A River Reborn

Life along the Chaliyar shores

Nine years after Gwalior Rayons was forced to close down in Mavoor, KA SHAJI tracks the Chaliyar’s crystal clear waters

CHALIYAR, KERALA’S fourth longest river, on which five lakh people living in Mallapuram and Kozikkode districts depend, has been revived. Subjected to pollution over a hundred years, the Chaliyar bore the brunt of Aditya Birla Group-owned Gwalior Rayons’ effluent discharges of pulp and fibre. As one study put it, the water had turned “a thick viscous brown soup”. Today, nine years after the factory was closed down following the public outcry, the water is clear as the 169-km river flows westward through the terrains of Mavoor and Vazhakkad.
Time was when people living on both sides of the river had fallen victims of cancer and respiratory ailments. The swell in the catch from the river is a clear indication of the recovery from a 40-year spell of choking under toxics. Locals and environmentalists say they do not remember any instances of mass fish mortality in recent years though it was common till the winding up of the factory.
In 1958, when the world’s first democratically elected communist government was voted in, Chief Minister EMS Namboodiripad was keen to make a political statement given the perception that communists would more likely shut down factories through strikes and were not capable of introducing industrial progress. So an agreement was signed with one the biggest industrial houses of the time in 1958, and by 1963 Gwalior Rayons Silk Ltd became functional.
It was then the biggest private venture in the state, igniting hopes and stoking dreams of jobs and development for the locals. Various kinds of sops were offered to the factory. The first casualty of it was the Chaliyar. The company was given a free hand to take maximum water from the river for industrial use and to empty the wastes into the same river. The people of Mavoor had to give away 200 acres of land to the company at Re 1 per cent (Rs 100 per acre).
Protests against the factory began as early as 1965 with the formation of the Chaliyar Defence Committee. By then, there were reports of cattle dying after drinking the toxic river water. But it was only in May 1999 that the factory finally suspended production after it was found that the effluents contained harmful chemicals above the permissible level. Though the closure of the factory had rendered about 2,000 workers jobless, today they are happy that they have regained their access to the river. Fishing has now become a profitable business; cattle population is increasing; the health expenditure of the locals is witnessing a drastic fall and people can swim and bathe freely in the river.
“It is not just that several of our favourite fish varieties are back, they even taste better,” says Babu Varghese, one of the leaders of the agitation against the pulp factory. Varghese was among the few who started the Save Chaliyar Campaign, a public movement that fought for the closure of the factory. Leaders of the campaign are now happy as some of the locals — who had then dissociated themselves in the name of industrialisation and job opportunities — have started experiencing the benefits of a toxic-free life.
What was also destroyed with the advent of the factory was the forest wealth of Wayanad. Before the rayon factory, the rubber plantation of the Vaniyamkulam Rubber Company in 1902 and deforestation for plantation crops like tea and coffee by the British since 1910 had taken their toll on the local ecology. The rayon factory made things worse. Between 1963 and 1974, bamboo and other forest wood was given by the state government to the factory at a subsidised rate of Rs 1 per tonne. Power was given to the company at 40 paise per unit and no charge was levied on the water taken from the river. It is estimated that the subsidies alone were worth Rs 3,000 crore.
“The factory that consumed about 90 percent of the bamboo wealth of Wayanad by paying a nominal price to the government and throwing its fragile ecology out of gear had caused illnesses ranging from respiratory diseases to skin rashes and cancer to the people living close to the river,” says C. Surendranath, a journalist who risked his profession to lead the campaign. “There was not enough fresh air to breath. Diseases devoured their victims at a frightening pace. Malformed babies, failing vision, retardation of mental faculties were common,” recalls Abdurahman, who operates a country boat linking Mavoor and Vazhakkad.
THE CHALIYAR struggle was unique in many respects. It won ultimately against an industrial giant that was least concerned about human beings and environment. It had ultimately given rebirth to a dying river,” says environmentalist Sugathakumari. Interestingly, mainstream political parties including the CPM, the Congress and the BJP, along with their trade unions, had tried to weaken the protests and support the Birlas.
KA Rehman, president of Vazhayoor panchayat, was the rallying point of the agitators. Working relentlessly, Rehman finally succumbed in January 1999 to cancer he had contracted by the emissions from the factory. An indefinite relay fast was launched and Grasim halted production in May 1999; the industry was formally closed in 2001.
There was an immediate drop in bronchial diseases among children within two years of the factory’s closure, says PK Dinesh, a local physician. Though the area is now free from the pungent smell of sulphides, victims of Grasim still haven’t received any compensation. “Everybody is happy with the closure of the factory but no one is asking the industry to compensate,” says Surendranath. That might require another struggle.

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