On a rainy October evening, Pradhu N sat in the verandah of his two-storey house in Puthenvelikkara, a village in Kerala’s Ernakulam district, poring over a bunch of documents. The mango trees in his front yard glistened from the recent rains, and the dark skies overhead signalled further downpours ahead. The overcast weather mirrored Pradhu’s mood as he raised his eyes from the documents to gaze at the surroundings.
“Will you flush your toilet into your neighbour’s well?” the 51 year old asked me.
Pradhu, a former IT professional, has been at the forefront of protests by locals against what they believe is a plan by a multinational corporation to release waste into the Chalakudy river near Puthenvelikkara. He is the convenor of the Puthenvelikkara Puzha Samrakshana Samithi, or the Puthenvelikkara River Protection Committee, which is leading opposition to the company.
Chalakudy, the fifth-longest river in Kerala, flows through Puthenvelikkara, as does the state’s longest river, Periyar. The two rivers merge in the village. Puthenvelikkara meets its drinking water needs from Chalakudy – since Periyar turns brackish around the village before joining the sea.
The company, Nitta Gelatin India Limited, or NGIL, has a gelatin-manufacturing plant situated just over 20 km away, near the village of Kathikudam. The plan that the residents of Puthenvelikkara are opposing is, in fact, a feasibility study to explore the possibility of laying a pipeline from the factory, along the river, up to a point just over 4 km upstream of Puthenvelikkara, to release effluents into Chalakudy river. The company argues that the water at the proposed discharge point is already brackish, and hence does not serve as a drinking water source for the village.
Currently, the company releases waste into the river near Kathikudam itself. But residents there have mounted a decades-long battle against it – one of the state’s oldest people’s movements against a corporation. After years of protests, in 2013, the community filed a petition against the company in the National Green Tribunal.
In its judgement, delivered in February 2017, the tribunal held that “there is no material to establish that the industry has discharged sludge along with the treated liquid effluent into the Chalakkudy river.” It also held that the sludge generated by the factory was “non hazardous and non toxic”, that its effluent treatment plant, or ETP, was “functioning efficiently” and that “the discharge of the treated effluent from the ETP to the Challakudy river has no adverse impact on the river water or the ground water”.
But “at the same time”, the tribunal deemed it necessary to apply “the precautionary principle” and “issue certain directions for remedying the injury caused to the environment and also to completely avoid causing any pollution by the operation of the industry”.
One of these 24 directions, many of which overlapped with recommendations to the tribunal by the Central Pollution Control Board, was that the company should “adopt appropriate technologies to recycle the treated effluent to the maximum extent and to minimise the discharge of effluent into the river”.
Another was that the company “should make every effort to achieve Zero Liquid Discharge” to the extent possible. Yet another was a direction to Kerala’s state pollution control board to modify the conditions of clearance it had granted the company, to the effect that the levels of total dissolved solids and chlorides in the water discharged should meet drinking water standards.
The company claimed that the judgement was in its favour. “NGT had found that the company was fully compliant with all regulatory requirements,” Sajiv Menon, the company’s managing director told Scroll.in. “Its directions were just those recommended by CPCB. Except for a few, we have implemented all others.”
But despite claiming to see the judgement as a victory, the company approached the NGT with a review petition, asking it to modify some of its directions.
In a judgement delivered on November 8, 2017, the NGT declined to change any of the directions except one – it had previously ordered the company to lay an overground pipeline that would allow easier monitoring of the effluent discharge, but now it modified this, effectively allowing the company to continue using an existing underground pipeline, but asking it to ensure that the state pollution control board would have access to samples of the effluent at any time it chose.
The company was not satisfied. It approached the Kerala High Court challenging the judgement – its appeal there is pending.
Nitta Gelatin argues that some of the directions are difficult to implement. “For example, there is no technological solution for removal of chlorides from the treated water,” Menon pointed out.
However, company communication elsewhere suggests that it is not that there are no solutions, but that they are expensive.
Through a Right to Information application, Pradhu obtained the minutes of a meeting held on May 3, 2018, in the presence of the Kerala chief minister and industries minister, the managing director of the Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation, or KSIDC, other senior government officials and the managing director of Nitta Gelatin, to discuss the question of the pipeline. According to the minutes, at the meeting, the principal secretary of industries stated that the “removal of chloride would incur a high cost (of Rs 21 crore), which a company like Nitta Gelatin cannot afford.”
