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A Fight till Death, A Fight for the Commons: The Story of Kathikudam, Kerala

AUGUST 13, 2013

 by PARVATHY BINOY, kafila.org

“There is a lot of polluted rivers and lands in India…but this is not a big issue in Kerala”, Kerala Pollution Control Board Chairman (KPCB), 2011

“We have no one with us now, neither the party in power nor its opposition, we only have the people with us” – Daisy Francis, Kadukutty Panchayat President, June 2013

The Chalakkudy River flows quietly through the hills and plains of northern Kerala, after originating in the Annamala Hills. As it wends its way to the Arabian Sea, it provides sustenance to tribal communities, as well as fishermen and women farmers who rely on its waters for livelihood and survival. But the river is not simply a commons for the common people. On its banks, stands Shobha City – a residential gated community – that has re-routed the river to produce a man-made lake that its consumers can privately enjoy everyday.  The Chalakkudy also flows through an agricultural village called , an agricultural village in the Thrissur district of God’s own country. On the banks of the river here stands the Nitta Gelatin India Limited (NGIL), which for the last 15 years has using animal bones and chemicals to produce ossein, a precursor to gelatin. While NGIL  is regarded as one of the most successful Indo-Japanese industrial ventures, many community members, along with news reports and NGO-led studies have claimed that it has also dispossessed the lives and livelihoods of many through its waste.

This circulation of waste in Kathikudam and along the Chalakkudy has produced a sea of protests and demonstrations in the last six years led by the Nitta Gelatin Action Council (NGILAC). On July 21st, 2013 many protestors and members of the NGILAC were violently attacked by police officials. The meeting at the Secretariat was organized in the event of this lathicharge in Kathikudam. Members of the NGILAC and the Kadukutty Panchayat, as well as the Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and other leaders attended the meeting.  The two-hour long meeting with officials of NGIL, Trade Union leaders, Kathikudam Panchayat leaders, and members of the NGILAC, discussed the violence. The NGILAC reiterated NGIL’s degradation the Kathikudam landscape but the politicians and the corporation provided no assurances.  The politicians, corporates, and Chairman of the Kerala Pollution Control Board (KPCB) glided effortlessly into their air conditioned cars, and drove off leaving the Panchayat President Daisy Francis and Ward member Shirley Paul seething with anger and exasperation at the failed outcome of those two hours.

This is not the first meeting between corporations, politicians and social movement collectives that has failed. This is not the first time that corporates have wielded great power in political corridors.

Nitta Gelatin is one among a small group of gelatin manufacturers that dominate the global gelatin economy. It has manufacturing and processing centers across the world including the United States and Hong Kong. In India, the company’s earlier name, Kerala Chemicals and Proteins Limited (KCPL) was renamed Nitta Gelatin India Limited (NGIL) in 2008 when its Japanese corporate partners took ownership. The product Ossein that is produced in Kathikudam, Thrissur is processed in Kakkanad, Cochin to produce gelatin for products that range from transparent capsule covers to blood, skin and bone enhancement commodities. NGIL also produces niche products in the pharmaceutical industry such as Hemaceel. This has made it an expanding Public-Private Partnership (PPP) and a great example of the larger context of corporate led industrial development in India.

NGIL employs 300 workers in its Kakkanad plant and 160 direct employees from Kathikudam. Its air-conditioned office flaunts the certification of consent that it has been granted, year after year, by the KPCB, along with other environmental certifications such as the ISO 14000, granted by the European Union. Several institutions, including the Kerala Agricultural University and the Kerala Water Authority, have also sanctioned the company’s operations. According to Shaji Mohan, the Executive Director of Ossein Operations at NGIL, “nothing is wasted during or after its production process and everything is converted to a value-added product”. The effluent waste is processed in an effluent treatment facility, which according to NGIL follows KPCB norms. The company hosts several cultural programs in the area for its employees and financially supports wage workers, trade union leaders, local schools and hospitals. Finally, the solid waste produced is sold as organic manure to farmers across South India.

