Rosemary sat on the edge of the steps of the Poonthura church, gazing at the waves crashing against the rocks. A gentle sea mist sprayed on her face as she recalled,
“About 50 years ago, I used to stand here with my father, and we could watch fish swim through the waves. Depending on the breed he spotted while standing on the shore, he would call his friends, and they would go fishing without boats... just walking into the waves.”
As her voice faded amidst the noisy waves, a reddish film appeared on the water, accompanied by an unfamiliar smell. She pointed and said, “That's what killed our fish and our way of life.”
The coastline in Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram, known to be abundantly rich in marine life, is now the third fastest eroding shoreline in the country. Over the past two decades, it has become one of the most vulnerable ecosystems in India as a titanium dioxide factory allegedly continues to dump hazardous waste into the sea despite several court orders calling for its closure.
The state government is allegedly assisting the public sector undertaking by securing immunity from environmental laws, claim fisherfolk, activists, and former government authorities.
The Quint visited the coastal villages in Thiruvananthapuram to document this unreported issue and to unveil how a community-led protest movement spanning over six decades, apparent pollution, depleting catches, and even an oil spill in 2020 haven’t prompted action to curb the severity of the marine pollution.
The Quint sent a list of questions to Fisheries Minister Saji Cheriyan, who expressed his intention to answer them, but is yet to hear back from him. The article will be updated as and when he responds.
In 1946, the first titanium dioxide industry plant in India was set up in Thiruvananthapuram on the initiative of the then Travancore King Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma. It was later taken over by the Kerala government. Even today, Travancore Titanium Products Limited (TTPL) remains the leading manufacturer of anatase grade titanium dioxide in India.
The titanium dioxide, extracted from abundant ilmenite deposits found on the beaches of Kollam, 65 km north of Thiruvananthapuram, is a crucial ingredient in the paint, rubber, textiles, plastic, cosmetics and paper industries.
TTPL extracts titanium using sulphuric acid and generates around 120 tonnes of concentrated acid every day, along with smaller quantities of ferrous sulphate, titanyl sulphate, and manganese sulphate as waste products.
The Environment Protection Act specifies that sulphur compound emissions can lead to reduced oxygen levels and change in water pH which can cause cellular damage in animals, threatening the survival of species and disrupting food webs.
To avoid such a disaster, the Hazardous Wastes (Management, Handling and Transboundary Movement) Rules, 2008, stated that an establishment must set up a treatment, storage, and disposal facility in compliance with the technical guidelines issued by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).
Yet, for the past many decades, the factory has been allegedly discharging the effluents into the Arabian Sea without treatment, in clear defiance of the Environment Protection Act.
The fisherfolk living in Veli, Poonthura, Kochuveli, Veliyathura and Vettucaud villages, adjoining the factory, don’t venture into the sea at around 5 pm, as that’s when the factory lets out the chemical-laden effluents every day. A brownish-yellow colour and a pungent smell are ever-present features at the discharge point.
A 70-year-old woman (who didn’t wish to be named) is the only one still living near the outlet on Veli beach. She said,
“Every day that I live next to this chemical hub, I am endangering my life. But there is not much I can do as I have lost my livelihood, didn’t get the job I was promised, and this house is all I have. I have breathing issues, the water in our wells is toxic, and no one is hearing my cries."
Dr Titto D’Cruz, who grew up on the coast, did a PhD in marine sciences, and is now a fisheries expert, was among the first few people to call out the "callous attitude" of the factory authorities 30 years ago.
“Initially, people welcomed the factory, unaware of the consequences. Over time, thanks to constant pollution, the quality of life here began deteriorating. Since these effluents are chemically loaded, even the fragile flora and fauna cannot handle it. Until the 1970s, this place was so vibrant, and now it looks like a no man's land. There are no boats, no fish, no people,” he added.