In the same meeting, Menon had noted that the cost of laying the pipeline all the way to the sea would be Rs 100 crore. The minutes state that based on these considerations, it was decided that “KSIDC and the company should jointly do a study on extending the pipeline to the backwater” – referring to areas less distant from the factory, where marine and river waters mingle – “and submit the report within two months.”
Over decades, Kerala has witnessed several community movements against industries. These range from numerous isolated protests against small quarries and stone crushers across the state, to some of the world’s most successful pushbacks against corporate behemoths. Protests against the Gwalior Rayons factory, situated in Mavoor, led to its shut down in 2001, and agitations against the global giant Coca Cola’s unit in Plachimada, which began in the early 2000s, eventually led to it halting operations in 2006. While protestors in the former instance said the company was polluting river water, in the latter, they alleged that the corporation was depleting and contaminating groundwater.
In recent years, companies have become more vocal in such standoffs, and have occasionally threatened to wind up operations and move to other locations. In 2020, claiming that unions were disrupting business, Synthite Industries, one of the world’s largest spice extracts firms, announced its plans to leave Kerala, where it was founded in 1972.
In a particularly dramatic case, in 2021, Anna Kitex, another firm with origins in Kerala, dropped its plans for further investments worth Rs 3,500 crore in the state and announced that it was moving to Telangana. The company had also faced allegations in the past that it was a polluter. Ahead of its departure, the managing director Sabu Jacob alleged that the company was being harassed by the government on labour and environment issues.
Kerala has also generally fared poorly on the Central government’s ease of doing business index – since 2019, it has ranked twenty-eighth out of 36 states and union territories.
These problems have led to pressure on the Kerala government to work to transform its image to an industry friendly one.
But there are also those who believe Kerala has benefited immensely from people’s movements. They argue that the fact that the state has among the country’s highest wages is a result of these agitations.
They also point out that while Kerala has low land availability, and a high density of population, it is far less polluted than states with similar population densities, like Uttar Pradesh: a 2021 study found that three of its cities were among the 35 least polluted in India, whereas none of Uttar Pradesh’s were on the list.
This tussle between industries on the one hand and communities and the environment on the other is also playing out in the struggle against Nitta Gelatin. The company claims to be abiding by the law of the land and the directions of judicial authorities. But the residents of both Kathikudam and Puthenvelikkara say that their lived experience makes clear to them that the company cannot be trusted.
The unit of Nitta Gelatin in Kathikudam is an ossein plant. Ossein is the primary product extracted from bone, and is later processed into gelatin, which is widely used in the pharmaceutical industry, most commonly in manufacturing the digestible shells of medicine capsules.
The production process involves soaking dry bone chips, brought from across India, in acid for seven days in specially created tanks. This dissolves the outer shells of the bone chips and allows the extraction of the remaining protein, which is ossein: typically 100 kg of bone yields between 25 and 30 kg of ossein. A part of the waste generated is treated with lime to produce di-calcium phosphate, which is used as an additive in the poultry-feed industry.The rest of it is filtered and collected as sludge, then dried and bagged, to be disposed of in landfills. (Earlier, the company sold this as organic manure, but one of the NGT’s directions was to stop doing so.)
The remaining liquid mix is released into the river. Locals allege that until protests began, unfiltered waste was being released into the water, though company officials deny this.
But locals insist they have witnessed the harmful effects of the company’s effluents on the river.
“While there are 31 varieties of fish just upstream of Kathikudam, the numbers downstream have reduced significantly,” said Jaison Panikulangara, president of the Nitta Gelatin India Limited Action Council, which has been fighting the company in courts and outside since 2008.
In fact, locals blame the company for a 2013 incident in which the Chalakudy river saw mass deaths of fish – though the company argued that the deaths occurred at specific places that were not close to the company’s effluent discharge points.