As an agrarian community, Kathikudam consists of a majority of Syro-Malabar Christians with a significant populace of Hindu and Muslim cash crop cultivators, business owners and seasonal laborers. Further, a significant portion of the community is composed of small-scale peasants, wageworkers and agricultural laborers who belong to Nayar, Pulaya and Ezhava castes. In the last decade, many who rely on the soil, and on the Chalakkudy for their survival have claimed that their livelihoods have been fundamentally destroyed owing to the circulation of waste from NGIL’s operations.

Unlike the company’s claims that everything is turned into value, nature has a way of not becoming value for capitalist accumulation. The toxic waste , which is the by-product of Ossein production, does not become value. Instead it produces a toxic landscape that is disposed and allowed to circulate in the Chalakkudy, across rice fields, water canals, irrigation channels and wells. This waste that sinks into the breath and the flesh, into the rice and the soil, has profoundly shaped the everyday lives of those who live here. Crucially, many community members have claimed that their commons – land, air, water and livelihood – is continually being eroded, re-constituted and appropriated by NGIL through the waste that it has been sanctioned to produce, dispose and forget about. In the last 6 years, many have fiercely fought for their collective commons. This collective of working class women, farmers, wage-workers, community members and activists is the NGILAC.

This movement in Kathikudam led by the NGILAC has tirelessly sought to expose, interrupt and stop this geography of waste. In the last two decades they have built and fought in a protest space alongside the tall, concrete gates of the company. This samara panthil (protest space) made of dried coconut leaves, straw mats, a few cots and a blue tarp cover has been witness to countless protests, satyagrahas and blockades against waste carrying trucks. Trucks carrying waste have also been blocked across several downstream communities including Annamanada, Parakkadavu and Chengaloor. The collective has also organized countless petitions and filed legal cases in the local and the Kerala High Court since 2005.

Moreover, the Kadukutty Panchayat, that oversees Kathikudam, has not given its consent to NGIL in the last 5 years. Despite the fact that the Panchayat holds legally recognized powers in India, year after year, NGIL is given the state’s consent. This sanction is a direct violation of the Environment Protection Act and the Clean Water Act, which is meant to protect and sustain the health, livelihood and the commons of agrarian communities. According to S. Faizi, Expert member of the Plachimada High Power Committee, it also violates the Panchayat Raj Act, which gives the Panchayat the supreme constitutional right over the commons in rural India.

NGO-led studies , media reports and independent studies have also demonstrated that NGIL extracts 20 million liters of water per day, far in excess of the sanctioned limit, besides disposing massive amounts of waste into the Chalakkudy, and across prime agricultural areas, public lands and irrigation canals. This has led to the permanent degradation of more than 40% of drinking water wells in Kathikudam. These reports also claim that this waste has also caused severe health concerns including cancer, asthma and other respiratory ailments in the area. This in turn impacts millions across Panchayats, Municipalities, Water-Irrigation schemes and tribal communities along the Chalakkudy.

Many older community members in Kathikudam like Raghavan claim that the company began its operations by appropriating not only public lands, but also land that belonged to Dalit families. As a devoted Communist and long time supporter of the movement, Raghavan spoke to me about the violent hegemony of Nair landlords over Pulaya wageworkers, farmers and residents that preceded NGIL’s arrival. During its establishment, the company promised thousands of working class families’ employment, but these promises were never fulfilled. Instead, the effluents were being dumped in trenches beneath the ground in company land, which contaminated several household drinking water wells and irrigation canals.

The protests that ensued led to the expansion of waste carrying pipelines across Kathikudam. These old pipelines stretch like cold concrete fingers and cut across paddy fields, water channels, public and private lands. They have been a significant aspect of how NGIL’s presence has impacted the everyday lives and struggles of those who live here. The past decade has witnessed several pipeline bursts, leakages and massive biogas tank explosions, which has irreparably destroyed subsistence farms, livelihoods and lives.

Many women, particularly those who are working class and from underprivileged caste groups, have been the most vulnerable to, and resistant to, the pollution from NGIL’s waste. Several studies have demonstrated that women householders, farmers and wageworkers who live close to the NGIL plant, have been more severely affected not only from their livelihoods but also from their physical health. Reports from local hospitals and Panchayat officials have shown that a disproportionate number of older women have been diagnosed with cancer in their respiratory and reproductive systems.

