Kali River fouled by paper mill effluent

Posted: 29 June 2004

Author: Ravi R. Prasad

One of the world's best preserved biospheres is facing one serious threat from a paper manufacturing unit and another from the government of the southern Indian state of Karnataka.

While the paper factory is discharging hazardous effluents into the Kali River that flows through the sprawling hilly area known as the Western Ghats, the state government had plans to construct a seventh dam on the river to set up another power generation unit.

Flowers at Kodaikanal, a hillstation in the Western Ghats. Photo: University of Iowa
Flowers at Kodaikanal, a hillstation in the Western Ghats. Photo: University of Iowa
Flowers at Kodaikanal, a hillstation in the Western Ghats.© University of Iowa
The hilly area known as the Western Ghats is home to a unique biosphere. The entire forest in the region has been declared a reserve forest to protect the biodiversity. It is also a protected forest reserve under the UNESCO's Man and Biosphere program.

But the development of the state, which is the powerhouse of the Indian economy with the so-called Silicon Valley of Asia based in its capital Bangalore, necessitates the exploitation of the abundant natural resources available in this region.

Damaging development

Development at the cost of sacrificing the forests and the river is unacceptable to the residents of Dandeli and the towns around it. They are protesting against the pollution and the government's move to construct the dam.

The nauseating stench from the canal that flows from the West Coast Paper mill to the Kali, through the middle of the town, has made the life of the people unbearable. The foul smell makes standing near it even for a minute an agonizing experience. The water discharged from the factory is black in color, with froth floating on it.

On the bank of the canal is a huge plot of agricultural land owned by Shivaram Appaji Patil. He cultivates vegetables and flowers here. But, from a distance, the land appears white, as if Patil were trying to cultivate paper on his land. The white layer actually tears off like a thick piece of cardboard.

"The water discharged from the Dandeli Paper Mill brings this pulp. It has destroyed my land," said Patil. "I cannot cultivate anything here. This has been happening for the past 10 years. I used to earn hundreds of thousands of rupees a year cultivating brinjal, raddish and flowers, but now I hardly to get one thousand rupees. The land gets covered with pulp and nothing grows under it."

Poisoned river

It is not just Patil's land that has been affected. Several hectares of land near the Dandeli Paper Mill have been rendered infertile due to the pulp and chemicals discharged with the water from the mill into the river.

Paper pulp effluent. Photo: Kali Bachao Andalan
Paper pulp effluent. Photo: Kali Bachao Andalan
Pulp from the paper mill flows down the canal headed for the river.© Kali Bachao Andalan

Patil alleged that the water is harmful to human beings too. "If a drop of water falls on the skin, it burns the skin immediately and we get ulcers. When we tell the management of the Paper Mill they say that they have nothing to do with it and we should go to the general hospital," he said

Evidence of Patil's claim can be seen in the nearby Haranada village. It consists of some 20 houses of traditional cattle-grazers. Almost all the young children here suffer from boils, ulcers and wounds on their faces and limbs.

"The water in the river is so poisonous that our cattle have died from drinking it. I had some 50 buffaloes. All of them died. Now my family works as farm laborers," said Jharnabai, who has lived in this village for three decades. "We told government officials about our problem, but they did not listen to us. The water is causing diseases but no one is taking any action. We want safe drinking water and compensation for the loss of cattle."

Damming devastating livelihoods

The residents of Dandeli town and the other nearby towns are vehemently opposing the government's plan to construct the seventh dam on the river. They fear that the new dam will reduce the flow of water and the pollution will become more acute.

The people here are not ready to make any more sacrifices for the development of the state. They say that the six dams built across the river for power generation have not helped improve power supply to their towns.

Of the 2,400 megawatts produced in these power stations, only a few hundred megawatts are available to them. Moreover, the new dam will cause more destruction of the forests and displacement of people. So far, the six dams have submerged 32,000 acres of forest land.

The construction of the dam will deprive hundreds of thousands of people of their livelihood.

"The residents of villages around Dandeli earn their living by cultivating small plots of land. Others are farm laborers," said Savitiri Gajakosh, a resident of Dandeli town. "If their land is submerged they will find it difficult to make both ends meet. Their condition will become worse. As such the water is polluted and has made the land useless."

Officials in denial

The residents say that neither the government officials nor the local politicians are responding to their pleas. They say the management of the paper mill refuses to acknowledge that it is polluting the river.

I attempted to contact the management for comment but the security guards at the entrance refused to let me in. When I tried to reach them over telephone, I was asked to send an email with questions I wanted to ask.

Later, the executive director of the company replied to the email stating that the effluents discharged from the factory conform to the stipulated standards and that the water is suitable for irrigation and agricultural purposes.

However, B. Ramiah of the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board said that the paper mill is still in the process of installing the advanced effluent treatment plant.

The Kali river at Dandeli, Karnataka, India. Photo: Harish Mattur
The Kali river at Dandeli, Karnataka, India. Photo: Harish Mattur
The Kali river is the life line of central Karnataka. Sadly the river is being polluted by the industrial wastes in Dandeli. Illegal sand mining is also destroying the river bed.© Harish Mattur

"The West Coast Paper Mills came before the board with a proposal to increase the production through innovative process. It means they wanted to install a new equipment that would increase the production and also control pollution as per the norms of the Pollution Control Board. The permission was granted." "Later we found that industry was discharging effluent which was not conforming to the standard because of the increase in production," Ramiah said.

The board directed the company to upgrade the waste treatment plant. The factory claims that it is doing the upgrade.

The apathy of the government and the paper mill management has forced the residents to launch an agitation to protect the river and the environment. Activists of the Kali Bachchao Andolan or the Save Kali Movement have staged demonstrations not only in Dandeli town, but also in the state capital ofBangalore.

"We staged a demonstration in front of the paper mill to highlight the pollution that it is causing. Then we held a demonstration in Bangalore," said Panduranga Hegde, a well known environmentalist and leader of the movement.

"We sent petitions to the Chief Minister of Karnataka and the federal environment minister," Hegde said. "We have succeeded in raising awareness and managed to stop excavation of sand from the riverbed. We are demanding that the people should get safe drinking water and that they stop polluting the river. Some 300,000 people are dependent on the Kali."

At last, the activists appear to have had some measure of success in drawing the attention of the government. Officials announced in September 2003 that Karnataka will reconsider its decision to construct the new dam. But, the problem of pollution remains. Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2004. All Rights Reserved.