Purushan Eloor is an environmental activist and research coordinator with Periyar Malineekarana Virudha Samithy (PMVS), which has been fighting against industrial pollution in the Periyar river, the lifeline of central Kerala. The river is alarmingly polluted by about 280 chemical factories located at Eloor-Edayar industrial estate, the largest industrial cluster in the state. Purushan was member of the Local Area Environment Committee constituted in 2004 by the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee on Hazardous Wastes, the Environment Working Group of Kerala State Planning Board and the Endosulfan Technical Cell of the Kerala government. Besides, PMVS is an accredited member of the Kerala State Biodiversity Board. But for the past one year, Purushan has been spending most of his time and energy in courts and police stations. He is facing investigations by the crime branch, special branch and the local police for “anti-national and terrorist” activities. Purushan spoke to M Suchitra about how industries and politicians conspire to eliminate environment activists in the locality and how factories continue to pollute the river with impunity. Some excerpts:
Why are police agencies investigating you and your organisation?
The state government ordered the probe. It is based on a complaint given by the Standing Council of Trade Unions to the chief minister.
What is this Standing Council of Trade Unions?
It is a confederation of prominent trade unions such as CITU, AITUC, INTUC and BMS. The patrons of the council include two state ministers. Its executive and non-executive office-bearers include influential politicians and members of Parliament and the Assembly. The council was originally formed to act as a mediator between industries and the government for the smooth functioning of factories by ensuring adequate power availability.
What are the charges against you?
Receiving huge foreign funds for derailing and destroying domestic industries, purchasing large coffee estates and resorts, uploading visuals insulting the national flag on Facebook, participating in secret camps organised by banned groups like Students Islamic Movement of India, association with those who work for terrorist groups in Pakistan and connections with Maoists.
Is there any truth in these allegations?
Each and every allegation is false and fabricated. Ours is a group of local environmental activists. Our organisation was formed more than two decades ago by the residents of Eloor and Edayar village panchayats, affected by pollution from hazardous wastes discharged by factories. We hold open meetings, agitations and campaigns against the pollution using money from our own pockets. Nothing is about us is a secret. We are ordinary people struggling for a safe environment. About 3,500 families around the industrial estate are affected by the pollution. We have been struggling for more than 20 years.
Then why does the council raise such allegations?
This is an outcome of the nexus between industries and politicians. The present investigation started early last year. First, a series of planted reports against us appeared in Big News, a publication which is not even registered. This was followed by a press conference by the Standing Council at Ernakulam Press Club. It got wide coverage in newspapers and channels. Subsequently, posters tarnishing us were put up everywhere. Then the council approached the chief minister and requested for immediate probe. They also published allegations against us in a blog called patriot.com
What is the basis of the allegation of denigrating the Tricolour on Facebook?
It is an effort to establish that I am involved in anti-national activities. For this they dragged in my friend Muhammedali, a resident of Eloor, working in Dubai. I know him from childhood. We are friends on Facebook, too. Like me, he also hails from a communist family. He was a CPI(M) member and was active in the library movement till he left for Dubai for a livelihood. The First Information Report (FIR) of the Crime Branch accuses Mohammedali of sharing visuals denigrating the national flag and spreading “I Love Pakistan” message through Facebook. The FIR also says by his close relationships with Pakistanis in UAE, he may indulge in anti-social activities. Just imagine, to trap me they tarnished an innocent person who is working far away from his home.
On Facebook have you posted or liked or shared anything against national interest?
Never. Neither he nor I posted or shared or liked anything insulting the flag or propagating anti-national feelings. Neither of us visited any Facebook page that carried the kind of things the FIR says. Interestingly, the standing council even handed over printouts of the photos allegedly posted on our Facebook to the Crime Branch.
How could they do that if you have not posted it?
They were fake.
Doesn’t it amount to cyber crime?
Yes. Mohammedali was extremely shocked. He filed a case in the Kerala High Court against the state government and the Crime Branch, praying for quashing of the false FIR against him. I have also filed a case. Besides, I lodged a complaint in the cyber crimes enquiry cell.
