curiously, Kareem is keeping a studied silence over the demand of local CPM leaders to curb these polluting units.