The Silent Killer of Kerala's Marine Life

flood water that is red and muddy near a broken down house
The Quint
Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India
The Silent Killer of Kerala's Marine Life

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 now become one of the most vulnerable ecosystems in India as a titanium dioxide factory 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.

We visited the coastal villages in Kerala's 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.

Every time authorities have questioned TTP for not having a material recovery or effluent treatment facility in place, as ascertained by several reports by the Pollution Control Board (PCB), the factory has claimed that the sea, an alkaline medium, was traditionally used to discharge the acidic effluents as the waste can be neutralized within minutes of entering the sea, thus causing no harm to marine life.

But the data, environmental experts and fisherfolk strongly disagree.

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 TTP effluent has a pH of about 1, which means it's highly acidic, and it is well below the PCB'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 Pollution Control Board 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 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. Despite so many fisherfolk 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 at 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.” 

The question arises: why is the state government allowing a financially struggling company to keep operating? Why has the state shown indifference to the people's struggles and the irreparable harm to marine life? Read the full story in an immersive experience on The Quint as it dives deep into the impact of the titanium dioxide plant on the marine ecosystem and the fisherfolk.

Read the full story.

This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in The Quint on November 21, 2023 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: A house on the coastline of Kerala in India / Credit: Smitha TK.

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