Critically polluted: Kolak fisherfolk in distress as chemicals from Vapi industries destroy river catch

Villagers fear CETP pipeline planned through River Kolak will kill more fish; to approach district administration

By Seema Prasad
Published: Thursday 25 May 2023
Fisherfolk sorting prawns caught from River Kolak. Photo: Seema Prasad

Kolak village on the bank of River Kolak in Gujarat’s Valsad district is home to 4,646 people, most of whom rely on fishing for their livelihood.

Every 15 days, approximately after 9 pm when the tide is high on the river, the villagers notice a red or yellow trail pouring in. During this time, the fish, prawns and lobsters from the river wash ashore dead. 

The fishers told Down To Earth that the phenomenon reduces the catch required by them to earn a decent living. 

“Eight to 10 years ago, this was almost a daily occurrence. However, this continues to date on a fortnightly basis,” said Jitendra, a resident of the village.

Fish catch from the river has halved in the last 25-30 years, according to Raksha, a local fisher.

“At present during high tide, I manage to catch 10-50 kgs of a variety of seafood, such as crabs, prawns and bombil, depending on my luck. Around 25 years ago, the volume would be double,” explained Raksha. 

She attributed the change in her fortune to the chemical effluents dispersed in River Kolak through the sewage network.

The villagers suspected the coloured water is released into the river by the textile industries upstream. When the villagers inquired, representatives of industries they spoke to shifted the blame to the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC) region located in the Vapi Industrial Area some 16 kilometers away.

Bill Khadi is a natural drain that passes through the GIDC industrial estate and meets River Kolak near National Highway 8 between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. 

Bill Khadi, while passing through the GIDC area, receives wastewater, both domestic and industrial, due to illegal discharges or overflow of the GIDC drainage system, according to a report submitted to the National Green Tribunal in 2019.

“Due to the abundance of fish available in the past, we could make do with low prices. Now,  with inflation coupled with fish population decline, the price of Rs 400 per / kg makes it difficult to make ends meet," she added.

Raksha said she can’t even afford to venture out further to avoid the chemical effluents that reach her village. “In order to avail of the subsidy for diesel to run a boat, I have to go 10 km inside the River Kolak near Kosamba village in Surat, which defeats the purpose of the subsidy due to the long journey that finishes up the free diesel,” Raksha explains.

Raksha on the bank of River Kolak. Photo: Seema Prasad 

The local villagers, who witness the dead, chemical-infused fish washing ashore regularly, refuse to consume them, said Bhavin Ashok, a fisher in Kolak village. So, some fishermen now travel half an hour to sell it at a market for a meager price of Rs 150, he added.

High cancer caseload

Cancer prevalence is very high in the village due to the consumption of fish laced with chemicals, according to the deputy sarpanch of Kolak village, Aziz Nizamuddin. “As a result, you can say that almost one person in every household has had cancer in the past, but they don’t openly admit to it in public to increase their marital prospects.” 

Cancer in the mouth, skin, blood and spine are common in the village, said Nizamuddin. However, the rate has gone down over the years because of the reduced frequency of discharge, he added. 

He added that the smell of chemicals is evident during cooking. 

New bone of contention

In 2017, the NGT directed a 4.5 km downstream line from the existing discharge location of Vapi’s Common Effluent Treatment Plant in the Daman Ganga estuary. 

The Collector of Daman, fearing this would affect aquatic life and water quality near Daman district close to the Arabian sea, appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court directed NGT to hear the collector. The issue was clubbed with several ongoing cases on the Vapi CETP filed by Aryavart Foundation in 2019. They remain to be heard.

In the meanwhile, the Gujarat government is planning to build a pipeline that diverts the treated / partially treated effluents into the Arabian Sea within Gujarat, passing through Kolak river and village.

Last year, a provision was made in the state budget by Finance Minister Kanubhai Desai to construct this disposal pipeline with an allocation of Rs 480 crore. This was meant not just for Vapi’s CETP but also other industrial clusters such as Sarigam and Ankleswar.

The Kolak Gram Panchayat and the villagers fear that the new pipeline will increase the toxicity of the water and more chemicals will be absorbed by the fish, said Raksha. 

In protest, the Panchayat has drafted a letter they soon plan to submit to the district collector in Valsad, Gujarat.

This article is part of the June 1-15, 2023 issue of Down To Earth magazine.

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