Kochi fire: People deserting city as toxic smoke, fumes wear them down

Mar 12, 2023 04:00 PM IST

Stating that the government’s main objective is to avert a pandemic, health minister Veena George on Saturday said 800 people have sought medical aid so far, and the state will begin a door-to-door health survey from Tuesday

As Kochi continues to struggle with toxic smoke emanating from the fire at the solid waste dumping yard in Brahmapuram 11 days ago, many have started abandoning the city as they await a return to a life of normalcy.

Firefighters engage in dousing fire at solid waste dumping yard in Brahmapuram in Kochi (Twitter/@IN_HQSNC)
Firefighters engage in dousing fire at solid waste dumping yard in Brahmapuram in Kochi (Twitter/@IN_HQSNC)

On Sunday morning, the air quality index in Kochi was above 200, which according to the pollution control board, may cross 300 by evening.

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Many residents’ associations in the city said a large number of people have left for their hometowns to get rid of toxic fumes. Empty car parking lots in many apartments and thin attendance in offices are a testimony to it.

Also Read: Kochi struggles to breathe amid toxic smoke: What led to Brahmapuram plant fire?

Stating that the government’s main objective is to avert a pandemic, health minister Veena George on Saturday said 800 people have sought medical aid so far, and the state will begin a door-to-door health survey from Tuesday. “We will identify people who are affected by smoke and will start treatment. Our main effort is to avert a pandemic,” she said.

The government has asked all hospitals to give top priority to people facing problems breathing. According to health experts, toxic air that contained a high level of dioxin, furan and other chemicals, is as dangerous as nuclear waste-induced air.

“Dioxin and furan, two major chemical components, can cling on to dust particles and can enter the bloodstream directly and its long-term impact can be dangerous,” said a health expert.

“Long-term impact of such toxic fumes and smoke has to be studied. The toxic chemical will continue to enter the body even after the smoke is settled through crops, water and livestock,” said medical expert Dr Rajeev Jayadevan.

Many medical stores said demand for inhalers, oximeters and respiratory tract infection medicines increased manifold.

Meanwhile, agitated residents are saying that they have lost all hope as different agencies continued the blame game over the fire. A former judge of the high court said that no one is taking responsibility for the disaster.

“Response is very poor. Authorities should impose attempt-to-murder charges on people responsible for the terrible mess. Quality air is one’s right and nobody can deny this. It is a shame people are leaving the city for fresh air,” said former justice Kemal Pasha, a resident of the port city.

Though a ministerial team that visited the city on Saturday said 80% of the smoke was doused, people say their claims are false.

“Situation is really alarming as residents gasp for breath. It is a disgrace that the state’s best city is reduced to an object of shame,” said a techie who worked in Info Park but moved to his home town in Kottayam on Saturday after his five-year-old son developed breathing problems.

Amid the toxic air quality, IT firms in the city too have arranged work from home for their employees. There are 280 IT companies in the park, having over 60,000 employees.

“Offline work from Info Park is no longer feasible as the condition worsened. Many employees are suffering from health issues,” said P Anish, president of an IT firm.

“It is pity the city is gasping for breath even after 11 days,” said actor Sandra Thomas. Singer Sayanora sang on a Kochi street on Saturday to express her anger and protest.

Meanwhile, youths in the city on Saturday night organised a gathering at Marine Drive holding banners saying, “We want to breathe, give us air” and “Kochi cannot breathe, who is responsible?”

Some also began a social media campaign with the #Kochican’tbreath to draw Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s and the centre’s attention.

“Eleven days passed no solution is in sight. No cases or arrests. Responsible people are busy passing the buck. We need the intervention of the PM,” said H Ram, a protestor.

As the situation aggravated, the opposition sharpened its attack on the government alleging corruption. They also demanded that the city mayor should resign over the incident.

Also Read: Kochi fire: Corruption and nepotism charges fly thick and fast

“There is big corruption in the contract which was given to a relative of the CPI(M) leader. The mayor should resign and the corporation should be dismissed. Toxic air is laced with corruption and nepotism,” said minister of state for external affairs V Muraleedharan.

“The CM is yet to respond. Has he left the country? It is a man-made disaster and culprits should be brought to light,” Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala said.

Responding to these, CPI (M) state secretary M V Govindan said in Kottayam that waste has accumulated in the city for more than two decades and it was not fair to blame the present regime only.

“This plant was started two decades ago and waste accumulated over many years. Mindless dumping led to this and residents also have a role in it,” he said.

On March 2, a massive fire broke out at the Brahmapuram waste plant in Kochi. Following the incident, more than 5,000 litres of water was sprayed on the same day, in the active fire zones of 110-acre yards in a bid to douse the fire.

Residents have been advised to remain indoors and use N-95 masks if they step out. Local authorities have also announced that schools will be shut for younger children.

In an update on Sunday, the state government said that the fire was under control and would be extinguished soon.

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    Ramesh Babu is HT’s bureau chief in Kerala, with about three decades of experience in journalism.

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