By book or by crook..

... has been the motto of an erring plant in Karnataka. But recently, the local fisherfolk scored a victory by forcing it to agree to install an effluent treatment plant

By Sudha Sitaraman
Published: Monday 15 April 1996

By book or by crook..

Angered at lapses: women rally IN THE early hours of December 21, 1995, a group of fisherfolk assembled in thousands and staged a rasta roko (road block) on the National Highway No 17 at Byukampadi and Kulai, about eight km from Mangalore. They were protesting against the laying of a pipeline by the Mangalore Refinery and Petrochemicals Limited (MRPL), and accused the company of discharging harmful effluents into the sea.

The Hindustan Petroleum Limited, with an investment of Rs 7,500 crores, collaborating with the Birlas, has formed the MRPL among 13 other such refineries in the country.

Located at a distance of 20 kin from Mangalore and about four km from the eastern coast, the MRPL is spread on a plot of 498.15 ha. Nearly Rs 3,000-crore worth investment has gone into the stage one of the project to refine three million tonnes per annum. The company imports crude oil from the Middle East and refines it to produce petroleum products.

The company is planning to become operational shortly. The project implementation, which commenced in 1993, is at an advanced stage. When the project authorities started laying pipelines passing through residential colonies for discharging effluents into the sea, the fisherfolk came to know about the project and began protesting (Down To Earth, Vol 4, No 13). They assembled under the leadership of the Mogaveera Mahajana Sabha and local environmental groups like the Parisara Sarnrakshna Samiti.
Too many fishers spoil the catch Today, all major fishing grounds are at or beyond the limits of the local fisher- people', and many have already suffered serious decline. According to a latest World Watch report, "Of the planet's 15 major marine fishing regions, the productivity in all but two has fallen. Only the Indian Ocean fisheries are still increasing total output, although they are unlikely to expand much more and could be poised for some serious decline." In short, the world's fisheries suffer from what has been termed as "too many fishers catching too few fish".

Because of such changes the world over, today there are many fisheries angling for rich harvests in the Arabian Sea. Although there are regulations for fishing within set boundaries for nation states, poaching has been a consistent threat to the traditional fish erfolk of the Mangalore coast. Moreover, fishing companies that can afford to employ bigger boats and gear, including driftnets to strain portions of the sea, leave lesser catch for the local fisherpeople. The size of their nets, the number of their hooks, the girth of their boats and the miniaturised electronic equipments allow these mega-fishers to travel hundreds of kilometers into the sea and haul rich catches.

Further, trawlers have also been posing a big challenge to the traditional fisherpeople who have been using country boats only. The trawlers drag a large sock-like net though the water, enabling huge quantities of fish catch. The trawlers, with nets and weighed down by chains, dig into the sea bed and kill sea urchins, starfish, worms, crustaceans and shell fish, thereby severely damaging the eco-system.

On account of new economic policies persued by the Indian government, multinational companies that have exhausted the Pacific coast catch, have now set their eyes on the Arabian Sea. Marine farming of upto 120-2,000 tonnes is being carried out with the help of highly sophisticated trawlers.

Apart from fishing, the equipment for storing and packing, which is also available on the board, facilitates export to the international markets unhindered. Nearly 175 such companies have been given license for deep sea fishing inside the Indian waters. While all this has already created anxiety in the minds of the fisherpeople, effluents discharged by the MRPL have spurred animosity among them.

Sociologists who have been working on the Peruvian coast and in other Latin American countries, have always cautioned that export-oriented fishing has severe implications for low-income people and subsistence cultures who rely on fish as their staple diet. Consumers linked to commercial markets primarily eat fish as a luxury item or as a supplement to an already balanced diet, as has been seen in the industrial world where fish is generally exported. When governments subvert traditional and local control of fishing grounds, sever ecological as well as social consequences can ensue.