The death of 80-year old Gouriamma in 2011, due to respiratory failure reflects this reality of gendered dispossession from waste in Kathikudam. She was a 75-year old widow who lived in close proximity to NGIL plant and participated in many of the protests against its operations. In my last interview with her, Gouriamma spoke at length of the physical and emotional sacrifices she had endured as a mother of four and as a long time resident. For many working class women such as Radhamma, Theresiamma and Sindhu Santosh, the days and nights of arrests, court cases and beatings – days spent in hunger and protest amidst rain and heat – days spent marching with children and the elderly for the efforts of the movement – they are all endless. What angers them most is the political support and environmental certification that the company continues to receive, despite their struggle, and despite the fact that this circulation of waste affects all communities and ecologies that are bound with the Chalakkudy.

This monsoon, the river swelled again, with putrid, dead bodies of fish on its banks. The air tasted of toxic waste instead of riparian dew. This time, the NGILAC organized a series of fast-unto-death protests in their ‘strike pavillion’, the samara pandal, for their commons and for justice. Many downstream communities along the Chalakkudy once again joined these protests. In Kathikudam, many women, including Panchayat ward member Shirley Paul took a lead role in satyagrahas, until they were arrested and forcibly taken by police to the local hospitals. These protests were also supported and catalyzed by youth activists, social movement collectives and elected representatives from across the political spectrum.

The samara pandal was once again filled with the desire for justice, with poetry and songs, with days and nights spent fighting for the commons, for land and water, for life and livelihood. A political conference led by the Thrissur District Collector, M.S. Jaya (which included NGIL officials, Panchayat members, the KPCB and community members) had promised that an expert committee will study pollution levels in the area and that their report will be released on July 21st. This report was expected to expose the truth of NGIL’s operations and bring justice to years of struggle and protest. In lieu of this report, the NGILAC extended the duration of its protests until the 21st. The three-week long protests brought many activists across India such as the Magsaysay Award winner, Rajinder Singh, National Alliance of Peoples’ Movements leader (NAPM), C.R. Neelakantan, poet activist and writer Sara Joseph and many others.
It was during this time, that the police brutally attacked a gathering of NGILAC members and protesters on 21st July 2013. A student leader of the activist group, Youth for Environment and Justice, Santosh, was present at this time and was badly beaten by the police. He witnessed the calculated and merciless violence with which the police attacked protestors and bystanders. Several women including Shirley Paul were first arrested and taken away in police vans. This was followed by a four hour-long brutal lathicharge that gravely injured over 50 protesters – young men, women and children. By the end of the day, the samara panthil lay in tatters, like an open, festering wound in Kathikudam. They bled from their foreheads and arms; their eyes and ears injured as they were forcibly taken to the police station or to hospitals and from their homes that were plundered and destroyed. They had stood for the last decade outside company gates and palatial government offices, asking for nothing but for the right to their commons and once again, their faith in democracy was violated.

Shirley Paul and Daisy Francis walked outside the residence of the long time comrade and leader, V.S. Achuthananthan. The unrelenting exhaustion – of meeting antagonistic or disinterested political leaders – was wearing on them and they decided to eat some of the vegetables that were planted in his garden. The Kerala Karshaka Sangam had donated rows of ripe peppers, tomatoes and flowers for the Communist leader.  The police security guards watched as we ate the peppers. Their unflinching gaze made Daisy Francis say, “If police wants to arrest me for this, they can. I’ll just tell the comrade that while I am not the poor of the poor, my stomach too aches for food”. The movement in Kathikudam continues, unfazed by the complacency of political leaders and violence of the police. The uparodha samaram, or resistance protest led by NGILAC has already witnessed more police arrests and long marches in Cochin and Thrissur. Kathikudam is aching for justice, for life, and they are fighting – until death – for their commons.

[Parvathy Binoy is a student of Geography at Syracuse University, New York]

 

 

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