Rayon is a cellulose fiber that is made from natural sources of cellulose, such as wood, bamboo or related agricultural products. On May 3rd, 1958 the Birla group signed an agreement with the Kerala government to set up a Rayon Grade wood pulp factory with a capacity of 100 tonnes per day in the Nilambur-Beypore area in the District of Calicut. This agreement commited the government to supply 1,60,000 tonnes of bamboo per year to the company at a rate of only Rs.1 per tonne of bamboo (the prevailing market price of bamboo was Rs 2000 per tonne). It gave the company exclusive rights and license to extract any bamboo from contract areas which initially was the Nilambur Valley. If additional bamboo was required, it also had the right to fell and remove it from other areas in proximity to the Contract Areas. The capacity of the plant also increased in a few years and it later also began producing Viscose Staple Pulp and other chemicals required to use in the plant. Through subsequent Supplementary Agreements, the commitment was increased and more forests were opened up for the company, and by 1984 practically all of the state’s forest tracts were made available for the extraction of Bamboo (and later Eucalyptus). The government assured the people that the establishment of a company on the banks of Chaliyar (the fourth longest river in Kerala, 169 km) would usher an age of development and salaried employment. The factory started functioning in 1962.
Pulp factories require enormous amounts of water to function. The Grasim factory used about 51,650 m3 of water per day and discharged 40,000 m3 of effluents back into the river[1,2].
The river was a source of drinking and bathing water. It was also a source of income and food for the people who fished, foraged mussels. The factory was also responsible for polluting the air with gases including carbon disulphide and sulphur dioxide above permissible limits. R. Sridhar in a study in 2000 makes an account of the losses incurred by way of massive raw material subsidies provided to the company over 34 years (1962-1998) to be Rs 28,936 crores. This is excluding the loss of livelihoods dependent on the Chaliyar river and forests of Kerala from which the factory sourced its raw materials; the damage inflicted on the river, land, air, wildlife; and the impact on the health of the people living in proximity to the factory. The Green Rating Project of the Centre for Science and Environment(CSE) which rates industrial units of each sector based on their environmental friendliness, in 1997 ranked the company 25th of 28 pulp and paper units. It revealed that the company’s fiber use efficiency was as low as 29%.
Protests against the company by the people, objecting to its pollution of their villages, started almost as soon as it started functioning and the first protest group also came up called the Chaliyar Defence Committee. Interestingly this is also when Rachel Carson published her book, Silent Spring in 1962. One could say it marked the beginning of Kerala’s first environmental movement. One of the earliest slogans raised against the company was “Kudikkana Vellam Kulumal Akkiya Birla Company Manda Manda” (We don’t need the Birla Company that pollutes our drinking water) . This started the prolonged struggle against the company for the next four decades negotiating initially managed effluent discharge and later on to close down the factory. Efforts of the following protests were later consolidated under the Chaliyar Jala Vayu Shuddikarana Committee (Chaliyar Water and Air Purification Committee) in 1973.
In 1974, with the involvement of the state leadership, an agreement was reached between the people and the management regarding the effluent discharge. The company was to lay a pipeline 6.4 km downstream from the factory. This was only implemented 6 years later and it was then discovered that the tidal waves brought back the effluents upstream to Mavoor. Although the Kerala State Pollution Control Board was established in 1974, the company consistently flouted the permissible limits of various factors without facing flack for it.
The environmental movement often clashed with the interests of the trade unions who were afraid of the repercussions of the closing of the factory. Instead, their negotiations with the management were to regularise contractual employees and working hours of daily wage labourers. The company shut down in 1985 for three years following a lockout after a labour strike. 13 employees of the factory committed suicide in the period. Studies in the next two decades showed that the Chaliyar was polluted beyond acceptable levels. In the 1990s the focus also turned to the health impacts of the company’s air and water pollution. The death register of the panchayat of Vazhakkad in 1999 noted that 21% of the reported deaths there were due to cancer. There were also about 200 deaths due to cancer in the period between 1990-1994 in Vazhakkad Panchayath. 3 employees of the factory died while repairing faulty values on the pipeline. From 1997 the demands to shut down the plant started to be voiced. The protests turned fervent in 1999 January after the death of K A Rahman, the leader of the protest movement, who succumbed to cancer. A state-level convention was organized and later an indefinite relay fast was observed from January 26th in front of the factory. By May 1999, the company halted its production and by 2001 the factory was shut down.
Since 2013 the people of Mavoor are calling for responsible development and sustainable industry in the land where the company used to exist. Successive governments have made attempts to take over 330 acres of land of the erstwhile factory from the Birla group without a favourable outcome.