What was the outcome?
Whatever you do on the Facebook--posting, sharing, liking or tagging—will be recorded in its history. It is not difficult to find out whether you have committed a crime or not. After eight months of investigation, the cyber cell found that we were innocent. Since the allegations were serious I wanted to know the origin of all this. Google and VSNL informed the cyber cell that this blog was created in a computer in the office of Cochin Minerals & Rutile Limited, an industrial house producing synthetic rutile.
What does the government say now?
It ended up in an embarrassing position. A few days ago the Kerala Government submitted a statement in the High Court admitting that Mohemmadali’s Facebook did not contain any visual or post against national interest. The regional and national media gave wide coverage to this human rights violation by the government and its police.
Have you bought coffee estates and resorts?
No. But we, 11 friends, have together bought 4.29 acres (1.7 hectares) in Wayanad district. Of the 11, four are from our organisation. What I and my family have in Wayanad is only an old thatched house in a 64 cent plot. Recently, the government conducted a hunt for Maoists in Wayanad forests.
What is the plight of the Periyar now?
The river is dying. There are 15 dams upstream and 282 industries downstream. Of these, 110 are chemical industries. There are a number of scientific studies revealing the dismal plight of the river. Areas surrounding the industrial belt have become one of the toxic hot spots in the world. Most of the factories still discharge their raw hazardous effluent directly into the river. The riverbed has deposits of heavy metals like lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium, nickel, cobalt and zinc. Studies by the Cochin University of Science and Technology have revealed that the river ecosystem has many dead zones. Massive fish kills occur frequently. At times the river flows in different colours. Many species of flora and fauna have disappeared. The industrial cluster is only 20 km from the Kochi backwaters which is a part of the Vembanad Lake, a Ramsar site. All hazardous wastes finally reach the backwaters. On the one hand, water flow has significantly reduced due to dams, and on the other, contamination of water, soil and air has increased. Pollution of the river and surrounding wetlands has almost wiped out the traditional occupations, including fishing and farming.
Which are the main polluting companies?
Most of the companies contribute to toxic pollution. But there are a few companies like Hindustan Insecticides Limited (HIL), Merchem and Binani Zinc which have never bothered to abide by the laws. HIL, a Central government undertaking, has been producing insecticides including DDT and endosulfan since 1956. Production of endosulfan was stopped in 2011 after public protests and verdict from the Supreme Court. DDT is the most notorious of the 12 chlorinated chemicals identified for total elimination by the Stockholm Convention. HIL is one of the few remaining DDT producing factories in the world. Water samples from a small stream called Kuzhikkandam Thodu, where HIL discharges its effluent, have revealed presence of more than 100 organic compounds including organochlorines like DDT and its derivatives, which are classified as persistent organic pollutants (POPs). This stream joins the river.
But did the situation not change after the Supreme Court-appointed monitoring committee’s intervention?
Not much. In 2004, when the monitoring committee visited Kerala, it was shocked to see the situation here. The Hazardous Wastes Rules were notified in 1989. In 1997, the Supreme Court ordered state pollution control boards across the country to show cause as to why industries without requisite authorisation or waste treatment facilities should not be closed down. Kerala State Pollution Control Board never bothered to pay attention to the Supreme Court’s rulings and observations. The committee ordered to close down the factories which do not abide by laws. At least 100 factories would have to close down in this industrial estate. The state pleaded for time to make the factories set up adequate facilities. The monitoring committee also set up a Local Area Environment Committee (LAEC) for auditing pollution and monitoring the functioning of these 100 companies. Some of the companies sincerely tried to reduce the pollution level by setting up new facilities. LAEC was vigilant. At that time there were obvious changes in the pollution level. But many of the companies which started functioning in a better way have fallen back to their old system of discharging raw effluent directly to the river.
