The poisoning of the Tungabhadra
March 24, 1994. 3 pm. Basappa Bovi of Guttur village of Harihar taluka in Karnataka, who grows watermelons on the banks of the Tungabhadra, was walking down the riverside when a horrifying sight stopped him dead in his tracks. A sea of fish -- most dead, some gasping for breath -- littered the shore. Basappa hurried homewards to inform other villagers.
March 25. 6 pm. In Airani village, downstream of Guttur village, Kotresh Tumminkatti witnessed a similar scene. Immediately, he took samples of the water and fish to the Regional Office of the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) at Davangere and registered a complaint.
March 26. 7 am. A student, Ganesh Durgad, of Herebidari village, downstream of Airani, who had also seen the dead fish, alerted the people of his village. The villagers got together and rushed to neighbouring villages to spread the word and ask them to refrain from eating the dead fish, which they suspected of being poisoned.
March 26. 8 pm. Despite the prompt action taken by the villagers, the warnings came too late for an unfortunate few. Some greedy villagers took a few lots of the fish to the Ranibennur market. Jayanna Madiwalar and Rudrappa Banakaar of Airani were among those who bought and consumed it. Both had severe headaches. Bakshusaab Baalekhanavar of Medleri, another victim, had a severe fit of vomiting and diarrhoea. All 3 were treated at the Primary Health Centre, Medleri, and recovered. But the cattle were not so lucky. In Herebidari village, 2 buffaloes died after drinking the river water, while one pregnant buffalo aborted. In Nadiharalahalli village, 2 bullocks died.
The culprit behind the poisoned river waters: industrial effluents from 2 units located on the banks of the Tungabhadra -- the Harihar Polyfibres (HPF) and Gwalior Rayon and Silk Manufacturers (GRASIM).
The Central Inland Capture Fisheries Research Institute, Barrackpore, West Bengal, had analysed the Tungabhadra water on behalf of the KSPCB. The institute took water samples in September 1985 and June 1986 when the river was in full flow and reported: "The river Tungabhadra is severely polluted near the outfall of Harihar Polyfibres and Gwalior Rayon Factories. The situation continues up to 500 m downstream. Aquatic life is completely absent. High level of mercury in the fish species Channa maralius is alarming."
The HPF was established in 1972 at Kumarapatnam in Ranibennur taluka, Dharwad district. It was a time when the Karnataka government welcomed industries with open arms, providing free water and concessional electricity. The HPF produces pulp from eucalyptus and other soft wood necessary for making rayon yarn. In 1977, its sister concern GRASIM was set up on an adjacent plot to manufacture yarn from the HPF-produced pulp.
The 2 units discharge about 33,000 cubic metres of effluents into the Tungabhadra daily, but allegedly do not treat their effluents sufficiently before discharging them into the river. During the monsoons, the effluents get diluted. But in the summer months, the water turns the colour of coffee due to the effluents that contain toxic substances such as sodium hydroxide, sodium sulphate, carbon disulphate, mercury and zinc.
The waters of the Tungabhadra are the lifeline of 27 villages dotting its banks in Ranibennur, Harihar, Harpanahalli and Hadagali talukas. The villagers use the water for drinking, bathing, washing and for their cattle. "You must bathe in the Ganga and drink from the Tunga," was a common saying in the villages. Now, the same river waters have become the bane of the villagers. Forced to drink the Tungabhadra water for the lack of an option, people have been suffering from headaches, stomachaches, skin irritation, boils on the skin, vomiting and diarrhoea for many years now.
Courting justice The 2 villages that are most affected by the effluents because of their proximity to the industrial units are Kumarapatnam and Nalavagal. On March 31, the Karnataka government passed a proposal to evacuate the 2 villages, but deferred its execution till the KSPCB established that the fish had died because of the effluents from the 2 units. Evacuation plans had been suggested in 1984 and 1992, too, when a large number of poisoned fish had been washed ashore, but once the furore over the issue died down, the idea was shelved.
Death by pollution The issue of untreated effluents was taken to the Karnataka High Court by the Transnational Centre, a social action group for non-violent change, among others, which filed a petition in 1985 against the KSPCB and the 2 units. It explained how the pollution led to the dying of the fish (See box: How pollution affects aquatic life).
