Former union minister T R Baalu's attempts to revive a distillery near his village in Thanjavur District of Tamil Nadu has been halted. On July 15, the Madras High Court, while passing a restraint order against grant of environmental clearance to the project, asked the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to ascertain if the project is viable.
The court passed the interim injunction against the distillery, owned by Baalu's son, T R B Rajakumar, on a public interest petition. The residents, under the banner of the Vadaseri Village Farmers Union, have been protesting against the industrial alcohol distillery for many months, saying it would deplete groundwater in the region.
The protests gained momentum after a public hearing, organised by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB), in April, turned violent. Two villagers were allegedly attacked with aruvas (sickles), by the minister's supporters; more than 25 people were remanded by the police following clashes between villagers and people allegedly working for the factory owners. The People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) said the lathi-charge on the villagers by the district police force, under the supervision of Thanjavur district superintendent of police, was unwarranted. The PUCL recommended a fresh public hearing that is unbiased and fair.
King’s Chemicals and Distillery’s Limited started operating in 1991. It was producing industrial alcohol used in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. “It became defunct in 1995,” said T Kumaran, a resident of the village. “We do not care what he (the former minister) does with the land as long as he does not set up the factory which will pollute our region and use up all of the available water,” he added.
When contacted, Rajakumar said his company was not responsible for the violence. “People were brought from outside for the public hearing. Those miscreants were responsible for all the violence,” he said.
Farmers in the region depend on the rainfed Kalagam, a small river flowing through the region and groundwater for irrigation. They said the factory will use upto 14 lakh litres of water per day, which would spell doom for farming in the region. “We grow paddy, corn, black gram, and tapioca. We use borewells in this region and the problem is that if we dig below 300 feet, the water becomes oily and unusable. If we have to continue our farming here, we just cannot allow this factory to become operational,” says AG Krishnamoorthy, the head of the farmers union. He added, “This factory will not only affect us but more than 12 nearby villages, including, Thalikottai, the native village of Baalu, a few kilometres from here.” Vadaseri has a population of 6,000 and the average population of other villages varies between 3,000 and 4,000. Water below a depth of 300 feet in lower Thanjavore region has a sulphur band and water extracted from lower levels cannot be used for agricultural purposes, a villager practising organic farming said.
King’s Chemicals was accused of polluting the neighbourhood when it was operational. P Rajendran, a villager who had filed a petition against the company almost 15 years ago has a bitter experience to narrate. “My land was right next to the company. When they dumped their effluents, all of it flowed into my land, completely destroying my yield. I received no help to fight the company. I was forced to sell my land earlier this year to the company itself, since I had to arrange for my daughter’s wedding,” Rajendran said.
Asked what action it proposed, Assistant Environmental Engineer, TNPCB, M Poongodi said the MoEF that has to take action as per court directions. A distillery official said the company would adopt pollution mitigation measures like a zero water discharge unit and famers would not be affected. “The solid waste we generate would be given away to farmers as manure,” he said.
R Selvam, a former employee of King’s chemicals and who is now part of the famer’s union said, “We are not advocates of violence, but when it is a question of survival and of life and death, there is no choice but to do whatever it takes to protect our land and water.”
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