Fishing muck and waste
The Dakshina Kananda district in Karnataka is considered an ecologically sensitive area among 34 such places identified in the world. Ironically, the Karnataka government has adopted every possible move to transform the district into an 'industrial zone'. Nearly 34 mega industries including the MRPL, Congentrix, Nagarjuna Cements and various other highly polluting industries are all set to be installed. Proximity of the sea to the district is often cited as the main reason for the industries' location. But till now, the Mangalore Chemical Industries and the Kudremukh iron ore project are already suspected to have together discharged untreated effluents to the effect of 6,819,000 litre into the sea.

Along with the sewage from Mangalore, effluents from other small industries have placed the district under great ecological pressure. To add to this misery, the MRPL would release mercury, cyanide, sulphide, cadmium, nickel and tonnes of grease in the sea affecting considerably the fish catch by the local fisherpeople.

The Karnataka State Pollution Control Board had given a clean chit to the project on the aspect of water and air pollution. But the National Institute for Oceanography (NIO) figures of analyses did not correspond with the survey conducted by the state or the Centre, or for that matter, by the MRPL. Where the NIO found that there was 0.01 mg mercury and two mg cadmium in the effluents discharged, the government as well as the MRPL have reportedly dismissed the very existence of heavy metals in effluents. NIO has directed the effluents to be discharged only after they are duly treated.

Coastal areas being key marine fisheries, where more than 90 per cent Of the catch comes from 10 per cent of the sea closest to the land, the apprehensions of the fisherfolk are justified. Four lakh fisherfolk literally found themselves at sea.

The resultant pollution from the discharges reduced the supply of fish not just by killing them outright, but also by rendering them toxic, which is harmful to human life! Mercury, cadmium, and copper can cause a whole range of physical problems from vomiting and diarrhea to damage to the central nervous system and the brain. Sewage and other sources of effluents have also rendered seafood unfit for consumption. Piqued at the pipeline
All these reasons led thousands of fisherfolk in Dakshina Kannada to lodge angry protests against the MRPL. When the pipeline laying work in the fisherfolk's colony in Chittapur Road was taken up on September 18, 1995, the agitation against the MRPL began anew, bringing the construction work to a standstill.

The company had agreed to re-use the effluent for horticultural and agricultural purposes. However, it said that for three months during the monsoon, the effluents would be discharged. The fisherfolk demanded that the effluents should be treated and re-used throughout the year, by storing the treated effluent in a tank during monsoon and use them in summer instead of letting them out into the sea.

The fisherfolk's agitation reached a crescendo between December 21-24. The government's stand since the beginning has been skewed in favour of the company. The Karnataka large and medium industries minister R V Delispande stated that "whatever happens, pipeline work cannot be stopped".

Till now, Rs 3,000 crores have been invested and the pipeline is in the final stages of completion. Therefore, the government feels that providing a treatment plant at this stage may not be feasible. The authorities feel that this might even adversely effect the inflow of investment into Karnataka.

For the last several months, various NGos have been initiating action against the possible ecological disaster that may be caused by effluents discharged in Dakshina Kannada. In August 1995, nearly one lakh people participated in a massive rally to express their opposition to the MRPL'S whims.

Finally on December 24, the Karnataka government invited the concerned representatives for a dialogue on the MRPL. Among several others, the meeting was attended by MPs, MLAs, state government officials and fisherpeople's group. The resultant breakthrough was a government order (GO) whereby the MRPL has been directed to "install suitable equipment and facilities for the recycling of waste and removal/disposal of sludge, if any; and maximum extent of recycling will be achieved to conserve water and at the same time (to) minimise discharge of, effluents into the sea". It is estimated that the plant will cost Rs 200 crores.

Although this is an important victory for the struggling fisherfolk of the Dakshina Kannada district, certain other aspects of the GO make one suspect the possibilities of the MRPL complying with the state government. The MRPL authorities in fact, has asked for two years as grace period to install the effluent treatment plant pleading lack of financial resources.

But till proper recycling facilities are installed, chances are very high that effluents would definitely be pumped into the sea. As there has been no guarantee from the plant authorities or the state government to ward off the worst fears of the fishing communities, the final outcome of the struggle undertaken by the fisherpeople of Karnataka still hangs in balance.

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