“Put me behind bars, I am ready to die fighting for clean water,” Kunhi Parvathy Amma screamed as the police moved to arrest her and others for blocking tankers carrying water into the Indian Naval Academy campus in Kerala’s Kannur district on March 23.

“The Indian Naval Academy’s sewage treatment plant polluted our wells and ponds,” the 78-year-old said. “We drank bacteria-filled water for many years. Let them also suffer like us.” Amma was later released on bail.

The protest in the Ezhimala neighbourhood of Kannur was one of many that the Jana Arogya Samrakshana Samithi (people’s health protection committee), set up by residents of Ramanthali panchayat, has on since February 27. Their objective is to get the academy to shut down its sewage treatment plant.

The naval training centre, which was set up in 2009, lies on 2,452 acres in Ramanthali panchayat, which is 35 km north of Kannur on India’s west coast. It has a base depot, the INS Zamorin, and a naval hospital, the INHS Navjivani. Thousands of families were relocated to various parts of the state to make way for it.

The residents who stayed back complain that the academy’s defective sewage treatment plant has contaminated more than 300 open wells and eight ponds in Ramanthali, rendering them unusable.

A signboard showing the way to to the Indian Naval Academy at Ezhimala.

Tests conducted separately by the Kerala Water Authority and the Kerala State Pollution Control Board found a high concentration of coli form bacteria in water samples collected from the open wells. Some of these samples reported 1,100 coli forms in 100 ml of water. Indian standards for drinking water stipulate that there should be no coli form bacteria.

While coli form bacteria in water may not cause illness, their presence indicates that a contamination link exists between a source of bacteria and the water supply. And disease-causing bacteria may use this pathway to enter the water.

The Indian Naval Academy has denied the allegations. “Studies might have established presence of coli form bacteria in ponds and wells, but there is no proof to establish that the sewage treatment plant is causing it,” its public relations officer, Lieutenant Commander RG Ajith, told Scroll.in.

“We have set up a state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant inside the campus and it is working without any glitches,” he added.

Agitating residents, on the other hand, point to the fact that the academy’s denial comes at a time when the Union government is aggressively pushing its Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (clean India movement).

First signs of trouble

The stand-off between the Indian Naval Academy and residents began in January when water levels began to rise in the open wells. It was an unusual phenomenon as the water usually receded starting December.

“We found traces of feces in the water in some wells, while water discolouration happened in other wells,” said PK Narayanan, a resident. “Then we realised that the sewage treatment plant was causing the problem.”

The residents submitted several memorandums about the discovery to top officials of the academy. But when no action followed, they sat on an indefinite hunger strike close to the entrance of the academy on March 23.

A hoarding demanding the academy's sewage treatment plant be shut down.

The mass protest drew support from various political parties, and their leaders descended on Ramanthali to express solidarity with the residents.

The ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), which also governs Ramanthali panchayat, launched a separate agitation under the banner of the Janakeeya Samrakshana Samithi in March. It called off the protest on March 30 after the state government announced the formation of an expert committee to study the complaints of pollution.

No pollution check

The protestors allege that the Indian Naval Academy does not have the required approval of the Kerala State Pollution Control Board to operate the sewage treatment plant, which lies close to the residential area on an elevated space.

“The INA had been operating it without the mandatory no objection certificate from the Kerala State Pollution Control Board,” said Vinod Kumar, a resident who is at the forefront of the agitation. “The board detected it recently and issued a show cause notice for violating the rules.”

Indian Naval Academy official RG Ajith admitted the facility had received the show cause notice from the Kerala State Pollution Control Board. “We made a procedural lapse. We have rectified it,” he said.

Kumar said closing down the sewage treatment plant was the only way to resolve the problem. “We request the Indian Naval Academy to shut down the sewage treatment plant,” he said. “Let them decentralise sewage treatment and treat the waste at source.”

According to Ramanathali gram panchayat president MV Govindan, the ongoing agitation is for future generations. “We fear the soil has already been polluted and the plant should be shut down to protect our future generations,” he said.

Ever since the tests confirmed the presence of coli form bacteria in the open wells, the district administration has been making arrangements for fresh water for affected families. Kannur District Collector Mir Mohammed Ali said this distribution of clean water would continue until the contamination issue was resolved.

He added that the expert panel set up by the government has already started its work: “The five-member expert committee has already begun collecting samples and is expected to submit its report on May 5.”

The committee is tasked with checking the condition and efficiency of the sewage treatment plant, and suggesting ways to improve its functioning. It will also check whether groundwater contamination near the Indian Naval Academy and other similarly inhabited areas in the district are the same.

Ajith said the academy would abide by the recommendations of the panel. “We have a commitment to the local community and are pained by their problems,” he said. “If the government panel finds that the sewage treatment plant is causing the trouble, we will definitely find remedial measures.”

Water discolouration in an open well near the Indian Naval Academy campus at Ezhimala.

All images courtesy TA Ameerudheen.