This is a true story of the beautiful state of Kerala, of its famed backwaters and wetlands, of its rain-swept Western Ghats. It also speaks of the grime beneath the hype - of a state which is home to "a generation on crutches", and of the environmental havoc that the state's progress has meant
God's own country
KERALA is a land of contradictions. While a mean rainfall of 300 cm lashes the state every year shortage of drinking water remains a perennial cause for heartache. The state government admits that the problem has become a permanent fixture since 1983 in the list of ills ailing the state. The Malayalees, as a people, have unpardonably squandered away nature's bountiful largesse - and the evidence is visible everywhere.
Of the world's 18 biodiversity 'hot spots' so designated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) the southern Western Ghats of Kerala (42 per cent of these Ghats lie in the state) is one; the other in India is the Himalayan region. But few in Kerala are even aware of this. Some youth groups are trying to reinvent the community's inner strengths which had remained long neglected. But these are like oases in a barren landscape, and that too, spread few and far between. At the national level the Indian government is yet to acknowledge the value of its last and - as experts now agree - only existing moist evergreen forests of the southern Western Ghats.
Housing invaluable biodiversity this region needs immediate intervention of conservation efforts - if not as a national heritage, then at least for the economic advantages that are likely to emerge with the onset of the gene trade. The present approach is destructive to the myriad organisms inhabiting the region that are sensitive to the minutest changes in environment. The locally evolved symbiotic cultures and their reciprocity to nature are being vanquished in the wake of aggressive modernisation undertaken in the last few decades, according to eminent naturalists like John C Jacoba pioneer in the environment movement and a key figure in the state's Silent Valley campaign.
Biodiversity helps in building up resilience in the ecosystem. Kerala's natural resilience is still strong enough to reverse - in certain areas- the present degradation according to a general consensus of experts. Sustained human interventions starting with the first colonial plantations (mostly coconut) begun by the Dutch to the recent spate of deforestation and encroachments have robbed the hills of their ability to heal themselves. On top of that there are also the unauthorised loggers, cultivators of drug-producing plants, poachers and other underworld 'mafia' operatives who thrive in engendering ecological death in close league with those in power.
However not all is lost. There are pockets in the Western Ghats with reasonable forest cover that still retain their vitality. The southern Western Ghats are home to a formidable variety of species including micro-organisms and invertebrates, most of which still remain elusive. It is estimated that over 50 million species may exist globally though only 1.5 million have been documented so far - but only negligible efforts are being made to realise the vast hidden potential of Kerala in adding to this documentation.
Traditionally the local culture used to have built-in protective measures like sacred groves, religious taboos to preserve the ecology and its diversity a diverse system of maintaining homestead gardens with a large variety of trees and plant sand practice of mixed cropping that complemented the essentially nature-worshipping' culture. Even as recently as two decades ago the homestead gardens boasted an immense variety - including coconut, jackfruit, mango arecanut, pepper, betel and banana - that has been sacrificed to fragmentation of land and to profitable plantations including recently acres of fashionable garden Plants.
Monoculture plantations have bulldozed development. Though forests are no longer being felled to accomodate plantations, monoculture continues in existing clearings. The spread of domestic crops like rubber has been phenomenal in the last two decades, increasing at a rate of 12,000 hectare (ha) annually throughout Kerala.
Large tracts of the Western Ghats in the state are under cash crops - tea, coffee or forest land cardamom - in privately-owned plantations marked by aggressive farming methods that have over time, led to damaged topsoil following the dumping of pesticides insecticides, weedicides and a host of other 'poisons. An independent study has revealed that in the plantation district of Idukki (4,998 sq km) the quantity of pesticides used is 39kg/haof insecticides11.5kg/haoffungicides14.7kg/ha and of weedicides 9.83kg/ha. As much as 30 to 40 per cent of the district - also one of the most prone to landslides - comprises large plantations. Land erosion is severe and land productivity is failing. As a spokesperson of the United Planters Association of South India (UPASI) admitted tea cultivation will not be economical after 10 years.
Kerala's much-touted land legislations, while succeeding in fragmenting the non-plantation lands have left the large plantations untouched. The state's extremely low per capita land availability (0. 13 ha) and its high density of population (749 per sq km) demands immediate and positive government action with regard to the plantations. This is of paramount importance for the water balance of the plains as well. Where the pressure of population is slowly but steadily eating into the forests as encroachments redistributing the plantation lands and regulating their use could alleviate the problem. Some plantation fragments may also be allowed for 'reclamation' by natural growth so that the hills maybe nursed back to life.
