CF George, who waged a losing battle for pure water in Guruvayur, is no more

CF George, who waged a losing battle for pure water in Guruvayur, is no more

George Mash, as he was lovingly called, was a retired government school teacher and tireless activist.

Almost 13 years have passed since the priests of the famed Sree Krishna temple at Guruvayur in Kerala had conducted punyaham — a cleansing ritual by water — following the entry of Mercy Ravi, the wife of then Union minister for non-resident Indian affairs Vayalar Ravi, on the temple premises.

Married to a devout Hindu, Mercy was born a Christian. The upper-caste Hindus in Kerala believed sighting of the deity by a non-Hindu would pollute the Krishna idol in the temple. Only several baths could rid the shame, goes the belief.

A day after the punyaham created headlines in Malayalam media, I got a telephone call from Guruvayur. The person on the other side introduced himself as CF George, also called George Master, a retired school teacher, environmentalist and the only surviving Trotskyist in Kerala.

Back then I was the Kerala correspondent of news weekly Tehelka.

The older man had a humble request. He wanted me to make a quick trip to Guruvayur. He reminded me of the Punyaham controversy and how the Malayalam media was treating it. I told him that everything about the controversy has already appeared in newspapers and nothing more to write about.

He told me he was not insisting I write on Punyaham. Instead, he spoke of a test conducted by the Environmental Engineering Laboratory of Thrissur’s Government Engineering College on samples of water collected from the temple. The water used in the temple, including cleansing rituals, was swarming with human excreta and all kinds of organic waste, he cited the report of the study.

At his request, I reached Thrissur by train. George took me in his old car from the railway station to Guruvayur. He gave me a copy of the study report.

The water in the temple tank was found to have about 1,100 coliforms per 100 millilitre (known as most probable number or MPN). Coliform is a bacteria found in human excreta. Even now, the Central Pollution Control Board’s permissible MPN for drinking water is 50 and 500 for bathwater.

Another critical indicator of purity, the biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), was estimated at 22.8 milligram per litre. The permissible level is two-three milligram per litre.

He took me to Chakkamkandam village adjoining the temple. It was a journey that I will not forget.

Chakkamkandam had a backwater region, and all the 110-odd lodges and an equal number of marriage halls run by private individuals and the Guruvayur Devaswom Board had made Chakkamkandam backwaters their septic tank.

Even the well-known restaurants in the temple town lacked septic tanks to process excreta and organic waste. So, they released their filth into the Chakkamkandam backwaters. Soil contamination caused by such a criminal action had even polluted the temple tank water, but the devotees were unaware of that.

I entered Chakkamkandam with my nostrils firmly closed with my fingers. George said he was fighting a losing battle for the entire system — for the poor and underprivileged people of Chakkamkandam, the Hindus, the Christians and the Muslims. All the waste generated in Guruvayur was being released into what used to be a rain-water drainage system, leading to the Chakkamkandam backwaters.

I accompanied him to meet several people with respiratory problems and skin diseases due to exposure to the water and air pollution caused by the waste from the temple city. There were over 1,500 families, most of whom are dependent on the backwaters for their livelihood, be it fishing or coir making.

George Mash (an endearment for master) told me the authorities were mistreating the natives of Chakkamkandam, an area that within the coastal regulatory zone.

He introduced me to KV Rugmini, a devotee of the temple, who said her house was too close to the drain and her children felt nauseated all the time.

He also introduced me to Puthuveetil Amina, who lived alone in her old house situated right in front of the drain. The water in her well, too, was not potable, she said. She was forced to drink it because she had no access to the municipal supply.

No one bought fish from the region anymore, said Manikantan, who used to sell fish from the backwaters. The fish workers of the region had moved to other livelihoods following skin diseases caused by the contaminated water.

Human excreta was seen floating everywhere in the Chakkamkandam backwaters. The scale of pollution in the region was so high that I even refused to drink the coconut water offered by an affected family.

After spending a few hours there, I started feeling nauseated. I told Mash that we need to return quickly.

On reaching Thrissur, he told me the whole political leadership and media in Kerala had ignored the Chakkamkandam struggle. They feared that highlighting it would upset the sentiments of the devotees.

I wrote a detailed story in Tehelka based on the visit. Unfortunately, no link to the article is available on the magazine’s new website.

Chakkamkandam remains a burning issue but I cannot gather the confidence to go back to the village. I never met George Mash again. Today I read in a Facebook post that he passed away on June 21, 2021.

After his long association with the mainstream communist movement of Kerala, Mash turned the earliest convert to Trotskyism from the state. He worked as a high school teacher at the Government Higher Secondary School in Chavakkad near Guruvayur for a long time. Still, his social life included politics, literature, acting and activism.

He has had brief stints in Malayalam theatre, cinema and television. The lone Trotskyist of Kerala is gone. Chakkamkandam now looks orphaned.

Down To Earth