Environment

Kerala Residents Up in Arms, Accuse Naval Academy of Causing ‘Environmental Disaster’

The people of Ramanthali in Kannur are protesting against a ‘harmful’ and ‘unscientific’ sewage treatment plant built by the Indian Naval Academy near their homes.

The residents of the village holding a meeting. Credit: Special arrangement

Kannur: “It was because of patriotism and hope for the development of the region, the residents of Ramanthali gave their houses, lands and fertile agricultural lands to the government for cheap prices in 1983 to establish Asia’s largest naval training centre. The residents had then expected that there would be development in Ramanthali and surrounding areas and that job opportunities being created for the local population when the naval academy once begins to function. But, it should now be examined how much the authorities succeeded in fulfilling the expectations of the public.” So reads a two-page resolution that a “special gramsabha” of the Ramanthali panchayat convened in March has passed.

The resolution demanded the Indian Naval Academy (INA) Ezhimala, located in the panchayat, shift its controversial sewage treatment plant (STP) from its current location, which is in a residential area. Local residents are now in the second month of a protest to protect their “water, air and soil” from the controversial plant run by the defence settlement, which is spread across 2,500 acres in their panchayat.

Many open wells in the locality have recently been found to be polluted, making the water in them useless – allegedly due to the STP, which has no mandatory legal permission to operate.

The residents and local officials also say that the plant vomits further pollutes their air too.

The people of Ramanthali, a calm, green village 35 km north of Kannur town in Kerala, believe that the struggle they are waging against the waste plant that the INA built close to their homes is for their right to live, as well as for the environment.

The residents formed a joint action council, Jana Arogya Samrakshana Samithi (People’s Health Protection Council), earlier this year and started an indefinite protest.

For more than a month now, the people’s council has been holding a relay hunger-strike at a permanent protest venue erected near an entrance gate of the naval academy. At one stage, protestors were arrested by the police for blocking the road as part of the protest.

Expert committee moots compromise

After receiving complaints from the residents, the Kerala state government appointed an expert committee in order to study the issue earlier this year.

The committee, headed by space scientist Dr. M. C. Dathan, who is also scientific advisor to chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, submitted its report on April 29.

Speaking to The Wire over phone, Dathan said the INA has agreed to completely implement the recommendations of his panel – including close examination of various repositories of the STP and empowering the plant with water resistant plaster and epoxy coating – within six months.

He also said that a three-member monitoring committee, consisting of representatives of the Kerala State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB), the INA and the Ramanthali panchayat, will consistently monitor the implementation of the recommendations.

As a beginning, an authorised consultant will submit a proposal to the INA on how the expert committee’s recommendations can be implemented, Dathan said.

The panel finalised its proposal after consulting with the INA.

Saying that the STP was constructed years ago using the technology available then, Dathan said that “improvement is possible” in its functioning.

While admitting that his team has found the presence of dangerous coliform bacteria in the water samples collected from many open wells near the plant, he said the same bacteria was present in the samples collected from other wells located in the places far from the STP. “There are several reasons that coliform bacteria is present in ground water… And we don’t have any convincing, scientific reason to believe the STP is the reason behind the bacteria present in the ground water close to the plant,” he said.

He said the panel relied on the help of three state level agencies, including the Pollution Control Board, to determine the water contamination.

Dathan said his committee briefed the panchayat authorities about its findings and recommendations during a meeting which was also attended by the local MLA. But he acknowledged that he could not answer some questions the panchayat authorities posed, including the violations of rules the INA allegedly committed while constructing and operating the STP.

Dathan added that his committee has asked the INA to further purify the water treated in the plant before the same is used for irrigation and gardening.

The “terms of reference” of the expert committee included conducting a “comprehensive examination” of the STP, recommending “solutions and suggestions” including whether a new STP is found necessary, studying the “groundwater quality in the Ramanthali panchayat, in zones close to, and far removed from the INA premises, in order to determine the extent and nature of groundwater contamination”. And also determining whether the ground water contamination levels around the INA “significantly deviate” from the levels found in the water in other places.

The chairman of the State Pollution Control Board, academics from IIT Chennai and NIT Warangal, as well as an expert nominated by INA were also members of the expert panel.

