Save Kochi: We Need to Protect the Periyar So That Kochi Can Get Clean Drinking Water

Save Kochi Campaign has been initiated by The Kochi Post to highlight the deploring situation of the Periyar river and its impact on the drinking water system in Kochi. We will be running a series of articles under the campaign, along with other awareness events.

The Kochi Circuit Bench of the National Green Tribunal, comprising judicial member Justice M.S. Nambiar and expert member Prof. A.R. Yousuf, on Friday came down heavily on the Kerala State Pollution Control Board for its easy going attitude in the matter of pollution of the Periyar. The Tribunal observed that, “Nobody can dispute the precarious position of the river Periyar for the last several years, as a consequence of the lethargic attitude of the Kerala State Pollution Control Board as well as the utter violation to the pollution control measures by the industries situated on the banks of the river Periyar.”

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Office of the Kochi Circuit Bench of the National Green Tribunal

The Tribunal added, “Some drastic action is to be taken to restore the river to its pristine form. We feel that it is necessary in the interest of justice to direct a team headed by a senior officer of the Central Pollution Control Board and senior officers of the Kerala State Pollution Control Board to inspect all the industries situated on the banks of river Periyar, the quantum of sewage and the effluents generated as well as the efficacy of the effluent treatment plants and also whether the effluents being discharged into the river are within the prescribed parameter and to submit this report on or before 29/09/2016.”

These observations were made while hearing a petition filed by K.K. Muhammed Iqbal, through advocate Ashkar K., for removing plastic garbage heaped on open land beside the Periyar by Sree Shakti Paper Mills. The petition also seeks to assess the total effluents discharged by the paper mill during its operation for the last five years and make them pay fine at the rate of 10 paisa per litre of discharge to the Periyar River Protection Fund.

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Order of the SDM asking Sree Shakti Paper Mills to Stop Operations

On June 10, the Sub Divisional Magistrate (SDM) – Fort Kochi, R. Suhas (IAS), ordered that the operations of Sree Shakti Paper Mills be stopped. The SDM noted, in his order, that it appears to him that the effluents and waste from Sree Shakti Paper Mills were causing danger, health pollution, air pollution and nuisance to the life and property of the petitioner, as well as people residing in the nearby areas.

Poor quality of water

Prior to this order of the SDM, the Kerala State Pollution Control Board had also issued closure order to Sree Shakti Paper Mills on May 24. The Board, in its order, has noted that it found the quality of river water in and around the paper mills to be of very inferior quality. The Board also noted that the huge quantity of untreated effluents discharged into the river has resulted in fish kill.

Sree Shakti Paper Mills filed a writ petition against this order before the High Court of Kerala and the Court directed the Kerala State Pollution Control Board to ascertain the situation in terms of water consumption, effluent generation and discharge from the unit. After the examination by the Environmental Engineer of the Board, it was revealed that there was no significant improvement in terms of pollution control measures.

The High Court refused to interfere with the closure order of the Kerala State Pollution Control Board and directed the paper mills to approach the National Green Tribunal on the matter as all matters in which the Tribunal has jurisdiction, should be referred to it. It was granted two weeks to approach the Tribunal. However, till date Sree Shakti Paper Mills has not approached the Tribunal and sources indicate that the industry will be shut down permanently.

The case of Sree Shakti Paper Mills is not an isolated one. The situation is the same with almost every industry situated on the banks of the Periyar, as rightly pointed out by the National Green Tribunal. Throughout the past several years, these industries have been discharging effluents into the river, resulting in severe pollution as well as fish kill.

Effluents discharged in pumping area

It is from the Periyar that drinking water is supplied to the whole of Kochi city and nearby areas. What is more shocking is that most of the effluents are discharged into the pumping area of the Kochi’s water supply mechanism. The public assumes that the polluted water is chemically treated by the Kerala Water Authority and is safe for consumption. However, experts who have worked on the issue told The Kochi Post that this is a myth and such highly polluted water cannot be treated and made clean water.

S.N. Sadasivan, an expert on public administration, had noted in 2003 in his book ‘River Disputes in India: Kerala Rivers Under Siege’,  that “Periyar is dying a slow death on account of man’s unremitting rapacity”.

Dr. Sadasivan further adds, “Industrial and domestic effluents and other toxic discharges contaminate the waters of the river. Major industries situated close to the course of the river, discharge into it as much as 260 million litres of effluents containing sulphides, fluorides, mercury, chromium, ammoniacal nitrogen, phosphates, copper, zinc and even radioactive waste. Of the industries of the State, 25 per cent are concentrated on the Periyar river basin.”

Sand mining and fish kill was also then noted by Dr. Sadasivan in his book, which was published 13 years ago. He says, “Unauthorised sand mining uninterruptedly going on, deepens the river bed and makes it uneven to absorb more water. Almost half-a-lakh of workers are engaged in sand mining, who on an average remove 43,000 tons of sand per day. It is estimated that in 1995 alone, no less than 10.5 million tons of sand was taken out of the river bed. Death of fish is common in the river Periyar and in the Cochin industrial belt extending from Eloor to Kadamakudi, sometime back, fishes in their thousands died on account of the toxic industrial effluents pumped out into the river and the unsuspecting but ignorant people who collected them for their food, paid dearly in terms of their health and life.”

The situation in Periyar has been no different from that in 2003 as described by Dr. Sadasivan or perhaps it is even worse. The prime agency responsible for the deplorable situation is the Kerala State Pollution Control Board. From 2006, more than a dozen of show cause notices under section 33A in The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 were issued to Sree Shakti Paper Mills for violating pollution control norms.

The apathy of the State’s top body to control pollution is disgraceful. The lack of genuine concern from the Board is shocking as lakhs of people consume the water that is drawn from the Periyar. There are studies that recognise that the main economic burden associated with water pollution is the effect of pollution on health. Various health conditions like cancer have been linked to the consumption of polluted water. Also, it will be only reasonable if a person doubts the real intention of issuing these show cause notices by the Board. In such a scenario, the Board would do well to step up and ensure that these errant industries are taken to task.

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Advocate Ashkar

The Kochi Post would like to thank Adv. Ashkar K. for providing the information and documents that made this story possible and also for his honest pro bono efforts in supporting the cause of the Periyar.

Main photograph by Challiyan, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikipedia Commons. 

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