Residents of Kathikudam also complained for years of a lingering smell of rotten flesh that spread for kilometres around – particularly because the company would load bone chips in the open. The chips would often get wet in the rain, making the smell even sharper. “Earlier we couldn’t go out in the evening because of the smell,” said Nixon KL, a lawyer who lives in Valoor, 4 km from Kathikudam. “Whenever the breeze directed the smell to our side, it would get nauseating.”
Problems like these with the company aren’t unique to Kerala, or India. In Canada too, where Nitta Gelatin has a plant in Davenport, Toronto, which uses pig skin to produce gelatin, residents have complained repeatedly of a putrid smell to the company, the city, and the province’s Environment Ministry. In 2014 alone, reports suggest, 52 complaints were registered.
Kathikudam residents agree that the smell has reduced in the aftermath of their protests. “Because of the protests, the only difference is that the smell has reduced considerably,” said a Kathikudam resident named Joshy Thelekkattil. “They started a methane-capture plant which they say cost them Rs 5 crore. When there are any faults in that, the smell also returns.”
Dr Sebastian Joseph, an expert on environmental history and assistant professor at UC College, Aluva, noted that such protests in Kerala resemble those seen in mature democracies, in that they focus on questions of health, and quality of life. This sets them apart from prominent protests elsewhere in India, “such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan or the ongoing protests in Dhinkia, Odisha, which are of more pressing existential concerns and livelihood loss,” he noted.
Indeed, residents of Kathikudam didn’t merely protect their own backyards – they even discovered wrongdoing by the company elsewhere.
Forty-eight-year-old Joji Thelekkattil, Joshy’s brother, a farmer whose land shares a part of its boundary with the company’s property wall, recounted that some years ago, they had discovered that the company was dumping waste at a site more than 100 km away, in Palakkad district, near the state’s border with Tamil Nadu. “This was brought to light by our youngsters who chased the trucks going out to find what they were up to,” Thelekkattil said. One of the NGT’s orders was that the company cease this practice.
Today, the collected sludge is transported to a waste treatment facility in the locality of Ambalamugal in Ernakulam district, where it is disposed of in a landfill, a service for which the company pays Rs 50,000 per load according to VK Mohanan, the former panchayat president of Kadukutty, in which Kathikudam falls. Scroll.in emailed the company to confirm this figure, but had not heard back at the time of publication.
Some of the protestors’ methods have been particularly dramatic. In 2011, they pooled together just under Rs 2 lakh and bought a five cent parcel of land (one-twentieth of an acre), under which the pipeline from the Nitta factory to the effluent discharge point passed. The company owned much of the land through which the pipeline passed, except that patch, so locals planned to break the pipeline there.
“We had planned to block the pipeline in our property,” said Thelekkattil.
But the company responded swiftly. It deployed security forces, dug up the pipeline and diverted it around the protestors’ property. It also went on to buy all the other property surrounding the plot of land, leaving the group with a parcel of a land that was cut off from access to the road.
“Oh, we did so much more,” said Thelekkattil, of their attempts over the years to make their demands heard.
In 2013, protestors allegedly broke the pipeline at a point that released effluents into a canal, from which they flowed into a part of the river from which the company drew water – the company’s water source was thus polluted and it was forced to temporarily halt its operation. In the summer of 2017, faced with low water levels in Chalakudy river, protesters created a block in a canal that supplied water to the company. This, too, led to a temporary halt in the company’s operations.
The company has now rented a house near the point where the pipeline meets the river, and deployed security around the clock there. After passing through stretches of open land, the pipe enters undergrowth at this point, which the company likely fears will give locals cover to break the pipe.
While protestors in Kathikudam have registered their objections to the company in various ways, some have also paid a steep price for their opposition.
On July 21, 2013, according to Mohanan, several thousands, including many outsiders, had gathered in Kathikudam in protest. Just as the protest reached its peak, police swung into action. Protesting women and children were taken away. Roads leading up to the village were blocked and police lathi-charged protesters. “It was well-planned,” said Joji Thelekkattil. He was among those who were badly injured in the lathi charge.
“His brother, my younger son, had seen someone lying on the ground while he was being beaten and chased by the police,” Thelekkattil’s 76-year-old mother Rosy said. “Later they went back to search. It was then that they found him, lying on the ground. They had beaten him up badly.”
She continued, “The doctors had given up on him. The medical college people told us there was no possibility of him recovering and regaining strength.”
