Friday, February 1, 2008

The Plunder of Kerala's Rivers

A warm welcome to Vasco da Gama on his arrival to Malabar coast: But did he deserve it?

Travels in the Vasco da Dama Country: Part One

By N P Chekkutty

THE FIRST wave of globalisation started some time in the 15th century when the Portuguese sailor-adventurer Vasco da Gama landed in a small village on the Malabar coast near the port city of Calicut, thus opening the sea route between Europe and Asia. The 500 years since have seen immense changes, but people joke that if da Gama happened to come back again, he would not lose his way in the city he once walked.
Overall, though, the state has seen many changes. Kerala has recorded a growth rate equal to the national GDP growth, though in the past two decades it has slowed down, showing even negative growth at times. The economic growth came despite the fact that Kerala has no special economic zones, no Nandigrams or Singurs.
Economists used to call Kerala a ‘money order economy’ because for decades it depended on money sent back by Keralites who flocked to the Gulf countries to work. These remittances still come in, but the Gulf is no longer the El Dorado for the youth. Travelling in the footsteps of the bearded sailor from Portugal, I found that there is much happening in Kerala’s society and economy these days, not all of it positive.
Kappad, where da Gama landed with his armada of ships and guns on a fine morning in1498, is a small village 30 km from the city of Kozhikode (formerly Calicut), which looks as if it has not changed much from his days. Old-fashioned thatched houses with sliding roofs are given a modern touch by the ubiquitous television antennae jutting out, tea-shops do brisk business, and a reminder of the past still adheres in a small pillar inscribed ‘This is where Vasco da Gama landed in 1498’, a fragile memorial for the powerful pirate who inaugurated a long period of colonial tyranny and occupation.
Tales of Portuguese cruelty are still told, and resurgent Islamic forces have re-published the Tuhfathul Mujahedeen by Sheikh Zainudheen of Ponnani, who called upon his people to resist the invaders. A few years ago, on the 500th anniversary of the white man’s first voyage to these shores, I saw a group of young men marching to the beach, standing in front of the granite pillar, shouting slogans and then ceremonially spitting on it…
The train from Mangalore crosses over 40 rivers to reach the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram. Most of these rivers start from the rich bio-depository of the Western Ghats that extend from north to south encompassing such immensely valuable bio-reserves as the Silent Valley National Park. Rivers are a source of life and their banks are the sites of human settlements the world over. Most ancient temples are built on the banks of rivers. There were 64 original Brahmin settlements in Kerala, almost all of them on the banks of rivers.
In modern-day Kerala, rivers are once again centrestage, the focus of huge public agitations over livelihood issues. The protest movements are now focused on the issues of pollution of water-bodies and the alienation of lands and water-sources from original users like fisherfolk and farmers. Rivers are fast becoming commercial property. In the north, the Chaliyar River saw a three-decade-long agitation against a highly polluting industrial unit, Gwalior Rayons (Grasim). Now the factory is closed and life seems to have returned to the river.
“Yes, Chaliyar is now a river reborn,” says Elamarom Nazirudheen, who was convener of the action committee that spearheaded the public agitation in the villages in the Chaliyar basin.
The Chaliyar River that courses through Kozhikode and Malappuram districts used to nurture a large number of peasant villages. When the factory started operations in 1963, air and water became polluted, and the people of the affected panchayats like Vazhakkad, Vazhayoor, Areekkode and Mavoor, protested. It was the first public agitation against air and water pollution in Kerala and it led to an agreement between the people and the factory management in 1974 known as the Rama Nilayam pact, as it was brokered in the government guesthouse bearing that name.
It was as part of this agreement that the Kerala State Pollution Control Board was set up in 1974 to monitor air and water pollution. But the government and the company management reneged on the terms of the agreement, and the agitation took an aggressive turn with K A Rahman, a peasant from Vazhakkad, taking up the leadership. He once barged into the factory offices with dynamite strapped to his stomach, say the villagers who remember the heroic fight. The high point of the agitation was in December 1998 when around 7,000 villagers marched to the factory gates demanding its immediate closure.
However, by then, things had changed. Grasim’s technology had become obsolete and its pollution had started attracting severe criticism all over the country. Raw material had become scarce and the public extremely agitated, and the factory finally closed down in early-2000.
“There is tremendous improvement in the quality of air and water now and diseases such as cancer and lung problems that were rampant in those days have come down,” says a health worker in the small town of Mavoor. He pointed out that a survey conducted by Vazhakkad panchayat had found that during 1993-98 as many as 215 cancer cases had been reported only from panchayat.
Chaliyar is a success story of a people’s environmental movement in the state -- perhaps the only one. For the fight against river pollution in this land of rivers continues in other parts of the state.
At Kuttippuram, as the train crosses Bharatapuzha, the legendary Nila River that nursed generations of poets and writers comes into view. The river is full during the monsoon months but in summer it is a vast stretch of sandbanks. Sand is a highly sought after material for the booming construction industry and the sandbanks are being incessantly and mindlessly excavated. Local people say that a load of sand fetches around Rs 3,500 and there is huge demand for the material.
