Kerala in South India is known worldwide as 'God's own country' because of the breathtakingly scenic and prosperous nature.
The backwaters are unique in the world, a network of lakes, canals and deltas of forty-four rivers that drain into the Arabian Sea. The backwaters of Kerela are a self- supporting eco-system teeming with aquatic life. The largest backwater stretch in Kerela is the Vembanad Lake, which flows through three districts and opens out into the sea at the Kochi Port.
Nobody seems to know, that only 15 Km away from Cochin, the “Queen of the Arabian Sea ”, there is Eloor Island, home to Kerala’s largest industrial cluster.
Eloor, an island of 11.21 sq/km, on the Periyar River is home to more than 247 chemical industries, including the only DDT-producing facility in India. Most of these units have been here for the last fifty years and use extremely obsolete and polluting technologies.
Toxic pollution from heavy metals to chemicals and radioactivity is found in air, soil and in the Periyar River, which spreads the contamination to the Vembanad Lake, Cochin and to the Arabian Sea. This leads to a large-scale devastation of aquatic life in the backwaters, the agricultural land and it is also affecting the health of the population in the area.
The soil, water bodies and the wetlands in and around Eloor have been contaminated with heavy metals like zinc, lead, cadmium, chromium and persistent organic pollutants like DDT. Gas emissions let into the air include acid mists, ammonia and chlorine.
There is no pollution free area on Eloor Island, not only there is no clean air to breathe, but there is also no access to safe drinking water.
The inhabitants of the area suffer all kinds of maladies due to the contamination of the land, air and water by these cocktail of poisons. There is an overwhelming increase in most types of systemic disease, the organs affected are the neoplasm blood and the blood forming organs, the endocrine, nutritional and metabolic systems, mental and behavioural problems due to the affection of the nervous system and many more. Every organ in the body seems affected.
There is also another business, which causes serious and far- reaching repercussions on the ecosystem of the Periyar River, the longest river in the state, and it’s backwater.
The illegal and indiscriminate sand mining from the river basin cause destruction of the ecological niche and habitat of various biotic forms, stagnation and trapping of saline water in the regions of mining due to the artificial deepening of the river basin. Flooding during monsoon became a threat for the villages near the riverbanks and also to the population of the entire state.
In fact, the Indian Rare Earths Plant on Eloor, a Central Government of India Undertaking under the administrative control of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), is storing radioactive waste, an estimated 20,000 tonnes of thorium, in six buildings on the riverbank of the Periyar.
The first of these buildings is only two meters away from the river and once used as a garage, it was converted into a storage place without safety measures. Actually the building has a one meter crack on the wall facing the river. The other storage buildings are within 100 meters from the Periyar River.
Once the fishery resources from this region were of major means for income for thousands of families belonging to this area. The heavy industrialization and the consequent effluent discharge made this part of the river almost lifeless or dead. Nowadays the river has become a sewage canal carrying a myriad of hazardous and toxic industry-borne pollutants.
At present, backwater fishing in this region is gradually vanishing; the different types of gears and crafts like the pitoresque Chinese nets, which were operating in this area have almost disappeared. Thousands of people are deprived of their conventional labourhood. Poor fishermen have no other choice than continue to fish in toxic water to survive.
The fishermen who can afford the legal and financial difficulties try to succeed in deep-sea fishing. But the situation is still difficult because of the over exploitation of marine wealth and the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) signed between India and Thailand. Since it became effective in January 2007, the fish sector in Kerala is experiencing a deep crisis because of the low prices competition in the export and the inland market.