Saturday, October 18, 2008

Vanishing Hillocks in Kerala: An Ecological Disaster in the Making

SMALL AND medium-sized hillocks are a common sight in the midlands of Kerala. They are beautiful, giving a curvaceous shape to entire landscape, with plenty of vegetation, most of them covered with all kinds of plants and trees and providing rich grazing areas for cattle. Ecologically they are critical to the region, as they are the main repositories of water resources keeping the millions of wells well furnished, providing drinking water to the people.

Sadly, this is undergoing a fast transformation today. The growing commercialization of land, expanding urbanization and the consequent hectic activity of a booming construction industry has put a death knell for the hillocks. In the past ten to fifteen years, a substantial part of the hillocks in Kerala's countryside have been demolished and carried away for filling low-lying lands for the construction industry, say recent studies which highlight the threats posed by the massive excavation activity now on in various parts of the State. Recent micro-level studies conducted by the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), a people's science movement with widespread network in the State, point to the alarming fact that since 1987, more than 50 per cent of the hillocks in the various panchayats and municipal towns that came under their survey, had been subjected to heavy excavation and removal of earth; among them 10 to 15 per cent had suffered extreme levels of losses, if not complete eradication.

The destruction of hillocks can have very serious and long-standing repercussions for the state's drinking water availability, says Dr A Achuthan, an eminent hydrologist and conservationist who was one of the pioneers of the Sastra Sahitya Parishad movement. He said in the next decade, the most important ecological problem the people of the State likely to face is the drinking water scarcity as the State's traditional water sources are now being upset and no new sources are identified. Already in recent years, every summer the scarcity of water in local wells has become such an acutely felt phenomenon in most parts and the gram panchayat, corporation and municipal authorities are hard-pressed to supply drinking water in container lorries in those places, he pointed out.

the problems of water scarcity now being experienced in most parts of the State, the demolition of hillocks and the filling up of low-lying lands, paddy fields and water-bodies are interconnected. The alarming nature of this problem has been recognized by the authorities and has led to adoption of harsh measures like the recent legislation like the Kerala Conservation of Paddy fields and Wetlands Bill, 2007 passed by the State Assembly in July 2008. The Bill seeks to protect the remaining paddy fields for cultivation of rice and other food articles, as according to the State Planning Board, in the period from 1980 to 2007, the State has lost as much as 500,000 hectares of wetland and paddy fields for construction and other commercial activities including conversion of lands for cash crops like rubber.

Much of the low-lying lands and water-bodies were filled up with earth made available from the demolished hillocks that were excavated making use of JCBs, the ubiquitous excavator that is seen in every village today. Village roads are full of earth-mover vehicles which cause frequent road accidents because of their reckless speed to avoid authorities. In a recent accident in Malappuram, an excavator itself was crushed under the crashing earth from above, killing two people instantly. (See picture.) Such accidents are now quite common and go without much comments in local newspapers.

The seriousness of the situation has not been formally assessed by any official agencies though the non-governmental sector has done some studies to highlight the risk. The Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad conducted its survey during May-June 2006, focusing on the changing land use patterns and the impact of these changes on environment and people's lives, selecting a number of panchayats and municipal towns in all parts of the State. Though the survey was of a preliminary nature, its findings point to the massive tendency to fill up water-bodies and for demolishing hillocks which are known as the major sources of water storage, say its activists who were involved in the study.

C M Muralidharan, secretary of the KSSP during the period of the survey, said that it was conducted mainly with a view to identifying the land use patterns in Kerala in order to finalize a strategy for campaign on these issues. He said after the preliminary results were compiled, the organization had plans to go for a multi-disciplinary study involving government agencies like the Centre for Earth Science Studies (CESS), Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (CWRDM), Kerala Land-use Board, etc, to assess scientifically how the changing patterns were going to impact the society in the long term. However, no such comprehensive study had been undertaken later even though the past few years have seen an intensification of the process.

