Chella Krishnamurthy, 57, murdered

By Deepa Kozhisseri
Published: Saturday 31 January 2009

Chella Krishnamurthy, 57, murdered

-- (Credit: Ram Babu)Karnataka farmer paid the price for resisting a polluting distillery, sand mining

In early mornings, a portly old man would sneak into the fields in Chikballapur's countryside, a video camera in hand, to film a distillery dumping effluents on agricultural land and in the Pinakini river. In the afternoons, if he was not busy filing complaints against the distillery, he would take schoolchildren around his banana plantation and speak to them about organic farming. In the evening, he would come home to his wife, eight dogs and 25 cats.

On November 10, 2008, Chella Krishnamurthy did not return. He was beaten to death by some people an hour before a press conference at Gowribiddanur taluka of Karnataka's Chikballapur district, where he was to present a film and photographs showing Gauri Distillery releasing untreated effluent into the Pinakini and irrigation tanks.

The same day the local truck drivers' association gathered about 200 people and demonstrated against Krishnamurthy outside the tehsildar's office, alleging that the farmer had attacked one of them. Four truck drivers have been arrested in connection with the murder. The drivers work for Gauri Distillery.

Seven years ago as he turned 50, Krishnamurthy bought over seven dry hectares in Gowribiddanur and began organic farming. He settled in his farmhouse Chella Farms in Karakallahalli village with his wife, mother-in-law and pets--he had no child--after working at private firms in Bengalooru for decades.

But the idyllic life was not for him; the liquor factory was robbing the land of its fertility. Three years later, abandoning his ambition to break the Guinness record of 420 bananas in a bunch, he began gathering evidence against the factory and organizing farmers and journalists against it. The journalists helped him with writing letters to the authorities and documentation. Some spent long hours at his farm strategizing the agitation.

Krishnamurthy wrote hundreds of letters to the district administration and complained to the Karnataka Pollution Control Board (kpcb) and the Central Pollution Control Board (cpcb). "He was consumed by the agitation against the effluent disposal. He received calls offering money if he stopped his campaign, but every time he retorted, 'Use it instead to treat the effluents'," said Chella Nagalakshmi, Krishnamurthy's wife.

The distillery has a tank with very little storage capacity, so it overflows into the river and the feeder channel, which in turn pollutes irrigation tanks like Maralur Kere and Chandana Kere, said D A Chowdappa of Pinakini Parisara Pragathi Parishat, a citizens' group fighting against sand mining. He too has received threatening calls. Farmers complain their borewell water smells of effluents. According to Chowdappa, about 50,000 people in the area are affected by groundwater contamination.

On Krishnamurthy's complaint in 2006, the kpcb found that untreated effluent had flooded agricultural fields in Udumalodu and Gundapura villages. The board issued closure orders to Gauri Distillery in February 2007 but revoked it in May that year. The distillery met the cpcb norm of one-time application of treated effluent on agricultural land in a controlled manner, said kpcb chairman Sharath Chandra.

Scientists at the University of Agricultural Science in Bengalooru recommend controlled application of distillery effluent once in two-three years as a substitute for fertilizer. The problem, said Ramkrishna Parma, professor of soil science at the university, was with indiscriminate application. "Earlier, I allowed Gauri Distillery to apply effluent as fertilizer on my land but after realizing that it was not doing it scientifically and that the productivity of my land had come down, I stopped it," said Ravi Chander of Madanahalli village.

Krishnamurthy protested unscientific disposal of effluent by the factory, which should have not been within one kilometre of the riverbed in the first place, said Chowdappa, the slain farmer's associate who is demanding a cbi inquiry into the murder. The distillery was also discharging untreated effluent into the Pinakini and irrigation tanks. Krishnamurthy took pictures of this and again informed the officials. A few days before he was killed cpcb took water samples from the villages surrounding the distillery. On December 19, 2008, the factory was closed for violating the board's norms.

"The farmer had also been protesting sand mining in the Pinakini and had angered the truck mafia. He used to come to kpcb often," said the kpcb chairman. The board officials won't say much about Krishnamurthy, but they remember him by his complaints.

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