The first official note of the toxicity was made in August 2004 when the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee (SCMC) on Hazardous Wastes made its first visit to Kerala. The errant industries were told to comply with the pollution control norms — while some agreed, many decided to shut shop, and TTPL managed to gain time till April 2006 by purportedly getting the then Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy to plead with the SCMC on its behalf.
Thara KG, formerly heading the Disaster Management Centre with the Kerala government, noted that this industry should have been "viewed not as a developmental project but as an ecological disaster.”
“The Disaster Management Act dictates that it is imperative for industries to have guidelines for disposal but this isn't being done. If industries are arm-twisted to follow the rules, then we wouldn't even need a CPCB to follow up after the disaster has been caused. Also, there is a lot of corruption in this nexus of industrialists and policy makers that help in covering up tracks and making reports disappear,” she added.
Every time authorities have questioned TTPL for not having a material recovery or effluent treatment facility in place, as ascertained by several reports by the CPCB, the factory has claimed that the sea, an alkaline medium, was traditionally used to discharge the acidic effluents as the waste can be neutralised within minutes of entering the sea, thus causing no harm to marine life.
But the data, environmental experts, and fisherfolk strongly disagree.
In 1978, the National Institute of Oceanography, Regional Centre, Cochin created an experimental tank to recreate the atmosphere near the factory outlet to study the impact of toxic effluents on marine life.
The research revealed that many of the fish attempted to jump out upon introduction to the tank, later became sluggish, and died within about 36 hours. The effluent caused the lowering of pH and within a few hours, the gills of the fish and other marine life were choked with the deposits, causing death by asphyxiation.
The TTPL effluent has a pH of about 1, which means it's highly acidic, and it is well below the CPCB's recommended range of 5.5 to 9.0. A study by the University of Kerala in 2004 found that even at 1 km from the outlet, the seawater didn't become less acidic as the company suggested. The sea's colour stayed reddish-brown because of effluents with suspended particles that spread up to eight kilometres. The CPCB in the 2003-04 report stated that the company released hazardous sulphuric acid into the sea at levels about 994.49% – higher than the allowed limits set by the board.
The studies have uncovered a significant loss of biodiversity within the 100 sq km sea area surrounding the discharge point, with numerous species of marine life in their larval stages found dead.
The Quint contacted Georgee Ninan, managing director of TTPL, who said, “Just a few months back, we set up a neutralisation plant worth Rs 39 crore and a copperas recovery plant to treat the effluents and bring down the pH to 5.5."
The Quint asked for the official report to substantiate these claims but we haven’t received it. The official company website, too, does not have an updated report. The Quint has not been able to get official data on when the plants became functional.
When asked if the company has conducted any studies to ascertain the damage caused to the marine ecosystem, he said, "We did some study several years ago and based on that we have been planning our effluent treatment system. But we have not done any studies in the past few years.”
Anto Antony, a fisherman of the Kerala Swathanthara Fishermen Federation, said that several rocky reefs, a habitat for hundreds of marine creatures, have been destroyed, and traditional mussel collectors can no longer find a catch.
“Yellow fish tuna is a very prized product and is found in abundance here. But the government instead of capitalising on conserving marine life and prioritising fisherfolk, are supporting a loss-making company,” he said.
Contributing to this toxic cesspool was also Travancore Sulphates Ltd (TSL), which utilised a portion of the effluent discharged from TTPL to generate byproducts, thus neutralising the effluents. This was probably the sole pollution abatement effort made by TTPL to mitigate the environmental consequences of its acidic effluent. However, TSL ceased operations in 1991 amid contentious circumstances.
The factory has been taken to court on several occasions, following a consistent pattern of admitting guilt and explaining to the court that it had limited alternatives — either shut down due to the absence of pollution control facilities or to adopt expensive measures.
D'Cruz, the local-turned-fisheries expert, outlined three ways to manage effluents from sulphate plants:
- First, by neutralising the acidic effluent with an alkaline substance like hydrated lime, which leads to a large amount of sludge;
- Second, by utilising the acid recovery process, which can increase the cost of production by at least Rs 15,000 per tonne and produce solid waste;
- And third, by transforming effluent into a non-toxic form suitable for use in other industries.