A report submitted to the High Court as part of the petition states that in Nalavagal, chemical vapours from the several tanks in the HPF unit is carried by the slightest whiff of air to the village. The poisonous vapours cause skin eruptions, boils, a nagging cough and a persistent stomachache (because the vapours contaminate food, too) among the villagers. The stomachache has been tracked down to a problem with the intestines that has necessitated surgery in more than one case. The petition also states that the effluents have been polluting the air, water and soil since the inception of the HPF unit in 1972.
Interestingly enough, GRASIM operates without permission from the authorities under the Water and Air Act. This was pointed out in a show cause notice of March 26, 1994, issued by the KSPCB. Also, the chlorine-based technology used in India for the rayon industry is outdated and has been banned abroad for being hazardous. Women undergarments produced using this technology are said to have caused cancer. A safer technology being adopted all over the world is magnesium-based and it produces little or no pollution.
Meanwhile, some varieties of fish such as halti and kemmeen have not been seen in the river for the past several years. Ajamatulla Chigateri, an activist and a former fisherman, says, "I had to switch over from fishing to tailoring for a livelihood. Even tough varieties of fish such as the toragi, outiballa, kaatla, haragi, hotteparaki, bilachi, haavu meenu, avalu, kuchcha, kantaka, meesigalla and muragod, which can survive the worst of drain water have died. This only speaks of the high degree of pollution in the river."
A team of experts appointed by Samaj Parivartana Samudaya had made a detailed study of the river water and submitted a report containing conclusive evidence of pollution. A team of scientists from Dharwad's District Committee for Science and Technology also analysed water from the Tungabhadra and recommended that the discharge of effluents be proportional to the water in the river (See box: A state indictment). However, no action followed the reports.
Meanwhile, inspired and guided by the Samaj Parivartana Samudaya, the Tungabhadra Parisara Samiti, an organisation of the affected people and other like-minded organisations have been putting up a brave fight for clean water and air. They have held protests, processions, satyagrahas. They have written to the officers concerned and ministers and have even gone to the court.
Some of the countless fisherfolk deprived of their traditional livelihood because of the fish dying had sued the HPF in 1985 in the Ranibennur Munsiff Court for compensation. A few fisherfolk joined the petition in 1986 bringing the total number of plaintiffs to 15. All these cases were clubbed together as petition 141/89, since they were of the same nature. Karnataka State Legal Aid Committee funded the fisherfolk to the extent of Rs 30,000 that was paid towards court fee. The Ranibennur Taluka Legal Aid Committee provided legal assistance.
No matter what action the KSPCB takes, the industries manage to obtain a stay order from the High Court. The case has been pending in the court for 9 years now. But there are high hopes from the present KSPCB president Gulam Ahmed. Ahmed personally inspected the 35 km stretch of the affected banks of the Tungabhadra. While he is tightlipped about the investigations carried out in 1984 and 1992, Ahmed wrote to HPF on March 26, 1994, and asked them to appear before the board on March 31, 1994 and show cause why action should not be taken against them.
In defence, the HPF did a neat volte face. They alleged that 2 helicopters had dropped poisonous fluids into the river for the sole purpose of maligning HPF and that the pesticides and fertilisers used by farmers for irrigated agriculture on the banks of the Tungabhadra had polluted the river waters. The affected villagers are still reeling under this fresh attack.
The KSCPB held a meeting on May 4, 1994, the minutes of which says in its concluding para: "The fishkill is of a minor nature, yet it has to be taken seriously."
Nevertheless, the KSPCB has appointed a Consultative Committee headed by Samaj Parivartana Samudaya president Shobha Karjagi and comprising environmentalists, HPF representatives, officers of departments concerned and representatives of the affected people. For the sake of the villagers one prays that this time at least the report submitted by this newly formed committee will be a workable one and not just an exercise in futility.
Sadanand Kanwalli has served as principal of MA College, Lakshmeshwar and as director of publications, Karnataka University, Dharwad. He is also closely associated with the environment movement in Karnataka.