Sunday, December 9, 2007

Get out Dalits, We Are Here to Develop!

Valanthakkadu: A Dalit Island’s Encounter with Development

By N P Chekkutty

The tiny island of Valanthakkadu in Maratu panchayat off Kochi is a unique ecosystem. Just one kilometer away from the national highway in the midst of the commercial capital of Kerala, the 246-acre island is surrounded by the richest mangroves in the southern parts of the State. Situated in the Vembanadu Lake, Valanthakkadu is home to a variety of fishes that are unique to estuaries as the lake itself is a mixed water-body of salt and fresh water extending to hundreds of kilometers to the east spread over the districts of Ernakulam, Alapuzha and Kottayam.

Till a few months ago, Valanthakkadu was a sleepy village where only 44 families lived, all of them poor fishermen who eked out their livelihood from the lake around. The main sources of their livelihood were fishing, collection of shell fish like clams, growing of prawns in enclosures and cultivation of a particular variety of rice known locally as pokkali, a unique rice variety seen only in these parts. The rice plants are seen above the salt water while their roots are sunk in the lake’s bottom.

Valanthakkadu’s social and ecological system is now in turmoil: The island in the heart of the commercial hub of Kerala is the envy of builders and land-developers. Around 200 acres of private land, which remained idle for generations giving a common fishing and cultivation ground for the people – normally they are submerged in water except in summer-- have been taken over by the builders’ lobby with a view to developing it into a high tech city that will bring huge investments and money.

As the workers from the builders’ firms recently descended on the island in large numbers and started cutting down the mangroves surrounding the village, people rose in protest converting this small island into a scene of contest between the band of developers on the one side and the deprived people on the other.

“We lived here for generations and all of us supported ourselves with the natural resources available in the island,” said Sahajan, a youth in his twenties, who is now one of the leading activists of the Committee for the Protection of Valanthakkadu, set up recently. He pointed out that except for a few youngsters who are employed as casual labour in the booming construction business in the city, the entire population of the island depend on the rich ecosystem for their living.

He says the people are not impressed by the offers being made by the builders and developers who have promised the State Government to set up a high-tech city that would generate 75,000 new jobs and modern houses for those who live in the island. “Why do we need those houses as without this ecosystem we will have no way to survive here?” he asked.

But Valanthakkadu has many other aspects that speak of the lesser known casualties of the march of development. On a visit to the island last week, this correspondent came to realize that of the 44 families living in the island, except for one Christian family, all others are Dalits, belonging to the Pulaya community. As untouchables in a caste-ridden society, they were sent to this uninhabited island in the midst of the lake a few generations ago. Now they are once again being uprooted, as much of the land in the island is originally owned by rich families who live in the mainland. Each of the settler family in the island own around 15 to 25 cents of land in their possession, while major share of the land in the island is owned by outsiders whose properties were till the other day hired as common fishing and cultivation areas.

A socio-cultural study of the island revealed much more interesting aspects: Most of the families have their own fishing nets and other traditional implements which are now predominantly used by womenfolk or older people as the youngsters prefer to cross the lake in search of jobs outside. The island is connected to the outside world through a ferry boat manned by 65-year-old Vasu Chettan, who says he gets around Rs. 50 a day. It was evening as we crossed the water, little fishes jumping in the still silver-coloured water partly covered by green hyacinths and the island a majestic view of scenic beauty.

The boat lands at the foot of the Primary Health Centre, the only public institution in the island which has not even a primary school to boast of. The few and scattered houses, a few of them tiled and concrete structures, can be reached through narrow footpaths. Most of the houses are modest dwelling places and one could see the fishing nets and other implements hanging from the walls. There are two types of nets, the prominent one mainly used by men who go out into the lake in boats and swing them wide, and the other- a smaller variety-- used by women who tackle the smaller species of fish. Women also collect clam and other items of shell fish diving deep into the water. The mesh-size of nets are made in such a way that younger fishes are allowed to escape.

“We go for fishing early in the morning and sell whatever we get at the market across the lake,” said Biji, a 36-year-old woman who is unmarried. She said her mother Chinnamma, 65, takes the fish to the market and normally they get nothing more than 50 or 60 rupees a day. “We have no other income, our brother is bed ridden, and we don’t know what we will do when we are forced out,” she said.

Ambika Gopi is a mother of two and she was on her way to the lake with her small net as we met her. A former president of the island’s micro finance group, Kudumbasree, she said her family’s only income was from fishing. They have recently bought a small boat and fishing net with a loan of Rs. 10,000 from the micro finance unit and have to repay Rs. 350 towards the loan every month. She said she has two children, a girl going to a degree college and a son who is admitted to a private course for which she has to shell out Rs. 400 a month as fee. “The new owners of the land are not allowing us to fish and we will face doom if the Government does not intervene to save us,” she said.

Most of the families have similar worries to share with the outside world. But except for a few activists like C R Neelakantan, a nuclear scientist turned environmental activist, who is associated with the Valanthakkadu Protection Committee, few people from Kerala’s public life have come here to investigate. One exception was Kallen Pokkudan, a Dalit activist and campaigner for the protection of mangroves, who is known for his heroic efforts for the preservation of mangroves in the northern parts of Kerala. “Pokkudan came here and he was horrified by the way this precious ecosystem is being wantonly destroyed,” said Neelakantan who accompanied him on the visit. An indigenous expert in local mangroves, Pokkudan was able to identify 12 varieties of them in the island. He felt that this is the largest system of natural mangroves in the southern parts of Kerala.

Neelakantan said the Valanthakkadu Protection Committee has petitioned the State Government against any destruction of the fragile ecosystem in the area. The committee also has filed a petition with the Kerala High Court against any move to destroy the mangroves in the island. The Chief Minister has instructed the Industries department to take into account the concerns of the local people before any MOU is signed for the development of the proposed high tech city. But the local people are wary about the promises as they fear they are powerless against the immense resources of capital invading their village.

Originally published at

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