It took several months of treatment for Thelekkattil to recover. The community had “suffered in many ways because of this company,” Rosy said. “Not just the pollution.”
Most residents of Kathikudam that Scroll.in spoke to agreed that locals were disturbed by this brutal crackdown, and that it was after this that the Action Council focused its energies on seeking legal remedies. “The prime of our lives has been lost fighting this,” said 59-year-old Mohanan.
In Kathikudam, as in many other parts of Kerala, the movement against the allegedly polluting company was bolstered by the involvement of the local panchayat. But this support has also been complicated by the dynamics between political parties, and the hierarchies within them – as well as by the priorities of the state government, which has sweeping powers over even local-level politics in the state.
On paper, the panchayats have considerable sway.
Their “mandatory functions”, as laid down by the Kerala Panchayati Raj Act 1994, include maintaining traditional drinking water sources, regulating liquid waste disposal, maintaining environmental hygiene, and issuing licenses for trades that are classified as “dangerous and offensive”, also called D&O trade licenses.
The protests in Kathikudam gained particular prominence in 2009, after the panchayat came out in their support and denied the company a D&O trade license.
Mohanan, who was the president of the panchayat at this time, alleged that he was approached by a contractor working with the company, and was assured that if he granted the license, in exchange the company would spend money in the village, for which he could take credit. “I didn’t budge, else the protests would have dissipated easily,” he said.
He also alleged that the managing director of the company, Sajiv Menon, had met him at a hotel in Kalamassery, a suburb of Kochi, and asked him to issue the license.
“I denied it,” Mohanan said. “I told him there is no need to meet me over this.”
Sajiv Menon, the managing director of Nitta Gelatin, responded to this with a counter-allegation, claiming that Mohanan had once been a union leader who headed a breakaway faction of a Congress-affiliated union within the company. (Mohanan himself was not an employee of the company.) Menon further alleged that there had been unrest between the factions, and that the company had fired those close to Mohanan, after which he had held a grudge against the company. Mohanan denied this, saying that the two incidents had occurred ten years apart from each other, and that “there is no relation” between them.
The panchayat’s refusal to grant the license didn’t halt the company’s work – the NGT judgement notes that in the years after this, the High Court granted several interim orders that allowed the company to operate.
In 2017, the Kerala government issued a notification that made significant changes to the rules under which the panchayat granted D&O trade licenses. As per these changes, where once applications for such licenses had to be submitted to the village panchayat, they now only had to be submitted to its secretary, who is not an elected representative but an appointee of the state government. Further, under the modified rules, if a decision wasn’t communicated to the applicant within 15 days, the license would be deemed to have been granted.
The former change was particularly significant to developments in November 2019, when, before the local body elections, the then panchayat secretary issued the company a license without informing other panchayat officials. “We had locked the panchayat at 5.30 pm and left for the day,” said Thomas Kannath, the then panchayat president. “The secretary along with three other employees came back around 7.30 pm and issued the license.”
By the time the other members of the panchayat awoke the next day, the officer had already departed on leave, Mohanan recounted. “He was soon transferred elsewhere,” he said.
The secretary, whose first name Mohanan said was Shajan, and who was not from the village, did not return. (Scroll.in could not track him down to seek his responses for the story.)
Kannath recounted that after this, the community approached the court to cancel the license. “We failed in court,” he said.
Joji Thelekkattil, Jaison Panikulangara and other protestors that Scroll.in spoke to alleged that the new dispensation in the Kadukutty panchayat, which took office in December 2020, is supportive of the company. The members of the panchayat denied this. “We are with the people on the matter of pollution,” insisted Princy Francis, the current president of panchayat, who belongs to the Left Democratic Front, an alliance of left-wing political parties that has been in power in the state since 2016.
“If they have any instances to show that we have dragged our feet, the allegations could have been held true,” Francis said.
Other current panchayat officials suggested they wanted to strike a balance between the company and the protestors. “Industries are needed,” said Vimal Kumar, chairman of the standing committee for welfare in Kadukutty panchayat. “That is the stand of LDF government, and ours too.” Vice president of the panchayat, Ayyappan PC, said, “We are fully supportive of the company as long as they function without causing pollution. We just don’t want to harass them or shut it down.”