The commitment to establish a pollution control project by 2006 went unfulfilled, leading to a closure notice from the CPCB in 2017.
Subsequently, the Kerala government approved a Rs 256.1 crore project to address pollution issues and the company's expansion and diversification requirements. Strangely, TTPL has chosen to pursue pollution control through the most expensive route, a choice it had previously rejected due to economic infeasibility.
An engineer in the factory, who preferred to be anonymous fearing losing his job, told The Quint:
“The factory, that was ordered by the CPCB to be closed for flouting pollution control norms, was allowed to expand without even addressing the concerns. Given TTPL's track record, the wayward company should have been made to install a scientific system, and only then allowed to function. Instead, they gave free will to an errant company.”
He added that the company has been given a free ticket by the state to continue operations, as a chemical-based industry cannot be shut down immediately due to the presence of sensitive material, and mismanagement would lead to bigger issues.
The company's unfinished projects have led to threats of closure from both CPCB and the Directorate-General of Foreign Trade (DGFT) due to unpaid Export Promotion Capital Goods (EPCG) dues.
Additionally, the 2006 Titanium graft case, relating to irregularities in setting up an effluent treatment plant, involving former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala, and former Industry minister Ebrahim Kunju, remains a subject of ongoing legal debate.
The fisherfolk recalled that when the factory was set up, they had proposed an arrangement to provide jobs to them and take on the responsibility of maintaining the ecosystem. However, even as recently as 2020, TTPL spilled around 5,000 litres of furnace oil into the ocean and shore, raising alarm.
Venita, 35, a fisherwoman who lives near the factory outlet, said that a layer of oil was visible in the borewell water weeks after the leak. “Wells in the area do not have potable water anymore due to the presence of acidic effluents. Now this is scarier,” she added.
Fisherfolk in this area also experience coastal erosion, exacerbating the pollution’s impacts. A study out by the Department of Geology, University of Kerala dictated that approximately 42 km of this coast faces acute erosion, and if the current rate of erosion continues, Shanghumugham and the nearby airport area could be affected within five years, underscoring the need for protection of this stretch.
Sindhu lives with her husband and two kids on the shore, five meters away from the waves. She shared how her life has changed in the past few years.
“The irreversible damage began 10 years ago. Our house was fifth in the row, and now, due to soil erosion, we are at the risk of being washed away at any time. Our grandfather was a celebrated fisherman, but today my husband is struggling to find enough catch to feed all of us. We are also worried about the long-term effects on our health from consuming fish that have been infected by these harmful chemicals,” she said.
Despite so many fisherfolk's claims standing testimony to the pollution, there haven't been adequate studies to ascertain the damage to the marine ecosystem in the region.
Johnson Jament, a PhD scholar from the University of Sussex who grew up along the coast, said, “The company dubbed the fisherfolk as unskilled and said they weren't fit to be employed. This is a classic example of grabbing the land, doing whatever, fooling the locals, ruining their livelihoods, and othering them.”
Rosemary, living along the coast for seven decades, recalled as a child joining her parents in creating one of the longest-known community-powered movements—later, it came to be known as the Coastal Uplift Association (CUA), in the 1960s. “Some days we fought for the nemmeen (a breed of fish), some days the dolphins, and most days for jobs as compensation, because our sea had turned into a toxic pool,” she said.
A grim incident often recounted here is the police firing in 1959. That day, 143 new workers were supposed to join the company all at once, setting a record in its history. The import of labourers from elsewhere brewed anger among the locals leading to protests demanding local representation in the company's employee list. The overhead oil tank on the company premises was torched and police firing followed, injuring several.
“When the 3,000-odd fisherfolk made the agitations a routine, the authorities simply changed the entrance of the factory, as that was the stage of the protest every day. After negotiations, a tripartite agreement was drawn with the assurance of jobs and a compensation package for the fisherfolk. But nothing has been fulfilled so far,” said Vincent Raj, who runs a printing press in the region, and has been spearheading the protests since the 1970s.
