Skip to main content

Life under the cloud of industrialisation: Insights from a public perception survey in Thoothukudi district

Edition: July - September 2018


Thoothukudi is an industrial district on the east coast in southern Tamil Nadu, with the port city of Thoothukudi as a major industrial hub. Due to the advantage offered by Thoothukudi port, the industrial cluster has spread to the neighbouring taluks as well. Thoothukudi district harbours five operational thermal power plants with nine more in the works. The area is also home to many chemical industries, including a copper smelting factory. The concentration of chemical industries and thermal power plants in the industrial taluks of Thoothukudi district leads to the mixture of several contaminating sources. This makes it difficult to specifically measure and relate the impact of the thermal power plants and industrial activities on air, water, health, and the surrounding environment. It is of interest thus to study the impact of these industries on the people of this district. 

At CAG, we chose to undertake a public perception survey in October-December 2016 to assess the difference in the quality of life and environmental impacts, if any, as a result of industrialisation in Thoothukudi district. The survey was carried out in four taluks of Thoothukudi district. Out of the four taluks, two are in industrial areas - Thoothukudi and Ottapidaram with thermal power plants and chemical industries in-situ, while Vilathikulam and Ettayapuram are in non-industrial areas with the populace primarily engaged in agriculture and inland fisheries. The survey analysed the impact on resources such as agriculture, water, and well-being of those living in the sample areas.

Perception survey gives us the opportunity to know the experience of the individuals living in the study area, their understanding of their locality and health. Perception survey captures the understanding of the survey respondents on the chosen topic which then could form the basis to start scientific studies in previously left out areas/topics. This survey covered 994 respondents from Ettayapuram and Vilathikulam (non-industrial), and 1,010 from Ottapidaram and Thoothukudi (industrial) taluks. Responses were collected by volunteers trained in using Kobo toolbox.


Map showing the four taluks selected for the perception study

This perception survey aims to ascertain: 

(a) Linkages between industrial development and changes in the local environment including air and water quality 

(b) Changes to agriculture and fishing due to industrial pollution; and 

(c) Impact on health in the communities

The survey findings are given below:

Education and Income

As expected, with the advent of industries in a location, the incentives for educating oneself rises which is reflected in the significantly higher number of graduates in the industrial taluks. The number of graduates in these taluks is 13% higher than in the non-industrial taluks.

While 40% of respondents in the non-industrial taluks reported earnings of more than ₹1,00,000 per annum, only 4% respondents in the industrial taluks earn in this range. 70% respondents in the industrial taluks earn between ₹25,000 to ₹75,000 per annum, compared to only 20% respondents from the non-industrial taluks earning in this range. There are twice as many respondents in the industrial taluks that earn less than ₹25,000 per annum as compared to respondents in non-industrial taluks. 


Even with a cluster of industries in the vicinity, almost 40% of the respondents from the industrial taluks are involved in agriculture either as farm owners (26%) or as farm labourers (16%). In the non-industrial taluks, 25% of the respondents are involved in agriculture, as farm owners (21%) or farm labourers (6%). Of those involved in farming, we see a stark difference in the annual income between the industrialised and non-industrialised taluks with the latter having better income levels. 89% of the respondents involved in farming in the industrialised taluks earn less than ₹75,000 per annum as compared to 51% of the respondents involved in farming in the non-industrial taluks. 43% of farm owners in the non-industrial taluk earn more than ₹75,000 per annum as compared to only 10% of farm owners in the industrial taluks. Only 4% of farm labourers from the non-industrial taluks earn more than₹75,000 per annum as compared to less than 1% in the industrial taluks. Thus, we can see that agriculture is one of the reasons for lower income of respondents in the industrial taluks. 

In the 10-year data (year 2005 to 2015), for the total agriculture produce (kg/acre/annum), we see a rise in the median annual produce for the non-industrial taluks from 2005, when it was 1,500  kg/acre/annum to 2,000 kg/acre/annum in 2013. In 2015 however, the median for the total annual produce fell to 1,500 kg/acre/annum. In the same period, the median for the total agriculture produce of industrial taluks fell from 1,500 kg/acre/year to 1,200kg/acre/year (figure 1). It could imply industrialisation may have had an impact on yield based on the feedback. However, weather patterns, crop patterns etc may play additional roles.


Figure 1- Change in total agriculture produce between 2005 to 2015

Water for irrigation

It is interesting to note that the farmers in both these groups vary greatly in their source of water for irrigation, with each farmer in industrial taluks dependent on more than two sources (borewells, panchayat connection and lakes/ponds) as compared to the farmers in non-industrial taluks, who use only one water source of which lakes/ponds are used by 36% of the respondents. Piped connection in industrial areas indicates the benefits of industrialisation flowing to the farmers. Almost 50% of the farmers in the industrial taluks reported wilting or drying of their crop after irrigation. This indicates the possibility of harmful chemicals in the water for irrigation. 