For now, the primary front of the fight against Nitta Gelatin has shifted to Puthenvelikkara.
The decision to conduct the feasibility study of a pipeline to Puthenvelikkara was taken in the May 2018 meeting at which the Kerala chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, was present. According to company communications obtained by Pradhu, the managing director of the Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation, other senior government officials and the Managing Director of the company were also present at the meeting, held on May 3. According to the documents, “it was decided that KSIDC and NGIL must carry out a joint study regarding the feasibility of discharging the treated water from our Factory to Saline water in Chalakudy River/Periyar.”
In July that year, the company wrote to the Puthenvelikkara panchayat, seeking permission to conduct the study. But in December, the panchayat passed a resolution denying the company this permission.
In response, the company approached Ernakulam’s district collector, who summoned the panchayat secretary to a meeting in January 2019 to discuss the matter. According to Dewey John, a ward member in the Puthenvelikkara panchayat, who is overseeing the panchayat’s responses to the issue, at this meeting, the secretary reiterated the panchayat’s position that it would not grant the company permission to conduct the study.
After this, the company sought a different route: in August 2019, it wrote to the Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation, asking it to consider the proposal under the state’s “single window scheme”, which was introduced in 1999, and seeks to facilitate quick and efficient clearances from different government bodies and departments, including panchayats, for anyone seeking to start a business. “They failed twice, then tried again through the single window clearance system,” said Pradhu.
Now, the KSIDC began writing to the panchayat, seeking information on the matter. When the panchayat responded that it did not intend to grant permission to the company, the corporation wrote to it in March 2020, citing the meeting with the chief minister, and asking it to “please withdraw the stop memo and give permission to the proponent for carrying out the study expeditiously”.
Still, the panchayat did not budge. Documents accessed by Scroll.in reveal that other arms of the government also began to pressure the panchayat – in December 2020 and March 2021, the Local Self Government Department, which oversees panchayats, issued a government order to the panchayat, euphemistically stating in both that it was “pleased to accord sanction” to the panchayat to conduct the feasibility study.
The panchayat held out against this pressure. Rosy Joshy, the president of Puthenvelikkara panchayat, pointed out that their locality had little to do with the company. “Until they turned up here asking for permission to conduct a feasibility study, the only time I heard of the company was in the 2013 fish kill,” Joshy said.
Joshy pointed out that it wasn’t only those who lived in close proximity to the river who would be affected by any problems with the water in the area, and that a tank nearby supplies most of the panchayat. “Fifteen out of the 17 wards draw water from the Chalakudy River,” Joshy said.
The village already struggles with high salinity of groundwater, and relies on the river for its drinking water needs. “If this plan goes ahead, our existing source of water will also become unusable,” said Joshy. “Why should we have to carry someone else’s burden?”
Traditional fishers of the area insist that their livelihoods are affected even now by the company’s actions. “Catch is considerably affected whenever they release the effluents,” said Dasan PN, president of a self-help group of traditional fishers in the region.
Puthenvelikkara’s residents are also suspicious of the company’s characterisation of the proposed discharge point as a “marine water front” –– that is, a point where brackish marine water meets freshwater.
This term is key, because of the NGT’s direction that the levels of chlorides and total dissolved solids in the company’s discharge had to meet drinking water standards. By claiming that the discharge will be into marine water, the company is effectively claiming that it will not be affecting any drinking water. “That is how the proposal to take the treated water to the sea came up, as seawater is already full of chlorides,” Menon, Nitta’s managing director, said.
The presence of a regulator, a barrage-like structure that prevents brackish water from flowing upstream, a little over 4 km upstream from Puthenvelikkara is often cited as an indication that the water in the area is saline. But, in fact, the point where the water turns brackish varies significantly through the year. “In the monsoon months, the shutters are open, as there is surplus flow of freshwater in Chalakudy River,” said Dr CG Madhusoodhanan, who researches water conflicts, and the impacts of climate and land use on water resources of India, and has studied Chalakudy river. During these times, he said, even areas downstream of the regulator carry freshwater.
“The marine front is pushed seawards. Puthenvelikkara thus doesn’t really have a permanent marine water front,” he added.