Kerala's coastlines are under seige as well. The wetlands along the coast were, and still are home to a variety of amphibians and organisms. The indiscriminate use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides in the region together with aggressive exploitation of the fauna - such as frogs for export of frog legs a decade back -has resulted in reduced fertility and the increased incidence of harmful pests. This has adversely affected the surrounding land so that cultivation has been virtually given up to' land development'. Kerala's paddy cropping fell from nine lakh ha in 1970 to five lakh ha in. 1995. The compounded effects in the food base and water percolation system are yet to be ascertained.
The inland water bodies, rivers and the coastal waters have also suffered similar species depletion. In the Akkulam- Veli lake the number of fish species have fallen from over 300 half a century back to just 25 today, largely because of reduced primary productivity in the bottom sediments of the lake. Pollution, sand mining and damming along river banks have destroyed freshwater species- and depleted the diet of the poor in the region. International concern has been focussed on the marine ecosystem of Kerala - identified as a case of what is being called the 'desertification of the seas'.
Individual wells used to be a common feature in traditional Kerala households; most homes had them. Today city-dwellers are increasingly becoming dependent on government water supply schemes. Many old wells are being abandoned or filled; some have found a novel new use - as septic tanks for lavatories. (The Malayalee people have come a long way from the days they worshipped wells). This and other highly unhealthy practices can lead to the pollution of underground channels and contamination of nearby water bodies.
The annual fall - during the summer months - in the state's water table has encouraged deep boring. In many such cases there has been seepage of saline water. The government of Kerala plans legislation to restrict the digging of wells and bore wells at certain locations.
The mining of sands from river beds is also believed to have adversely affected the water table. This has been reported from the banks of the Pampa, Bharathapuzha and other rivers where sand mining is rampant; at some locations as many as 800 truckloads of sand are removed daily. The removal of sand affects the aquatic environment and destroys local fish-breeding grounds. The consequences have not prompted the government to take any preventive action.
In places the mining has been so extensive as to lower the river beds considerably below the embankments. Mining resulted in closing of the Enathu bridge at Adoor on the river Kallada to traffic, after its foundations were found to have been weakened by neighbouring sand mining activities. Complaints by the local public and press reports about Enathu had no impact on political leaders and decision-makers in the state.
As Kerala is situated on a slope from the Western Ghats to the sea - with the Anamudi the highest peak in the Western Ghatsat a height of 2,694 in - its rivers are mainly flowing westward many at a very high velocity more so after the monsoons. Denuded of vegetation cover in the upper reaches and in the plains the rate of erosion has gone up and sand mining has aggravated the draining of the waters, depleting percolation. This has further affected the wells.
Erosion has led to the rivers carrying higher volumes of silt and to the fast filling up of lakes and reservoirs. Increased siltation of estuaries has resulted in the sea washing further inland. In many rivers as with the Chaliyar Ithikkara and Periyar sea waters intrude more and more inland - for instance 25 km into the Chaliyar estuary and 35 kin into the Kallada.
The state electricity board (SEB) has yet to release data regarding siltation in the hydel reservoirs. As for the lakes, it is difficult to differentiate between this and the large scale reclamation on the banks. Siltation has left only one pocket in the Akkularn lake which drains Thiruvananthapurarn city at reasonable depth. With the reduced water-holding capacity of the lake there have been floods in the city.
The commissioning of the Idukki hydel station (installed capacity of 780 megawatt) in the 1980s created an enormous euphoria that Kerala was to have excess power. While the state did sell power to its neighbours for a while the power shortages returned. The state finally found a scapegoat in those who had called a halt to the proposed Silent Valley and later Pooyanikutti hydel projects.
The SEB refuses to disclose information on the efficiency of performance of the state's hydel projects including the sedimentation in the reservoirs. It is known that in reservoirs of the irrigation department such as the Pecchi (built in 1957) the effective storage capacity is getting reduced by around 0.83 per cent annually; in the Chulliar, affected by landslides, siltation is higher. The Idukki area is far more vulnerable with steep hillsides and encroachments that have denuded the hills leading to frequent landslides.
With the destruction of forests the natural springs have been either extinguished or become increasingly seasonal. If the demand for more hydel schemes is met the net result would be a series of dams and little water -either for power generation or for drinking. The SEB has finally after initially pooh-poohing the idea of tapping non -conventional energy sources agreed to harness wind wave and micro-hydel energy. Piping Bombay High gas to the state is another feasible alternative. But this may involve devastating the forests in the Western Ghats earmarked by the IUCN as a world natural heritage.
Over-exploitation of marine resources pollution and erosion are the major problems facing coastal Kerala. It is this roughly 360 sq km-continental shelf that the fisherfolk of Kerala (making up 3.36 per cent of the state's population) depend on the density of population here which goes up to 1500peopleper sq km in some areas, makes the problem of sea erosion a natural calamity. Seasonally, the sea may carry the beaches from one place to another.