30% of respondents from the industrialised taluks are involved in fishing as compared to less than 1% in non-industrial taluks. Most of the respondents in both the groups are involved in fishing in tanks and ponds (64% of the sample surveyed) as compared to the ones fishing in the sea (25% of the sample surveyed) or in the river (10% of the sample surveyed). 50% of respondents involved in fishing from the industrial taluks have reported changes in their fish catch in the last five years (2010 to 2015). These changes are either reduction in quantity (42%), change in the fish species (42%), or both (30%). 33% of the respondents also reported changes in the breeding season of fish which in turn can impact the overall quantity and gender of fish caught. For those respondents whose main income is dependent on fishing (24% of respondents from industrial taluks), these changes would reflect in their reduced earnings. 61% of the respondents involved in fishing in industrialised taluks earn less than ₹50,000 per annum which is 15% of the total respondents from this group. In comparison, only 26% of the respondents involved in fishing in non-industrialised taluks earn less than ₹50,000 per annum which is just 1% of the total respondents from this group Thus, we can see fishing too, is one of the reasons for lower income of respondents in the industrial taluks. 


While only 45 (5%) respondents from the non-industrialized taluks reported health ailments like high blood pressure, tiredness and headache, 340 (34%) respondents from the industrial taluks have reported ailments like asthma, shortness of breath, kidney ailments, tiredness/lethargy, joint pain, headaches, high blood pressure and cough. Industrial pollution is a well-known trigger for various health ailments by virtue of pollutants creeping into the air we breathe, the water we consume, the food we eat and the level of noise we are exposed to. Thus, we next set out to record the participants’ perception of air quality, domestic water quality, and noise.

Perception of Air Quality  

Figure 2- Air Quality Perception

60% of respondents from industrialized taluks do not have a good perception of ambient air quality. They rate it as bad or moderately poor in quality. In absence of air quality monitoring stations in these taluks, it is difficult to ascertain at this stage if there is a direct link between people’s perception of ambient air quality and higher incidence of ailments like asthma, shortness of breath etc. Eight of ten respondents from the non-industrialized taluks have reported they perceive their air quality to be good. 

Perception of changes due to air pollution

20% of the respondents from industrialized taluks reported foul smell and 40% of them reported breathing difficulty. Corrosion of metal surfaces, colour change and drying of plant leaves was reported by more than half the respondents. Respondents in the non-industrial taluks did not report any significant changes for these parameters. 

Figure 3- Perception of changes due to air pollution

Domestic Water

There is a marked difference in the respondent’s preference of their water source for domestic consumption with 50% of the respondents in the industrial taluks dependent on municipal/panchayat connections whereas 40% of the respondents in non-industrial taluks rely on lakes/ponds for the same. This could be either due to drying up of the lakes/ponds or due to their pollution in the industrialised taluks.

Figure 4- Source of drinking water 

Almost all respondents in industrialised taluks have reported increased salinity, and change in taste and colour of water. Concomitantly, 50% of the respondents reported vomiting, fever, nausea, and kidney ailments post water consumption. No respondent from the non-industrial taluks have experienced any change in taste, salinity or colour of water, and there are very few reports of vomiting, fever, and nausea.

Figure 5- Perception of health issues related to water consumption


Noise Pollution

There are 191 complaints of loud noises and sleep disruption, and changes in behaviour of domestic animals from industrialized taluks as compared to zero in non-industrialized taluks. Noise led sleep disruption can lead to ill effects like increased blood pressure, increased heart rate and increased feeling of fatigue. 

This study has focused on overall indicators leaving scope for further research to collect in-depth data on the health of children, pregnant or lactating women and the elderly in these taluks. As these groups are the most vulnerable to the ill effects of air, water or soil pollution, a strong emphasis on screening, monitoring and, reporting of the health of these groups is desirable.


This perception survey revealed what people living in the vicinity of industries experience and think about the changes brought about in their lives by industrial development. Some recommendations are given below for consideration:

  • It is evident that the perceived effect of industrial pollution in the industrial taluks has not spread to the non-industrial taluks. Keeping this in mind, new plans for industrialisation of previously non-industrialised areas have to be avoided to prevent the spread of pollution in all areas.

  • For this purpose, a regional impact assessment needs to be conducted in case of any new industries which are to be set up. The regional impact assessment will ascertain whether the environmental impact is likely to spill over to the nearby taluks causing environmental harm.

  • At the local level, installation of air and water quality monitors in the industrial taluks to ascertain the link between air and water quality and public health as well as in non-industrial taluks for its real-time monitoring.

  • Efforts should be made to provide soil health cards to all farmers and facilitate regular soil analysis. 


There is a higher number of graduates in the industrial taluks as compared to the non-industrial taluks. The respondents from non-industrial taluks have reported better earnings compared to their counterparts from industrial taluks. Total agriculture produce for the period between 2005 to 2015 was consistently lower in the industrial taluks as compared to the non-industrial taluks.  Taken together, all these findings from the perception study indicate that industrialisation has been perceived to have an unwelcome effect on the quality of life in the industrialised taluks. Our respondents have reported higher incidences of health ailments, air, water and noise pollution, as well as changes in agriculture and fishing which could be attributed to the ill-effects of industrialisation. 

Scope for future research: Responses received in the survey could spur scientists and clinicians to take up research exploring the links between specific pollutants and the health issues reported by respondents from the industrial taluks. Their research can establish with scientific evidence what the respondents have perceived. The findings and recommendations of this perception survey could serve as an indicator of the type of development we seek for our people and the role they should play in initiatives like industrialisation which leaves an unwelcome effect on our lives. 


Newsletter Type