The not so slowly death of Kuttanad

A slightly long piece written for Kochi post.

Mithrakkary, my ancestral islet village that once used to wake up to the hoots of early morning water canoes now rattles on vrooming bikes over the maze of bridges and roads. Dasan, a fish vendor on his traditional canoe often falls late these days to his counter parts rushing in motor bikes.

A little farther, the vast expanse of backwaters are dotted by thatched house boats that pinned Kerala proudly over the international tourism map. Elsamma, a house wife living some canals away from the house boats struggles to find drinking water for her family amidst all its water bounty! The current state of Kuttanad paints a picture full of paradoxes.

Towards late summer, Dasan totally disappeared from the act of fish vending on his canoe. The reason as unique as the water locked land – his tiny canoe can’t pull through the water weed filled canals of Kuttanad. The arteries that once pumped wealth to the islets are now choked with purple flower bearing water hyacinth.

Geographically Kuttanad falls in the Vembanadu deltaic region in central Kerala, form a sensitive ecosystem of backwaters, marshes, lagoons, mangrove forests, reclaimed land, paddy fields, coconut palms and a network of canals. A sizeable portion of this coastal wetland zone lies at or below sea level. It is a thickly populated region, a major part of which – Kuttanad, with 54 villages spread over three districts – is known as “the rice bowl of Kerala” and is famous for its distinctive patterns of cultivation, sometimes carried out up to two metres below sea level, with the fields being prone to floods as well as salt water intrusion from the sea [1].

The peculiarities of the region showcased in umpteen number of tourism ads across the globe has brought world acclaim to Kerala as a brand and a superbrand over the years. But when it comes to saving the very bit of ecosystem that brought the state billions in revenue, politicians and public alike wash hands from their responsibilities.

The ill fate of Kuttanadu disguise in many forms:

  • Its alarming number of roads and bridges built in last one decade resulting in water body shrinkage
  • Unprecedented growth of tourism industry that cater to over 3000 house boats rowing across its already troubled waters.
  • The 6 rivers that flow in to the Vembanadu basin (Periyar, Muvattupuzha, Meenachil, Manimala, Pamba and Achenkovil) that should have cleansed the delta, themselves bear the brunt of heavy pollution.
  • The Thanneermukkam barrage, built to control flooding and salinity and to enable farming during the wet season, has succeeded in its primary purpose but has also stood in the way of the natural flushing action of salt water through the system [2]..
    With the expansive network of bridges and roads, one may ask if it hasn’t brought the so called ‘development’ to the earlier water locked regions. Yes, the inlands have turned part of the mainland but at the neglect of water canals encroached all across the region that shrunk the lake by a sizeable proportion. The roads that built across the far stretches of paddy fields now cater to tipper lorries zooming at unimaginable speeds to landfill some unknown piece of farmland.

    Most jobs created for cab drivers and tipper lorries at the expense of farming and fishing that is traditional to the region. A bus ride through the AC Road that runs parallel to the canals from Changanasserry to Alleppy reveals the extent of encroachment of water bodies that block the natural flow of sub – canals to the main canals towards Pallathuruthi. From locals to tourism industry to religious institutions have equal stakes in all these intrusions.

    The bridges unscientifically built in many parts take over a good portion of water bodies to build the abutments and often the deck height considerably low for a boat to pass across. All of this happening in a region that solely relied on boat transport until 10 years ago. Effectively, for a local settler who traditionally relies on agriculture with low return these days, its a life hard lived without potable drinking water and polluted canals around. Finally It has become a land that teaches its young generation to escape some how and build dreams away from its muddy waters and marshes. While Kerala built its super brand on its lap, life and nature under its magic cover has crumbled beyond repair, and the Kuttanad package that boast to save the land remain red taped at the tables of policy makers and bureaucrats.

    1 Krishnakumar R, “Fragile Ecosystems”, Frontline, Apr. 07-20, 2012
    2 Duncan, Sally, “Wetland or wasteland?”, Frontline, Apr. 25-May. 08, 2009

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