The fight in Puthenvelikkara is not without high-profile supporters: VD Satheeshan, the local Congress-led United Democratic Front MLA, of Paravur constituency, under which the village falls, has come out in support of the Puthenvelikkara panchayat, though it is presently ruled by arch-rivals LDF. Satheeshan, who is also a union leader of Nitta Gelatin, is not just any MLA, but the leader of opposition in the assembly, and is seen as the UDF’s next chief ministerial face.
“We will not allow the pipelines to be laid to Puthenvelikkara,” Satheeshan told Scroll.in emphatically. “It is not a viable project. It is simply a nonsense idea.”
Some residents of Kathikudam, however, are wary of Satheeshan. (Kathikudam does not fall within Paravur constituency, though Puthenvelikkara does.) “The Oommen Chandy government would have shut the company down,” said VK Mohanan, the former president of Kadukutty panchayat, referring to the chief minister of the UDF government, which was in power from 2011 to 2016. “It was Satheeshan who stopped him,” alleged Mohanan, who is a fellow Congress member.
Satheeshan, who was the Paravur MLA even then, denied this, and argued that there had been no plans to shut down the factory. As for the company’s plans in Puthenvelikkara, “My stand has always been that the polluter should pay. And I stick to it now as well. If the High Court orders the company to implement zero discharge, we will welcome it. Let the polluter pay to clean it up as well.”
On the pressure being put on the LDF-ruled panchayat to grant permission for the feasibility study, he said, “Even if the panchayat is pressured into giving an NOC, we will not let the company go through with their plans. We will oppose it in other ways if it comes to that.”
Satheeshan’s resolve to fight the company is likely to be tested. Rather than continue to pressure the panchayat, the company appears to have found another solution to its problem.
In a meeting held on January 21 this year, the Kerala State Single Window Clearance Board, or KSSWCB, which falls under the KSIDC, issued a no-objection certificate to the company for the study. In minutes of the meeting, attached to a letter to Nitta Gelatin, the KSIDC noted that the Puthenvelikkara panchayat “had resolved not to give NOC for conducting the feasibility study” and had also requested the board not to issue its approval.
Rather than examine this problem, a line later, the minutes state, “Decision: The Kerala State Single Window Clearance Board to issue NOC to M/s. Nitta Gelatin for conducting the feasibility study for laying treated water pipeline to the marine water front, as Puthenvelikkara Grama Panchayat has denied to give NOC for the same.”
The situation is rife with conflicts of interest.
According to the Nitta Gelatin website, the managing director of KSIDC, MG Rajamanickam, is on the company’s board of directors. By virtue of his position in the KSIDC, he is also the convenor of the Kerala State Single Window Clearance Board, to which the company eventually applied for clearance of the proposal to conduct the feasibility study. The company is also described on its website as an “Indo-Japanese venture” between Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation and Nitta Gelatin, Japan.
Scroll.in emailed the managing director of KSIDC to ask about this conflict of interest, where the board that grants clearances is a part of the government corporation that has an interest in a company seeking clearances. In a response received after publication, the company stated that the managing director is “only the Convenor” of the board, which is “headed by the Chief Secretary, and comprises 23 other members who are the heads of various departments/agencies of the State.” It further stated that the board “had directed the Convenor to issue NOC” to Nitta Gelatin and that he had “complied with the decision of the Board”. To the question of how the board could overrule the panchayat, the company stated that it was empowered to do so under “section 7(3)/ 8(3)/ (9(3) and 10 of the Kerala Industrial Single Window Clearance Boards and Industrial Township Area Development Act, 1999.”
Scroll.in also emailed Nitta Gelatin questions about the claims of water salinity near Puthenvelikkara, the cost of removing chlorides from their effluent and other matters. As of the time of publication, we had not received a response.
Meanwhile, locals are unwilling to concede the power to take such far-reaching decisions about their environment to a centralised authority. “What is the need for local self-government if the state itself can do everything?” said Pradhu. “We are seeking legal opinions, and a challenge will soon ensue.”
This story has been updated to include responses received from KSIDC after publication.
Jeff Joseph is a researcher with Land Conflict Watch, an independent network of researchers studying land conflicts, climate change and natural resource governance in India.