Monday, March 9, 2009

Environmental campaigns to the fore as poll approaches


ALL over Kerala, agitations have been on for years to assert the people's right to clean air and clean water. By and large, the authorities' response to their struggles has been unsympathetic.

With the Lok Sabha elections approaching, the long-suffering people are planning new campaigns to draw the attention of the political parties to their plight.

The Theeradesa Paristhiti Samrakshana Samiti (Coastal environmental protection committee) of Pallithura, near Thiruvananthapuram, held a convention on Saturday as part of the plan to step up their agitation for closure of a clay factory, which has been polluting their neighbourhood.

Many residents of Pallithura are fisher folks who had moved there from Thumba after making way for the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre. They have been up in arms against the clay factory from the time it was set up. They allege that the factory obtained clearance from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests by making false representations. They also claim that it started operations even before it received consent from the state pollution control board.

According to the Samiti, about 30,000 people live within a distance of two kilometres from the factory. It says hundreds of people had to be taken to hospitals after breathing obnoxious gases emitted by the factory when it began trial run. The police registered a case against the Samiti leaders and other villagers after an agitated mob reportedly stormed the factory premises. Later, there was an explosion in the factory, resulting in two deaths. While the factory management said it suspected sabotage, the Samiti attributed the explosion to lapses on the part of the management.

On a petition by the Samiti, the High Court directed the district collector to inspect the factory along with the complainants to ascertain if the management was abiding by the conditions stipulated by the ministry of environment.

The inspection turned into a unilateral affair as the district administration denied the Samiti permission to take with it an expert to guide it on technical matters. The management said later the inspection team had found everything was in order.
In the adjoining district of Kollam, the Paristhiti Samrakshana Ekopana Samiti (Environment protection co-ordination committee) has been agitating for nearly five years demanding an end to clay mining at Velichakala.

According to the Ekopana Samiti, mining was done up to a depth of more than 30 metres. This led to a drop in ground water level, causing acute water scarcity. Chemicals used by the company which was engaged in mining polluted the Palliman river and the nearby canals.

Following protests by the people of Velichakala, the company suspended operations at one stage. At a meeting convened by the district collector, it was decided to allow it to resume mining, subject to conditions stipulated by the state pollution control board and the mining and geology department.

The Ekopana Samiti is agitating also on other issues like protection of the Sasthamkotta Lake, ban on sand mining in west Kallada and declaration of Maruthumala as a wild life conservation centre.

The agitation by residents of Plachimada in Palakkad district against the multinational Coca Cola, which is said to be the longest popular struggle in the state's history, will enter the eighth year next month.

The Coca Cola plant at Plachimada was set up in1999. On April 22, 2002, villagers, led by Mylamma, an Adivasi woman, took up cudgels against the soft drinks giant, alleging it had depleted and polluted their water sources.

Mylamma is no more, but the agitation she launched continues.
The plant is not operating at present. The villagers have vowed to continue the struggle until the company pulls out altogether.

Plachimada has cast a shadow over former United Nations under secretary Shashi Tharoor, who is reportedly seeking the Congress ticket to contest for the Lok Sabha from Palakkad.

Last month, Velur Swaminathan, secretary, Plachimada Adivasi Samrakshana Sangham (Tribal protection council) and R. Ajayan, convener, Plachimada Samara Aikyadardya Samiti (Agitation solidarity committee), in an open letter, took exception to Tharoor's association with the Coca Cola company. In an open response to the letter, Tharoor said he was associated not with the Coca Cola company but with a philanthropic foundation set up by it. He also took the opportunity to put across the company's response to the agitators' demands.

This provoked S. Faizi, who has been expert member of the Kerala Groundwater Authority, to join the debate. He said Tharoor's contention that the company had done nothing wrong was not correct. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, March 9, 2009

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