The KSSP had conducted the survey in as many as eight districts out of the total 14 in the State and the district-wise data show that in comparison with the southern parts of the State, the north had witnessed a heavier assault on its land resources though the commercialization and industrialization has been much faster in the south. In fact the two districts which had witnessed the severest attacks were Kannur and Malappuram, both in the north. In Kannur, the survey had examined 33 gram panchayats and two municipal areas which had as many as 196 paddy fields and 163 hillocks. Of these paddy fields, 146 -- a whopping 81.6 per cent -- had already been filled up for either planting cash crops or commercial activities, building houses, etc. The study had included areas with a minimum of ten metres in height and 1390 hectares as base in the category of hillocks. Of the 163 such hillocks identified in the study, as many as 57.67 per cent (94) had been affected by excavation at various levels of progress. According to the study, 68 hillocks had lost as much as 25 per cent of the total area, while another 12 had been in the region of 25 to 50 per cent loss and 14 of them had lost more than 50 per cent.

P V Divakaran, a KSSP activist who was involved in the study, said that they had noticed 73 hillocks in the areas during the survey, without any damage. But since then, at least some of them had faced threat, he said. He said the eastern hill regions had experienced severe ecological damage because of the excavation of hills as proved by the fact that traditionally water rich areas like Iritty are facing water shortage these days. In this region, another ecological development causing concern is the frequent land slips that have destroyed property and lives. The instability created in the hills' landscape because of uncontrolled excavation has contributed to land slips, say local people. In a small village called Thillankkeri, which had six hillocks, all of them have been demolished giving the once leafy village a barren look.

Dr Achuthan, who had done extensive studies on the soil and water conversation patterns in the State, said the loss of hillocks in the north could prove to be a very serious hindrance for water safety in these regions as the laterite rich hillocks were the most important storage of water here. In fact, the rivers are fewer and far between in this region and even when they are full after rains, they take less than 48 hours to empty much of it into the sea. In Kasargode and parts of Kannur, a tradtional way to sourcing water is known as surangam, which is a unique way of collecting water dripping from the interiors of rocks and other laterite formations.

Compared to the north where the survey found loss of hillocks to the order of around 58 per cent, the actual loss in the south was much less, around 34 per cent, said K M Elias, convener of the environment sub-committee of the KSSP. They had surveyed 147 hills in Ernakulam district, one of the most industrialized areas in the State, and found that around 50 of them had been subjected to excavation, suffering moderate to heavy losses. Of them, 35 had suffered losses up to 25 percent; four had been in the region of 25 to 50 per cent damage; and 11 had been heavily damaged. However, majority of the hillocks, as many as 97, had not been as yet touched by the excavation lobby.

He said the situation was most likely to have changed since then, as new development projects in the area like the Vallarpadom Container Terminal, the Smart City project, etc, were now on full stream making construction booming. In fact as Dr Achuthan pointed out, recent data released by World Watch Institute point out that while the construction industry grows at five per cent globally and at nine per cent in India, it grows at 15 per cent in Kerala. Still one of the interesting facts borne out of the survey is the higher level of demolition of precious natural resources in the north. The reasons seem to be the comparative lack of public resistance and environment activism in the region, coupled with a higher level of poverty in villages, as most land owners have no option but to lease out their lands for construction purposes because of poor farm earnings. In fact, most of the farmer suicides were reported form the northern districts in Kerala in recent years compared to the southern parts.

The government action of preventing paddy field conversion with the recent bill providing for strict punitive provisions including jail term and hefty penalties as fine has been welcomed by a section of environmentalists, but many feel it could only aggravate the problems faced by farmers and land owners who are in distress. As the statistics on the damage to hillocks itself seem to suggest, the real issue behind this ecological disaster is not a lack of concern for environment, but the pressing problems of poverty and destitution.

(A version of this article is published at October 2008.)

1 comment:

foryoureyesonly said...

This is a very timely article. Sadly, nobody seems to have left any comment.

In Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu, many hillocks have vanished in the last 15 years. As a member of INTACH, i tried to bring it up to the notice of key persons in that district, but they just brushed off the topic. Nobody is willing to realize the environmental damages at stake.