Thiruvananthapuram: Living in denial on the banks of polluted river

Greenpeace in 1999 had conducted scientific studies which put Eloor on the world map as a toxic hotspot.

Thiruvananthapuram: Houses in Eloor are identified by the kind of cancer the people inside those have. When freelance journalist Mx Chithira Vijayakumar made that observation during their presentation ‘How to Kill a River: A Handy Guide’, at least some would have thought of the anti-Sterlite protests.

A similar comment was made by the protestors at Thoothukudi. But unlike Thoothukudi, Eloor has not erupted. In fact, except for a handful of protestors, everyone else, even the ones suffering from asthma and other ailments, has been in a state of denial, according to a study which Mx Chithira Vijayakumar pursued with Centre for Development Studies faculty Ms J Devika and IIT Bombay faculty Mr N C Narayanan.

(The interdisciplinary study, in which a journalist and two academicians have worked together, is the first, in a series. The Eloor presentation was further strengthened by the visual documentation of the place by photographer Anjali Gopan. The interdisciplinary research series is the outcome of a workshop conducted by Research Unit on Local Self Governments (RULSG) at CDS. The second study in the series will be on Idukki’s response to Gadgil and Kasturirangan reports by journalist M Suchitra and academician Lavanya Suresh.)

Mx Chithira Vijayakumar, in the grimly humorous presentation, had included insightful responses from the people regarding how deep the denial was. While it is known that Eloor, just around 14 km from Kochi city centre, pollutes Periyar, Kochi residents had little idea about how it affects them. “When asked where their water came from, some replied that it came from taps. They were told that it came from Periyar, which is polluted. However many shared that they used water purified by their water purifiers. Little did they know that those equipments did not remove heavy metal pollution,” they said.

Their presentation had included a slide of an old news report about trade unions protesting. The protest was not against pollution, but against news reports ‘alleging’ Eloor to be suffering from pollution.

Even to this day, many local government representatives here hesitate to say that there is pollution, according to J Devika. “One of them was talking about their mother-in-law having cancer. But in the next second, they would say everything is fine. This zigging and sagging was really intriguing, when we went through the recorded interviews again,” she said.

The phenomenon of denial, she said, is not restricted to Eloor. The climate change denial, which has been studied by social scientists, is similar, she said.

Moreover at Eloor, it was not the lack of information, but just the opposite, which caused it, according to her. Greenpeace in 1999 had conducted scientific studies which put Eloor on the world map as a toxic hotspot. One of their studies, compared the health of Pindivana, which was a place lying not too far from Eloor. In that year, an outbreak of epidemics was reported from Pindivana. Despite this, Eloor had almost four times more incidence of birth defects, three times more incidence of cancer and scored much higher in various health issues. “A veritable flood of information could lead to a melancholic grieving,” she said.

The denial then was a kind of defence, she said. To make sense of it, she relied on ‘The Denial of Death’, a book by Earnest Becker which talks about the effects of increased perception of death risks.

She said that another reason for the denial could be the nostalgia attached to the dream of a perfect industrial place, an intense cultural longing that becomes evident when people here talk about the Eloor township. Ms J Devika noted that their nostalgia was not about the environmental loss, but the loss of the township. Only one out of 21 interviews with local government representatives, had talked about environmental loss. Even that person only had his mother’s memory to narrate, while his own nostalgia was about the township, she said.

Things have not always been this bleak, she says. An example was the cancellation of Merchem company’s license, by a grama panchayath president. Interestingly, he was someone who did not buy into the idea that industries were harmful here. When asked why he did it, he said that the protests were so intense, people would have lynched him, had the license been cancelled. Moreover, recently, Eloor municipality had objected to Kochi masterplan, which had demarcated Eloor as a chemical industry zone.

Chennai-based environmentalist Mr Nithyanand Jayaraman, who was in town to offer his comments on the study, said that Sterlite protests too had the same kind of denial and cynicism. He said that activists need to keep trying, until at some point it clicks. In the case of Sterlite, that date was March 22, he said.

How can the people in denial be awakened? Their study suggests that in gramasabha and ward level meetings, the minority opinions should get a place. Ms J Devika said that the government can think of introducing Environmental Gramasabha, which is dedicated to discussing issues of ecological importance.

Another suggestion was to ensure the accountability of people in power at national and state levels. Mx Chithira Vijayakumar said that Eloor’s pollution was not the problem of Eloor, alone. The people of Eloor alone do not have the might nor the resources to fight the larger industries, the researchers noted.

But the most poignant of all suggestions was cultural awakening. “I believe Silent Valley succeeded because of the poets who joined in,” said Ms J Devika.

( Source : Deccan Chronicle. )
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