‘EC report is a trap to weaken the protests’

However, the people’s action council termed the latest report by the expert committee a ‘trap’ to weaken the ongoing protest of the residents.

Kunhikrishnan, the council’s chairman, said the residents’ grievance was ignored by the government panel.

Responding to the expert committee’s stand that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to say that the STP is the source of the contamination of the open wells in the area, Kunhikrishnan asked why then there was no similar pollution reported earlier.

“Our toilets have been here for decades. But the plant was built only some years ago. And, it was after the construction of the plant, only recently, that we have begun noticing the contamination issues in our wells. Does this mean that our toilets are creating trouble?” asked Kunhikrishnan.

Kunhikrishnan said the government-appointed committee drafted its report without ever consulting with any representative of the action council.

However, he said he is hopeful that Rajya Sabha members Richard Hay and Suresh Gopi – who visited the protest venue separately and talked with residents – will do something to solve the issue. Kunhikrishnan said both the MPs showed empathy for the residents, and that he is hopeful for a pro-residents intervention from the parliamentarians. He maintained that the people’s action council has members with different political leanings, saying “we voted for different symbols. But we are united for this common cause”.

“We have two important points to raise: one, the academy has built and been operating the STP without the requisite permission from the (state) Pollution Control Board; two, the plant that is capable of processing hundreds of millions of litres of liquid waste is built very close to residential wells. The closest well is just 12 metres away from the STP,” the action council leader said.

He said the residents have no option but to continue to protest until the academy is ready to shut down the plant.

“The issue will get serious during the monsoon. Are the authorities leading us, powerless villagers, to become the victims of another endosulfan?” Kunhikrishnan asked, referring to the infamous pesticide that caused disastrous effects in Kasargode, a town just 70 kilometres away from Ramanthali.

He said the residents are afraid for future generations. “We are afraid that if this plant continues to operate, our children’s lives will be affected. They can’t live here. We completely cooperated with the academy ever since its beginning. But is this what we deserve in return from them?” he asked.

“We will continue our protest. We are unable to end this movement until this plant is shut down and moved from here. Otherwise, we may even have to commit suicide,” Kunhikrishnan said. “This plant should be shifted to somewhere else inside the academy”.

He said the INA is “polluting our air, water and soil.” “The expert committee report is to mislead us. We will fight until we get justice,” he added.

Nalanda Complex at the Indian Naval Academy Ezhimala. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

‘INA had no privilege to pollute the environment, to cause environmental disaster’

Meanwhile, the joint action council has won some support from the National Green Tribunal (NGT), which has issued an order criticising the STP.

“The Ezhimala Naval Acaemy had no privilege to pollute the environment and cause environmental disaster on the neighbouring villagers,” said the tribunal in its order dated April 27.

In the order, the zonal bench of the NGT in Chennai has directed both the ‘Flag Officer, Commanding in Chief’ of the Southern Naval Command in Kochi and the ‘Commanding Officer’ of Ezhimala INA to show cause “why an order shall not be passed to stop the operation of the STP”.

The NGT intervened in the issue after a complaint was filed by the chairman of the residents’ action council. The INA has now been asked to respond within ten days. The tribunal will now consider the matter on May 12.

The NGT order also reads: “The materials produced show that the Ezhimala Naval Academy … is having a Sewage Treatment Plant (STP) and it is being operated without the requisite consent to establish or … to operate under the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 and Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981”.

The order noted that the Kerala State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) had sent a notice to INA in August 2013 pointing out many of the plant’s defects and demanding the academy cure those defects and take the mandatory permission to continue to operate the STP – and the INA had replied in October the same year, promising to take consent to operate the plant. However, the NGT noted, the defence facility continued to violate the rules by operating the plant without the requisite permission. The tribunal observed this citing another notice sent by the KSPCB on February 22, 2017.

The latest notice, according to the tribunal, has established that “though the STP is being operated, there is no order of consent to operate”. The same notice has also directed the academy to show cause as to why the KSPCB shall not proceed against it for violating various laws. The notice asked the naval academy to file a reply within 15 days.

However, at least until March 1, the STP has continued to operate illegally, the NGT order notes. The order further described the condition of the STP as “precarious”.