The state government has initiated a major programme of building barriers against the sea which often prove in effective. The earliest steps to build such sea walls had been taken in the pre- independence days. Kerala today has around 350 kms of sea walls. Scientists at the Centre for Earth Science Studies (CESS) Thiruvananthapuram argue that erosion data of ten ignores accretion data and the cumulative balance. A 1972 report which said that 320 km of the coast is prone to erosion was endorsed, but the CESS team found 165 km of accretional sites as well. Normally there is a zero loss of beach from accretion.
There is also additional problem of largescale mining of coastal sands; at certain places like Cheriyazheekal near Kollam the width of the land between the sea and the backwaters has' been reduced to a few feet. Mining has been ongoing since the 1940s; now it is conducted by the Indian Rare Earths of the Union government's department of atomic energy. Most of the sands which contain monazite, illmenite and thorium among other metals, are shipped raw to external agencies.
Extensive damage to the marine ecosystem including the coral reefs mangroves and mud banks has contributed to declining coastal productivity. Pollution is another major player in this. However government statistics show that the export of marine products - in terms of both value and quantity - has increased. But the deeper reality of the problem according to experts is different. The increases are a result of aggressive exploitation through mechanised devices that have rendered the coastal waters depleted of stock over the years and worse, severely altered the symbiotic relationships of the ecosystem.
Mechanised fishing in Kerala began in 1953 with an Indo-Norwegian project which essentially aimed at equipping fisherfolk with advanced fishing systems. But as the capital-intensive mechanised boats were soon at the control of non-fisherfolk like moneylenders the profit motive acquired absolute preeminence. The naturalised controls that traditional fisherfolk followed were no longer adhered to.
The accumulated results of the indiscriminate trawling of the 1960s and '70s including the damage to the ecosystem are not fully known. But it is a widely accepted fact that the diversity in fish populations was reduced that 150 of the once common species were no more to be seen and that the catches were reduced by 40 to 60 per cent of the pre- 1970 levels.
Simultaneously the pattern of domestic consumption has undergone a change as well. Once the poor man's proteinsource the per capita availability of fish for local consumption dropped from 19 kg in 1971 to nine kg in 1981. Mechanised trawlering and the export thrust have effected the change.
In Kerala as in all of India ad hoc interventions go by the name of' development'. The genuine needs of the people or their environment are not part of any wider planning.
As the earth scientist Sreekumar Chattopadhyaya says ecosystem-specific designs whether in agriculture forestry or lifestyle shave to be accepted. Plans airlifted from elsewhere may do more harm than good as monoculture plantations or mechanised fisheries have done in Kerala though there maybe immediate gains. And as politician-turned-environmentalist K V Surendranath says politicians will have to out grows sort-term calculations in favour of the long-term common good. Often schemes started by one government are given up by the next the bane of Kerala's oft-changing political The fate of the village-level resource mapping exercise started by the Left Front government through CESS is one such casualty.
On the administrative side Kerala's department of science technology and environment (STED) has not even been consulted for important policy decisions on environment. One recent example is that of the Rudravanarn project in Periyar tiger reserve conceived by the state's chief secretary meant for pilgrims to Sabarimalaa hill shrine deep inside the rainforests. About to be implemented only the timely intervention of alert activist groups stalled it. But the whole process bypassed STED though an 'appraisal' of the plan was done.
With large scale and growing unemployment most local residents are happy to agree that tourism is the 'sunrise' industry of Kerala - the panacea for its employment- related ills. Industrial investment is low because of the strong trade union movement in the state; the economy is stagnant; and it is mainly remittances from migrants especially those in West Asia that keep many houses afloat. The authorities have therefore chosen to lure income with the plentiful natural attractions of the region.
But a bare-all tourism policy may not help. The famed backwaters of Kerala are, literally rotting. And it is in these very waters that the tourism officials have introduced fancy yachts, hoping perhaps that some at least will dare the trap. The once misty hills with their rainforests are balding frequent landslides exposing the rock and newly unprotected soils. The dying rivers, ponds and lakes go unnoticed in the mad rush to progress.
Tourism does sometimes help though as for instance in the case of the Akkulam-Veli lake on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram. When tourist boats were getting stuck in the sewage of the lake and not many were willing to avail of the facility, the tourism department launched a study of the condition of the lake. The study generated reports exposing the gruesome reality within: fish epidemics, depleted life stocks, poisons and black death.
The situation according to K N Nair CESS director and eminent scientist is like an 'inverted pyramid' Presumed progress at the cost of the survival systems cannot be stable, he says. Such development had led to whata Malayalee writer recently described as "a generation on crutches". Given the treasures of the Malayalee inheritance that is indeed sad. What is sadder is that people refuse to notice it even when nature's warning signals come in red: the perishing hills the muddy rivers' and gray waters.
P R J Pradeep is a freelance journalist based in Thiruvananthapuram
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