God's Own Sewage
Kerala’s Guruvayur temple remains a symbol of ‘purity’ for millions of devotees. But it’s polluting the entire region by not treating its sewage
IT WASN’T long ago that priests at Kerala’s famed Krishna temple in Guruvayur conducted a punyaham — a cleansing ritual by water —following the entry of Mercy Ravi,wife of Union Minister for NRI Affairs Vayalar Ravi, who happened to be born a Christian. The sighting of the deity by a non-Hindu had polluted Krishna and only several baths could rid the taint, goes the belief. But now comes a shocker. A test conducted by the Environmental Engineering Laboratory of Thrissur’s Government Engineering College has shown that the water used in the temple, including for the cleansing rituals, itself swarms with human excreta and all kinds of organic waste.
The water in the temple tank was found to have an MPN count (most probable number) of coliforms — bacteria found in human excreta —of 1,100/100 ml. The Central Pollution Control Board’s permissible MNP count for drinking water is 50 and 500 for bath water. The BOD count (bio-chemical oxygen demand), another key indicator of purity, was estimated at 22.8 mg/litre, against the permissible levels of 2 and 3 mg/litre.
The 110-odd lodges and an equal number of marriage halls run by the Guruvayur Devaswom Board as well as the restaurants in the temple town do not have a single septic tank among them to process organic waste. A trip to the backwater region of Chakkamkandam, just outside Guruvayur, is best undertaken with nostrils firmly closed. The waste generated in Guruvayur is being released into what used to be a rain-water drainage system leading to the backwaters. This is affecting about a dozen panchayats outside the Guruvayur municipal limits of over 1,500 families, most of whom are dependent on the backwaters for their livelihood, be it fishing or coir making. All this when Chakkamkandam falls within the Coastal Regulatory Zone.
Chakkamkandam resident KV Rugmini, who often visits the Guruvayur temple, says her house is so close to the drain that her children feel nauseous all the time. Puthuveetil Amina, 65, lives alone in her old house situated right in front of the drain. She says even the water in her well is not potable but she is forced to drink it because she has no access to the municipal supply. According to Manikantan, who used to sell fish from the backwaters, no one buys fish from the region anymore. The fishermen of old have also taken to other livelihoods following skin diseases caused by the contaminated water.
Human excreta can be seen floating everywhere in the Chakkamkandam backwaters. A holiday resort with about a dozen cottages was recently constructed close to the backwaters but there have been few visitors. The scale of pollution in the region is so much that even Kerala Tourism Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan refused to drink the coconut water at the resort’s inauguration.
Comically, the Guruvayur Municipal Corporation had planned to construct a sewage treatment plant way back in 1982 and that too outside the municipal limits. The initial cost estimate was Rs 44 lakh, but Rs 55 lakh have already been spent on the plant. However, all one gets to see of it is an asbestos tool shed on a part of the backwaters that has been filled for the purpose. Most coir manufacturing units around the backwaters lie closed now. Skin and intestinal diseases are common among the locals. Says lawyer-turned-environmental activist Bobby Kunhu, “The question here is how does the municipal body allow these lodges to function without a working septic tank?”
Laila Hamza, member of the local panchayat, wants the government to construct septic tanks for “each and every hotel, lodge and restaurant in Guruvayur”.