Trapped between industrial titans in Kerala’s Ambalamedu industrial area

The residents of a strip of land in the Ambalamedu industrial area of Ernakulam in Kerala have been sandwiched between an oil-and-gas giant and one producing chemicals. K.S. Sudhi reports on the pleas of residents, mostly daily wagers, to buy out their land so they may move to healthier places to live in

Updated - March 05, 2024 03:06 pm IST

Published - February 01, 2024 06:36 pm IST

One of the abandoned houses at Ayyankuzhy area in the Vadavukode-Puthenkurishu village panchayat in Ernakulam district.

One of the abandoned houses at Ayyankuzhy area in the Vadavukode-Puthenkurishu village panchayat in Ernakulam district. | Photo Credit: THULASI KAKKAT

The wooden door of the single storey house of V.K. Surendran, a construction worker from Ayyankuzhi in the Ambalamedu industrial area of Ernakulam, Kerala, creaked, as he gave it a gentle push after unlocking the lock. An imposing concrete wall with a barbed-wire fence, constructed by the Kochi refinery of Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL) overlooked the house. A few hundred metres away, on the left was an equally tall stone wall constructed by Hindustan Organic Chemicals Limited. The installations of the companies in their yard tower over the nondescript house, almost squashed between the overbearing granite walls.

Damaged household utensils, including a metal pot, lay strewn across the shabby cement floor of the house. Layers of dirt and dust had settled over the dining table on its last legs. Cobwebs hung across walls. This was the house where Surendran and his ancestors had lived for decades, until the built-up industries around forced them out about a decade ago. Nine neighbours followed Surendran, abandoning their homes that were built on the nine-acre holding, as life became hard for them here. Now, 29 families remain.

Peaceful until the 80s

“It was a calm area rich with a clean river, verdant paddy fields, and lush greenery until the 80s. Our lives were peaceful and clean. Then the companies started setting up their units,” says V.S. Sasi, a retired head load worker, trying hard to control a recurrent cough. Though the petroleum and the organic chemical companies that had come up in the Ambalamedu area had worked as catalysts for the industrialisation of the area three decades ago, it had also inadvertently wrecked the lives of scores of families that had lived there for generations.

“Our houses have been encircled by the compound walls of the industrial units that came up here. The once-village area was quickly converted into an industrial belt, and we got trapped there. Pollution made many residents sick. We had to abandon our houses and resettle our lives away from the doomed land,” says Sasi while putting on a face mask. “The two small houses that I had constructed using my meagre earnings as a headload worker had to be abandoned as it became hazardous to stay here. No one was willing either to buy those houses or even take them on rent,” says Sasi, as a tipper truck laden with bitumen mix for road construction makes its way down the road adjacent to his house. The speeding vehicle leaves behind the stench of molten bitumen, a sign of ‘development’.

The residents of the area are mostly daily wagers. “We have, over the past three decades, urged the two companies to take over the land and thus save the lives of people whose holdings have been trapped in between their holdings,” says M.K. Pankajakshan, a resident of the area.

Health, the deciding factor

V.N. Mohanan, a carpenter, was also forced to leave his ancestral house and resettle in an area nearly 10 kilometres away with his sick parents, children, and wife. “My father developed a respiratory illness while staying here and had to be hospitalised quite often. I decided to move out of the area considering the health of the family members. I had to abandon the house and resettle at a place far away from the area. Migrant workers engaged in the carpentry unit are currently staying in the house,” says Mohanan.

The marshy land lying near the abandoned houses at Ayyankuzhy in Vadavukode-Puthenkurishu village panchayat in Ernakulam district.

The marshy land lying near the abandoned houses at Ayyankuzhy in Vadavukode-Puthenkurishu village panchayat in Ernakulam district. | Photo Credit: THULASI KAKKAT

Pankajakshan, also a leader of the action council of the residents, says the air is thick with chemicals and there is no relief even from the sea breeze. “The continuous exposure to pollutants has made many people sick. There is a high incidence of respiratory illness among people here. This was confirmed at a medical camp organised by the District Medical Office, Ernakulam, last year, following an intervention from the Kerala High Court,” he says.

Figures from medical camp

The data from the medical camp, which was attended by 85 people, revealed that 36 people suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), dyspnea on exertion, cough, nasal allergies, and recurrent respiratory infections. Instances of hypertension, asthma, and skin diseases were also detected. The report, compiled by the District Medical Officer, while suggesting detailed medical evaluation, had noted that atmospheric pollution was one of the main causes of chronic lung diseases.

Flames all around

The inhabitants of the area complain that they are being held prisoners by the two public sector companies and face the risk of life. “In 1984, a few of us had a close encounter with death on this strip of land lying between the compound walls of the two companies, when a major fire broke out in one of the industrial units,” recounts Surendran. “The flames had spread over a large area and were threatening to spill over to the holding where our houses were located.” The entrapped residents had to demolish a portion of the compound wall built by the company to escape to safety as the flames raged throughout the day.

“It was after five days of the accident that the residents were able return to their homes as the whole area was covered with smoke and soot. The residents had freed their cattle before fleeing the area hoping that the animals would fend for themselves,” he recollects.

The financial impact

The gradual conversion of the once residential area into an industrial zone has also financially hit the residents hard, he says. Banks are refusing to offer home loans because their properties are located within an industrial area and the holdings, which have to be mortgaged for raising the loan, don’t have any resale value. The only benefit the companies have extended to the residents is piped water connections through which drinking water is provided for around two hours a day, he says.

In 1990, frustrated residents had unsuccessfully resorted to a series of protests including a coffin march, where they placed themselves in coffins to press for their demands over the years. However, the firms have not relented. The companies had informed the State government about their inability to acquire the land as there are no specific projects that require the land. The firms have also told the government that a precarious financial position was preventing them from taking over the holding.

Denial of pollution charge

Meanwhile, company officials have denied the allegations of pollution. “The air quality and other environment pollution parameters in the Ambalamedu campus are monitored 24X7 and the data thus generated is transmitted live to the monitors of the Kerala State Pollution Control Board and the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. The agencies that are designated for pollution monitoring will haul up the polluting units. If found polluting, the BPCL Kochi Refinery has no other choice but to down the shutters. Till now, no agency has found fault with the company and raised the allegations of causing pollution,” asserts a spokesperson of the refinery.

Benny Behannan, the Member of Parliament, who is representing the area in the Lower House, suggests the holdings of the residents be acquired by the State government and the families adequately compensated. He feels the government also needs to look into the health of the residents of the area. “The State cannot run away from the responsibility of providing those affected with free medical support,” says Behannan who had taken up the issue with the Union government.

A viable alternative

The families are pinning their hopes on a government proposal for acquiring the land for an e-waste recycling plant. The report submitted by a high-level committee, which found the land suitable for the plant, itself justifies the plea of the residents, they argue. The panel found that the holding was located in an industrial area with no residential areas close by. The absence of schools and hospitals in the vicinity and the 8-metre road that runs through the area has made the holding suitable for the plant, the report observes.

Though the government has offered to acquire the land, it has not yet come up with any written proposal to take possession of the holding and to rehabilitate the residents. “Every time the case comes up before the Kerala High Court, the government pleads for more time to take the final call,” says Pankajakshan, cautious of being optimistic when the case comes up in the first week of February.

Yet the residents, despite being unsure of what awaits them, are determined to continue the battle they have been waging for over three decades. For them, it’s the battle to defend their innate right to lead a dignified, safe life.

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