The MK Joseph Commission was appointed in 1973, and it recommended 25% reservation for locals for unskilled jobs in TTPL, which was loosely followed until about 1996 and then discontinued. The company had even promised to provide health insurance and hospital facilities, but Raj alleged that it wasn’t provided. Several people continue to report suffering from skin, heart, and other health issues, till date.
Despite numerous attempts to suppress the fisherfolk and receiving no support from the state or civil society, the community has been resilient in putting up a formidable fight. “It has been our unwavering voices, with no significant media attention, that has sustained this fight over several decades. However, since we didn’t have a consistent leader with a good rapport with the church and the government, the movement has been unable to halt the ecological damage,” said Michael, a fisherman from Poonthura.
Several leaders who have fought for the case for decades highlighted that understanding the role of the church was crucial.
A few kilometres ahead of the factory lies the coastal village of Poonthura, densely populated and bustling with fishing activities. The difference between Veli (where the effluent outlet is located) and Poonthura Beach was quite distinct. Peter, who sat on the shore wearing a bright pink shirt and knitting a fishing net, said, “I was 12 when I went out fishing for the first time. Back then, we would go hardly a kilometre inside the ocean because the fish varieties were in abundance. Now, the cost of kerosene and other items have gone up, but our incomes are dwindling because all the fish seem to be disappearing,” he said.
When asked about what he believes could be the reason, he said, “We know nothing beyond the limits of our village because we believe everything that the church says, and we’ve been told that this is just God's punishment.”
Rosemary, too, shared that while she is aware of the depleting count of marine life, she entrusts the church to make decisions for their lives and livelihoods.
Michael pointed out that the Vettucaud church has served as a poignant emblem of persistent societal protests spanning numerous decades. It has become a locus of inquiry where individuals seek resolutions to inquiries encompassing domains such as spirituality, cultural heritage, environmental concerns, and the frontiers of scientific knowledge, he shared.
But it is “the uninformed way in which the church interferes in matters of science that has derailed their movement,” he added.
Vincent Raj, who has been taking people on 'toxic walks' along the coastline to showcase the extent of damage, said the church has been the primary enabler for these projects, plaguing the coast.
“When the church welcomed the Vizhinjam port, we explained that this will affect marine life, the coastline, and livelihoods, thus changing the course of nature. The church can serve the spiritual needs of the people, but why is it intervening in every day issues pertaining to the people? This is a crime being done in the name of God.”
Several leaders in these coastal villages told The Quint that every time their agitation catches steam, the church strikes up a deal with the company, and the issue fizzles away.
“At the end of every negotiation, we've seen the priest agree that the factory is innocent, which is bizarre. Then we will find out whether the company is funding the annual church festival or contributing to its painting. We are gatekeepers of the ocean, and here we are trading their lives and ours for the benefit of the rich. This community is living in its own bubble, like a frog in a well. Capitalising on the people’s trust, the church has been advocating the initiatives by TTP,” said Cruz.
The Quint spoke to several people of the fishing community who have participated in protests over four decades who echoed this sentiment. A 48-year-old man from Poonthura village, who didn’t wish to be named fearing backlash, said that he had spearheaded several protests but is now “tired of their efforts being quashed by the church.” He added, “I have given up the fight. Just two years ago, I threw away so many cartons of case sheets and meeting reports.”
When The Quint spoke to a few priests, they vehemently refuted the allegations. “We work for the welfare of the people so we take decisions in their best interest,” said a senior priest, who refused to comment further or give his name.
“The problem is we don’t have environmental lawyers or activists here. These protests are spearheaded by a few locals, and so when they lose interest, the movement loses momentum. The government is also playing with the minds of people by telling the company to throw temporary solutions at the fickle-minded, ignorant public,” said Jament.
