20080229

Mired In Faith

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

KA SHAJI
Guruvayur






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”.

Revisions & Divisions

CPM's Kerala conclave


The Kerala CPM’s state conference becomes a battleground for the ‘modernising’ state secretary and the ‘orthodox’ CM, with muck flying everywhere. KA SHAJI reports



IN NORMAL times, the state conference of a party passes off unnoticed in national politics. But when the Kerala CPM meets once in three years, it’s the biggest political event in God’s Own Country, second only to the general elections. This time it was even bigger, with Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan and state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan locked in factional battles, and the budget session of the Assembly was suspended to devote energies exclusively to the great brainstorming event.
To ensure that the media doesn’t get a whiff of the workings of the Marxist mind, specially trained red volunteers and mobile phone jammers were put in place to shield the 561 delegates, who included the majority of the state cabinet. More so since the venue for the fourday session was Kottayam, a Christian citadel where traditionally anti-Communist sentiment runs high.
Unlike similar party events, the conference was held under the Politburo’s close surveillance to prevent the warring factions led by Achuthanandan and Vijayan from having a go at each other. General Secretary Prakash Karat and senior leaders Sitaram Yechuri, S. Ramachandran Pillai and R. Umanath had to intervene several times during the deliberations when the whole exercise threatened to turn into mudslinging. At the end of the conference, Karat expressed confidence that there would be no more divisions in the state unit and the party leadership has somehow put an end to all kinds of factionalism. He also said he hoped that the new-found unity would help the Left win the majority of the state’s seats in the Lok Sabha election next year.
Kerala has 20 Lok Sabha seats and in the last election the Left won 18 of them. Though the Left comes to power every alternate five years in Kerala, it was only the last time that it secured a clear edge in the Lok Sabha election. But political observers say it would be too difficult for the CPM and its partners to retain even half their seats. “Contrary to what Karat claims, factionalism is very much alive in the CPM state unit. There is strong discontent among the rank and file about the way Achuthanandan was treated at the conference. The CPM’s double standards on crucial issues like SEZs and FDI have also created confusion among the cadre,’’ said P. Surendran, writer and political commentator.
SCENES AT the rally-cum-public meeting that marked the conclusion of the conference were also indicative of what lies ahead for the Kerala CPM. A section of party workers threw empty bottles in the air and shouted slogans and abuses as soon as Achuthanandan started his address. The slogans were in support of Achuthanandan and the abuses were targeted at Pinarayi’s men.
The reception accorded to Achuthanandan by the workers made Pinarayi furious, and he immediately asked the red volunteers to disperse them. According to him, those shouting the slogans were drunkards. “The liquor down your tummy should not come out and this is no place to show your Dutch courage,’’ was his instant reaction through the loudspeaker. He also ended the public meeting half way, citing the rain. The sloganeers were soon roughed up by the red volunteers by the rods used for putting up party flags. It was the first time a CPM state conference had ended in such ignominy.
Talking to TEHELKA, organising committee chairman and LDF convener Vaikkom Vishwan termed the slogan shouters as hooligans having no links with the party. The district leadership has already started an investigation to identify the men in question using video footage.
Supporters of Achuthanandan are unhappy about the way the leadership tried to threaten the CM’s supporters. Even at the meeting, there was no discussion on charges of corruption and misuse of power by the party’s own ministers, many of whom belong to the Vijayan camp. There was also no mention of the threat posed by the burgeoning land mafia, nor any proposal to explore avenues of cooperation with social movements and public spirited individuals engaged in agitation for land, water and environmental rights of the poor. The Pinarayi faction lamented that it was impossible to face the next election as long as Achuthanandan was in power. In the same vein, the CM replied that it was impossible for him to carry on if this was what the party thought of him.
In the meantime, the relationship between the CPM and its coalition partners is growing strained by each passing day. CPI state secretary Veliyam Bhargavan recently said that the only difference he finds between the two Communist parties is the alphabet ‘M’ and “if we could remove or blend the M between us, there is only one Communist party in Kerala.” The comment invited open ridicule from Pinarayi. CPI ministers had clashed with their CPM counterparts at the last cabinet meeting over the way the CPM wanted to protect its industry minister Elamarom Kareem from an allegation of corruption. Senior CPI leaders like CK Chandrappan have begun to openly ridicule Pinarayi and his followers. Other partners like the Kerala Congress (J), Janata Dal and RSP also remain unhappy due to the high handedness of Pinarayi.
After the conference, Achuthanandan has been trying to project an optimistic mood but has failed to come across as convincing. “Regional issues such as formation of regional committees are being examined by the Politburo” he said after a cabinet meeting. “But being thinking Communists, new thoughts and ideas are bound to crop up. We will react to them as and when they happen,” he said.