When K A Rahman succumbed to cancer on January 18, the river Chaliyar was orphaned and north Kerala villages lost its valiant sentinel. For Rahman had left the country's longest environmental battle unfinished.
Hours before his death, he left a message. He asked each one of us (all over the country) to do what we could to help the hapless victims of the giant industry.
Chaliyar was the lifeline of Vazhakkad village and a large number of other riparian villages near Kozhikode. But the commissioning of Grasim on the banks of the Chaliyar in 1963 changed the destiny of the river and the adjoining villages. Grasim discharged toxic effluents, including heavy metals, into the river, thereby giving birth to Rahman's struggle.
Rahman's death, more than three decades after the struggle began, has only strengthened the people's resolve to continue the fight with greater vehemence. They demand a permanent closure of the factory. The demonstrators point out that the amount the government spends on subsidy to Grasim would be enough to pay the workers who would go unemployed as a result of the closure. The state's writers and cultural leaders have maintained their solidarity with the people throughout the agitation.
On January 26, the people embarked on a new phase of struggle by starting a relay hungerstrike in front of the factory under the leadership of Abdul Salim, Rahman's son. Kerala's human rights groups have called for a boycott of Grasim products. Nevertheless, the battle will not be easy given the Birlas' clout and the inconsistent position of the government.
But Rahman's legacy is a powerful motivation for the people. Shall they not answer his last appeal to all alive to support their cause?