In Panmana village, Kerala, there is an apathy towards the constant suffering. There is no expectation as such but the occasional pangs of death and tragedy. A rusty red colour has engulfed the trenches, canals and paddy fields of the village. Every whiff of clogged air irritates the lungs. Pollution from the public sector company Kerala Minerals and Metals Ltd (KMML), coupled with the natural radioactive emission from minerals contained in the sand, are making life of the local people miserable. They see no solution except rehabilitation.
Rathnamma, a 77-year-old woman, recounts how life has changed since her childhood in the village. “There was a time when we had crystal clear water, fish flourished in our canals and paddy fields were abundant with grain. We never had to buy rice from the market,” she says. She shows her barren paddy field, the soil red, in front of her house, showcasing the bleak present reality. “It has become an acid field now,” she says. “It is our fate. The company has brought disaster to us and to our children and the village.”
“Disease and disability are all that we have now,” says Rathnamma. “We are suffering from all sorts of diseases including skin infections, lung disorders, mental disorders and cancer. Even the very air we breathe is toxic: the whole village has become dangerous.”
Leela, 48, has been battling cancer for the past five years. “I have been suffering from abdominal cancer. I don’t have any option but to live and die in this accursed land,” she says.
Lathika, another 44-year-old resident of Panmana says, “By noon, the fumes from the company (KMML) spread in the village. I find it very difficult to breathe. The nights are worse. I have tried all kinds of medicines but nothing has helped. All this is happening to me after coming to this village. Now my only hope is to move away from the village.”
What has made the residents of one of the wealthiest villages in southern Kerala so desperate to get away? Panmana village is identified as an area with highest quality of ilmenite in the country. Ilmenite, which contains both iron and titanium, is one of the biggest sources of titanium dioxide which is used as a white pigment in paints, in the food industry for colouring and for other industrial uses. However, this natural wealth has turned out to be a bane for the inhabitants.