The NGT has now asked the KSPCB to explain “what action [has been] taken pursuant to the notice” which was issued on February 22. It also asked the pollution board why the controversial plant continues to be allowed to operate as it has no mandatory permission under various laws to do so.

Asked for its response, the INA told The Wire that it will release a press release in due time regarding both the recent expert committee report and the NGT order.

Growing discontent

The discontent and concern among the residents were very visible when The Wire visited the panchayat on April 22.

P. Rajendran, convener of the people’s action council and a resident, said around 300 families have so far been directly affected by the ‘unscientific’ STP. “Wells of around 300 families have been affected by this plant,” he said.

Rajendran, whose well is among the ones the STP has apparently polluted, said that the defence settlement is not ready to empathise with the feelings and concerns of the local population. “The naval academy’s attitude is that their plant creates no trouble for the locals,” he said.

According to some residents, the decade-old STP has started to disturb their lives as the number of personnel in the academy has significantly increased in recent years.

The residents’ worries became stronger following official confirmation that the ground water in the area is contaminated with coliform bacteria. Official examinations – that of the Pollution Control Board, the Kerala Water Authority and the Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (CWRDM), an autonomous research institute run by the state government – have found that some of the open wells in the area have 1,100 MPN (most probable number) coliforms in every 100 ml of water. This has been confirmed in the study conducted by the expert committee as well.

Ideally, there should be no such bacteria in a sample of 100 ml water. The ‘Indian Standard: Drinking Water – Specification’ an important guideline adopted by Bureau of Indian Standards, specifies this. It says there should be no E. coli or ‘thermo tolerant’ coliform bacteria in any 100 ml sample of water intended for drinking.

The guideline further states that “immediate investigative action shall be taken if either E. coli or total coliform bacteria are detected.” “The minimum action in the case of total coliform bacteria is repeat sampling; if these bacteria are detected in the repeat sample, the cause shall be determined by immediate further investigation.”

The presence of E. coli in water is reportedly a strong indication of recent sewage or contamination by human or animal waste.

At Ramanthali, out of 22 open wells officially tested, it has been found that 18 have been polluted, said Chandran Kodakkal, a resident who is actively participating in the protest.

Ramanthali panchayat president M.V. Govindan. Credit: Muhammed Sabith

V. Govindan, president of the Ramanthali panchayat, speaking to The Wire on April 22, said that the number of wells – or, the amount of ground water – that the STP could spoil could be even higher because of the geographical characteristics of his panchayat.

“Ramanthali should have been a tourist place. But we welcomed the naval academy (years ago). There were many expectations, like on jobs, among the locals, even though around 600 families were displaced for the academy. But, what we finally got is a big zero. We lost many things. Our lives changed. Now we are losing our water and environment too,” Kodakkal said.

“The water in our well was pure. But now we don’t use it. We now depend on the water the authorities provide us,” said K.P. Janaki Amma, a Ramanthali resident whose well has been officially confirmed as polluted with coliform bacteria.

She said that her neighbours were the first to notice the contamination of their wells, and initially did not know the reason behind it. Janaki Amma, a mother of four, also said that the families in the area are suffering from a “terribly foul” smell that the STP emits, especially at night.

“We have become hopeless,” she said. “We first sacrificed our home and two acres of land for the naval academy for its establishment. It was a big sacrifice. Now we are suffering again. Our water and air are polluted. They (the INA) don’t care.”

Expressing his helplessness, the panchayat president said the issue has become the source of “permanent dejection” for his people. “People get scared while they see their water level increase during summer. We asked the naval academy to shift their plant from its current location. We continue to demand this. There are more suitable places within the naval camp for the plant. For example, there are acres of land on its western side close to the sea and river, where no one resides. Why can’t the STP be moved to there? But to whom we should tell this? They (the INA) do not consider this as a serious issue. They act as they wish,” he added.

Echoing Janaki Amma, Govindan also said that the people of Ramanthali have already sacrificed a lot for the establishment of the naval academy. “We have given them 2,600 acres of our land, including the most fertile paddy fields where farmers used to reap thrice a year,” he said. “The government’s compensation for the locals was far from adequate.”