The main reason is inefficiency of the pollution control board. The Board is corrupt from top to bottom. It is not monitoring anything. It is not transparent and people-friendly. Besides, the board is not capable of giving suggestions and guidelines to the industries on how to reduce the pollution level. When it comes to the application of science and technology, the board is years behind. Also, there is always tremendous political pressure to turn a blind eye towards pollution. To reduce pollution we need to know the mass balance which gives you the exact picture on raw materials and amount of water used, production capacity, actual production and quantity of wastes, solid and liquid, and pollution level. In the past 40 years, mass balance has been determined for not even a single company. Then how can the pollution level be reduced?
What does the state government say about reducing pollution?
It is not interested in solving the pollution issues. In 2000, we had raised a demand for a permanent river monitoring station for assessing the pollutions levels. The state government promised us that it would set up the station within six months. Nothing has happened as yet.
Let us come back to the investigations against you. You say CMRL is behind the false charges against you. Was there any immediate provocation?
Yes. This company produces synthetic rutile. The byproducts are ferric chloride and ferrous chloride. Since ferric chloride can be used in water treatment, the company sells it outside. As for ferrous chloride, the company used to discharge it into the river. This was the reason for Periyar’s change of colour at times. When Local Area Environment Committee objected, it had even transported the effluent to neighbouring Tamil Nadu in tankers and discharged it directly into open fields. We had caught them red-handed while doing this. Three years ago, the company started a project in Sabarimala for treating water using ferrous chloride in a stream highly contaminated by E-coli. We objected to it. First, adding chemicals directly into the river or stream is against the law. More than that, the company was using ferrous chloride contaminated with heavy metals. We constituted a fact-finding team. The team found that the project was a failure. The company was using this project for publicity in media. Finally, it had to wind up the project.
You said it was the complaint given by the standing council of trade unions that led to the ongoing investigations. Does it mean that there is a huge divide within the community between factory workers and those who fight for safe environment?
We have never demanded closure of the industries. Our demand is that industries should abide by the law and stop destroying ecosystems. Workers and trade union leaders who hail from Eloor-Edayar area give us moral support. They know what we stand for. They are very well aware of the issues. Their families, too, suffer from pollution. But the real problem creators are top level trade union leaders and politicians. They instigate fear among workers about a possible closure of the industries.
Have the polluters paid any compensation?
We had demanded medical insurance cards for the residents for up to Rs 1,00,000. In the last two years of the previous government we got medical cards which allowed treatment up to Rs 35,000. Companies bore the expenses. But when the present government came to power in 2011, it stopped this scheme.
Why are only residents of Eloor-Edayar region fighting against the pollution? Residents, hotels and hospitals of the Ernakulam (Cochin) city also use the Periyar water though they get treated water. Why are they not bothered about the pollution? Why don’t they join the struggle?
We have tried our best to make them take up the issue. We have met all the residents’ associations in the city and requested them to join the struggle. But they keep away and prefer silence. There are about 280 factories and influential industrialists, politicians who get money from these industries, and there are many other interest groups. Leave city people, even organisations like Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishad, which is supposed to be a people’s science movement, has not taken up this issue as it should have.
Why have they targetted only you?
Not only me. They target all those who actively work against pollution. The goons of the companies will do anything. They may even kill you. Recently, Shibu Manuel, who has filed a public interest litigation in the high court for scientific cleaning of the Kuzhikkandam stream was attacked by the goons of the companies. They broke his legs and arms. He suffered serious injuries. He was actively pursuing the case. It can happen to me too. I constantly get threats on my life. The police have cautioned me to take care not to move alone. So the message is very clear: Stop your activism or be ready to die. The industry-politician nexus is trying to eliminate us.
Does all this affect your morale?
Yes, very much. It is really painful to face allegations and investigations after years of fighting for a cause. Everywhere in our country, those who engage in grassroots struggles face similar situations. At times, I have the urge to live a quiet and peaceful life. The cases and courts consume your time, energy and money. All this would divert our attention from the main issues. That’s exactly what the industry-politician nexus wants.
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