Ajith, a fisherman who has been documenting the experiences of fellow fishermen regarding the decline in marine life over the years and the repercussions of effluent dumping, said, “The government and company have managed to create the illusion that this is just a micro issue. Unlike fisherfolk in Tamil Nadu, there is no collective support here in Kerala. Many fishermen believe only we got the benefit of jobs so we are alone in this fight. But our only solution is to just continue to collectively protest,” he said.
Climate rights activist AJ Vijayan believes that what makes this a complicated fight is that this fragile coastline has been stressed by several development projects such as TTPL and Vizhinjam port project.
“The CPI(M) and the Congress are arguing about who was responsible for these development projects. If that's the attitude and they are focussed on ‘development at any cost,’ how do you expect them to extradite action? Several ministers have paid bribes to common folk living a little away from the problem to sway the people. Despite being plagued by several natural and man-made disasters in the recent past, the state hasn’t come up with mitigation measures to combat climate change,” he said.
Interestingly, just a few months ago, the company sanctioned a welfare package for the villages which an activist described as, “Well, now it is all about something is better than nothing. We might as well get amenities while we face degradation.”
Georgee Ninan of TTPL said, “We have approved welfare packages to the tune of Rs 1.2 crore. We have introduced a small finance scheme through which fisherfolk can borrow money to grow their business. We are also providing assistance for those who can’t afford medical treatment and education.” There was no mention of jobs.
Vincent Raj, Joy Thomas, and Titto D'Cruz, the trio who have led protests for decades, sat gazing at the sea as effluents gushed from the outlet, polluting the air with toxins. They expressed their exhaustion as their efforts are frequently hindered by the church and the state. They've faced accusations of betrayal in a newspaper article, with locals blaming them for not receiving jobs, and even alleging ethical compromise for bribes.
“I had documented every violation, people's protest, government's action, and proposed compensation packages. I educated myself on marine life and environmental laws so that I could fight for our community. In the 1990s, I motivated a fisherman to move the court demanding compensation for the loss of marine life and livelihoods. After a while of lending support, I had to focus on other matters and so the momentum of the case fizzled out,” lamented Raj.
In the meantime, the citizen initiative has pushed the company to announce micro-development initiatives for the neighbouring villages of Veli, Poonthura, Veliyathura, and Kannathura. These projects encompass the establishment of schools, hospitals, and a library and a rotating fund to assist struggling fishermen.
But Cruz urged that the foremost move should be for informed scientists to do a comprehensive study of the damage done so far and devise solutions to restore the equilibrium in the ocean. “When a project is planned, it is imperative for scientists to evaluate the impact on the health of the people and marine life. Focusing only on the profits and benefits will not bring a sea of change, instead, makes one lose sense of the big picture,” he said.
Journalist KA Shaji, who has been one of the loudest voices highlighting issues of climate change that are being ignored by the government and mainstream media, recounted that Kerala has a long history of allowing big industries to pollute the environment. “The biggest enabler for this corruption is the CPCB and government officials who are corrupt and hobnob with the ones causing pollution,” he said.
Jament argued that while Kerala stands for communism and social development, the coastal community has been neglected by the government, civil society, and social agencies. “Fishermen are treated like outliers, just like how marine life is treated. This polluted area is peculiar as it is hardly 5-6 km from power centres of Kerala like the Secretariat. Yet, this crime is being committed by a public sector undertaking for years and no one is batting an eyelid, except for the poor fisherfolk who don’t have adequate economic power or agency.”
Strangely, while the state government has been indifferent to ecological damage and accelerated climate change, they have planned to make Thiruvananthapuram completely solar-powered.
KA Shaji said, “This will be a cosmetic initiative that may fetch green awards. But if we ignore the disease, we are merely treating the symptom for the time being while letting the virus mutate and thrive."
This story has been produced with the support of
Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.
Reporter & Cameraperson
Hannah Bernstein, Earth Journalism Network
Creative Producer, The Quint
Shelly Walia, The Quint