Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Manjummel; the toxic dark place where everybody remains stuck

A week after the release of Manjummel Boys, a survival thriller film based on a true story, I watched it in Delhi, far from my hometown where there was no sign of its release. I was surprised to see that Delhi’s cinemas were packed. Sitting next to me, a Tamil lady kept whispering in her daughter’s ear, “Subhash’e, Subhash’e” to keep her engaged. The larger hall was resounding with laughter, cheers, and maybe silent cries too. 

I like how renowned cinematographer Shyju Khalid captured minute details with stunning visuals throughout the film. For someone like me, the furthest I have gone in Kerala is Idukki, and never crossed the border towards Tamil Nadu. Therefore I was witnessing Kodaikanal and its beauty for the first time, including its erratic weather, little fungi and the famous Guna cave. 

For me, the eureka moment during the film came when the stacks emitting gaseous pollutants appeared on screen. 

“I know this place! I have been to Eloor”, was my reaction. 

Toxic industrial town

“Periyar’s pearl daughter, wherever you tread, it will turn impure. The ones with hardly any identity. All we breathed in was smoke”. 

Kunthanthram, the promo song from the movie, dedicates these lines to the rampant pollution in the Periyar river, and the toxic air pollution in the town where Manjummel Boys reside. If you notice, the song features men in protective gear with masks, and the children as well. 

This isn’t just a coincidence. It represents the living reality in the Eloor-Edayar industrial area, the story of the people who have been pushed to the margins in the name of development- ‘The ones hardly with any identity to influence those in power’.

I visited Eloor on August 15, 2023 and Purushan Eloor, a local environmental activist, guided me. Manjummel is a satellite town of Eloor municipality situated on the banks of Periyar river too. As I stood on the bridge over the Periyar river, tin roof factories with emission stacks dotted both sides of the river. Close to 280 chemical industries are operational in the Eloor-Edayar industrial hub. Acrid smell enveloped the entire area, and after a few minutes, I started to feel nauseous.

My first question to Purushaan was, “How do people survive here and what about their quality of life?”. Many families who could afford it have moved out of the area. Those who can’t continue to live and bear the brunt of the toxic air emissions and waste water discharge emitted by the chemicals companies, bone meal factories, leather tanneries, including the government owned chemical companies such as Fertilizers and Chemicals Travancore, Cochin Minerals and Rutile Ltd, etc. 

In 2003, GreenPeace conducted a scientific study and declared Eloor as ‘top toxic hotspot’. In their study on Hindustan Insecticides Limited, GreenPeace had found River Periyar polluted with pesticides such as DDT and Endosulfan which has made residents prone to birth defects, and cancer.

River Periyar is referred to as the lifeline of central Kerala, flowing mainly through two districts; Idukki and Ernakulam. While the upper parts of the river is filled with domestic wastewater, it is the lower part that is more polluted because of industrial pollution. The untreated effluents discharged by industries often cause discoloration in the river and large scale fish kill is also reported every year. Air quality is also below par with the presence of volatile organic compounds and bad odour. 

Many resonate with the idea of friendship that is portrayed in the film, however, seeing the visuals depicting air pollution and about river Periyar is a small attempt to make alternate stories visible. The attempt on behalf of creators does offer a glimmer of hope to the affected community and those who are engaged in the cause against pollution in Periyar.

Our lives are multi-storied, so are for our favourite Manjummel Boys. The incident of Guna cave is one part of their story, and maybe their story includes surviving the toxicity and socio-economic inequality in their hometown.  

Should I cry or laugh?

There were many moments in the second part of the film where I was on the edge of tears, but they were also strangely funny. Everyone in the theater was relieved that Subhash was alive and that he was trying to grasp the reality of emerging out from the Guna cave. But the intensity of the moment vanished the instant a woman touched his feet and considered him an avatar of God. 

His friend (the one who saved him), gets admonished by Subhash’s mother, who is not aware of what transpired in his son’s life, for hanging out with younger men and not getting married. Everybody in the theatre shared a laugh. 

After the film, these scenes brought back memories of my trip around Eloor. The sorrow I experienced upon witnessing the condition of Eloor. For decades, the community members have been documenting the impact. Their entire existence is centered around photographing dead fish in the River Periyar first thing in the morning. They monitor the river’s discoloration. The nighttime visuals recorded by the community show industries releasing out toxic emissions. 

The sadness of what I witnessed was accompanied by the laughter at the government, their institutional bodies, and industries’ apathy towards the suffering of the community. The case filed before the High Court of Kerala by the community members highlight how the Environmental Surveillance Centre established to curb the pollution in Eloor-Edayar industrial cluster has failed to do its job, 24-hour surveillance vehicle meant for patrolling the area to report the violations and the surveillance cameras are non-operational, etc. While the fish kill and discoloration in the river happens often, the authority bodies such as Pollution Control Board remains clueless about the cause. On the other hand, industries are violating the standards by releasing volatile organic compounds into air, and wastewater discharge in the river. 

Apart from documenting the violations, the community members like Purushan have been fighting and holding the institutions accountable for affecting their lives and surroundings. That’s what probably people with hardly any power will do; they will push themselves out of the dark Guna cave, and they will fight against those who are not listening to their cries. 

Fouziya Tehzeeb, is a freelance writer and associated with Youth for Himalaya. 

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