Vast stretches of paddy fields around Bharathapuzha, mainly in Palakkad district, once the granary of the state, have been converted into construction sites with dozens of designer villas coming up, scooped up primarily by rich non-resident Indians (NRIs) who buy them as an investment and as vacation homes. Meanwhile, rice cultivation has been declining and the latest report from the Department of Economics and Statistics, released in January 2007, says that over the past 44 years the decline in rice production has been an alarming 63%.
In 2005-06, the total area under paddy stood at 2.76 lakh hectares as against 7.53 lakh hectares in 1961-62, the report noted. Production, too, declined from 13.39 lakh tonnes in 1981-82 to 6.3 lakh tonnes in 2005-06. That means a drop of over 50% in a period of 24 years while consumption has been registering a huge increase, now standing at 30 lakh tonnes a year.
Despite this, the conversion of paddy fields continues and construction booms. Lorries move about on the river bed and the river resembles an industrial site. Farmers complain about the drop in sub-surface water levels as sand is removed. As cultivation becomes unviable, they sell off their holdings to real estate groups. In the Bharathapuzha basin region, the river protection committee is agitating for preservation of the sacred river, but the decimation of the river through incessant sand removal continues unabated.
In Alwaye, it is another river and another environmental disaster. The lifeline of central Kerala, the river Periyar is highly polluted with over 250 chemical units working in the Eloor-Edayar industrial belt on both sides of the river. “The situation is grim as a large number of families in the Eloor-Kadungallur area are denied even drinking water,” says Purushan Eloor who leads the action committee against pollution of the Periyar River.
C R Neelakantan, environmental activist and chairman of the Committee to Protect Periyar, said the heavy influx of hazardous material into the river should be stopped; a health survey should be conducted and those with serious ailments must be given medical aid, and facilities for providing clean drinking water should be made available. He pointed out that in many places local panchayats are distributing drinking water as wells and other sources are fatally contaminated.
The grim story has been in the making for a long time. As hazardous industrial units proliferated on the banks of the river, the Pollution Control Board took little action to stop them from polluting the river. In fact, a recent proposal to impose collective fines on polluting industrial units suggested by a Supreme Court appointed committee has been kept in cold storage as industrialists put pressure on the authorities to ignore it.
In July 2005, the Supreme Court’s Monitoring Committee on Hazardous Wastes (SCMC) visited the area and in its report said: ‘The Periyar is an ecological disaster in the making.’
But most of the rivers here are ecological disasters, some of them because of uncontrolled industrial activity, others because of uncontrolled human activity. The river Pamba that nurtures the Sabarimala region, is choking to death: in the pilgrim season, millions of devotees visit the temple deep in the forest and the river has to absorb the huge accumulated wastes they generate.
“This is not only an ecological problem for the river; soon we will face a health disaster too,” said a member of the Pamba Action Committee which has been agitating against the indiscriminate use of the river as a scavenger, and the lack of effort to check the increasing number of people visiting every season. The water is highly polluted with e-coli and other bacteria that could easily trigger an epidemic. Dr B Ekbal, the well-known health activist, said that unless action is taken to control the number of people, the present facilities in Pamba will fail very soon and the consequences would be disastrous.
Ironically, in this land of rivers, bottled water is now big business. Packaged water started flooding the market only a few years ago, but today sales have overtaken even those of soft drinks, say traders’ organisations. Water has become a commercial property because, as recent studies have repeatedly proved, drinking water resources are fast dwindling in the state.
Most sources are polluted including the sub-surface water aquifers, say experts at the Centre for Water Resources Development & Management (CWRDM), at Kozhikode, which conducted a series of studies on the water situation in Kerala. They also found that sub-surface water resources are receding, posing a serious threat to water safety in this rain-lashed region. A recent study conducted by Malayala Manorama on the safety of drinking water, taking samples from all parts of the state, found that few safe water resources are left. More than 90% of samples they examined had shown excessive presence of contaminants like e-coli.
Commercial activity may bring prosperity to the state but it seems to be doing so at the cost of the environment and the health and livelihood of ordinary people. This is, surely, an unacceptable paradigm of development and least expected in a state ruled by communist parties for much of its modern history.

(This is the first of a three-part series on contemporary Kerala.), January, 2008.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

If we analyse the history of European rivers like Rhine (which flows from Swiss, to Germany, and then to Holland) or Thames, one need not be so pessimistic. The pollution was excessive until 30 years ago, but now the quality has improved drastically. Earlier, there were attempts to `discipline' rivers by constructing side walls, but now (atleast in switzerland) the tendency is to reinvent the natural course. Regaining the purity or shape of a river is not impossible as evident from these cases. More awareness and more money in the pockets of Keralites can do this job.

V. Santhakumar