Kerala's plight

Published : Mar 26, 2004 00:00 IST

A failed monsoon brings distress to Kerala; its second longest river, the Bharathapuzha, is virtually dry, and Palakkad district faces the worst drought in its history.

R. KRISHNAKUMAR in Palakkad Photographs: C. Rateesh Kumar

PALAKKAD district is facing one of the worst droughts in its history. The Malampuzha dam, the biggest irrigation dam in the State, has failed to provide water for the second crop in Palakkad, Chittur and Alathur taluks, for the first time since 1955 when it was commissioned. The reservoir built across the Malampuzha river, a tributary of the Bharathapuzha, can store 226 million cubic metres (mcm) of water, but it only about 19 mcm in the end of February, barely enough to meet the drinking water needs of Palakkad town and six panchayats until June.

Traditionally, Palakkad is a low-rainfall region, owing mainly to the 32 to 40 km wide Palakkad Gap in the Western Ghats on the Tamil Nadu border. But in the past decade there was an alarming decrease in rainfall in the district, from 2,103.60 mm in 1994 to 1,208 mm in 2003. Malampuzha received barely 1,245 mm rain in 2003 against the normal rainfall of 2,169 mm, and the flow to the catchment area is estimated to have come down by around 60 per cent over the years.

Private farms coming up in the catchment area apparently divert water in substantial quantities and new industries downstream are said to do the same. It was reported in December that the Onnampuzha, one of the main sources of water for Malampuzha, had been diverted at its source by Tamil Nadu for storage at a checkdam in Coimbatore district. The Kerala government is yet to deny the reports.

Today the Malampuzha reservoir is pocked with islands and its rock-filled bottom is a haven for grazing cows, honeymoon couples and children on study tour.

Downstream, farmers in Alathur taluk, which is irrigated by the Malampuzha, Mangalam and Pothundy dams, are digging deeper for water, according to the secretary of the Vellat Pavodi Padasekharam, M. Prabhakaran. He believes that Palakkad cannot afford any longer to continue to harvest a second crop of paddy. "True, miracle varieties of rice, chemical fertilizer and pesticide and more dams and extensive irrigation facilities had increased production and productivity. But there is no water, any longer to sustain all this," he said. "Isn't it time to start thinking of a new pattern of cultivation? Should we continue to provide irrigated water for non-conventional agriculture? Shouldn't we impose controls on the use of motor pumpsets?" Searching questions that demand inconvenient answers.

On the banks of the Chitturpuzha, another tributary of the Bharathapuzha, businessman-turned-farmer P. Narayanan Unni is a worried man. Summer has just begun and the river is already a trickle. The other day, the municipal authorities had forcefully removed over a hundred irrigation pumps installed by farmers upstream, in an effort to preserve drinking water supplies for as long as they could. Unni believes that farmers need to innovate. He had been experimenting with the cultivation of medicinal rice, of high value in Ayurveda, which would fetch a higher price, if all goes well. He plans to market it as a branded product. Unni uses eco-friendly techniques, including organic farming. The crop requires less water than usual varieties, he says, and provides a good yield within a short duration.

At Polpully, the paddy heartland of Chittur taluk, farmer leader V. Vasudevan, recipient of the State government's first Karshikothama (best agriculturist) Award, was supervising the harvesting of a section of his 15-acre (six-hectare) crop partially destroyed by drought. The innovative farmer pioneered the use of the tractor in the village in 1963 despite controversy and is the founder president of the farmers organisation in the district. Although the entire village is facing the worst water scarcity in the region, he was able to save a major portion of his crop "merely by protecting a 1.5-acre pond nearby and making the optimum use of the water from it".

Said Vasudevan: "In Kerala, paddy cultivation, of which Palakkad accounts for 34 per cent, will never be a loss-making venture if the farmer is assured of water and a price commensurate with the production costs. But even 50 years after Independence, successive State governments have failed the farmers." The farmers too have to share the blame. Almost all the 16,000 ponds in the district are in a state of neglect, he said.

Vasudevan, 75, was getting ready to lead farmers of Chittur taluk in a "fast-unto-death" agitation against the State government's failure to ensure for them the State's share of water from the rivers of the Bharathapuzha, Chalakkudy and Periyar basins under the Kerala-Tamil Nadu agreement on the Parambikkulam-Aliyaar Project (PAP). The catchment area of the west-flowing rivers covers parts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Under the agreement, water is to be shared through a system of ten dams interconnected by tunnels and canals, some of which are in Kerala, though under the control of Tamil Nadu. The water is ultimately delivered to the drought-prone areas in Coimbatore district and Dharmapuram and Karigayam taluks of Erode district in Tamil Nadu and Chittur taluk in Kerala.

Since the beginning of February, farmers in the Chittur area have been organising agitations and stopping vehicles bound for Tamil Nadu, boycotting Ministers and holding State officials hostage, demanding their "due share of water". Under the PAP agreement, every water year - from July 1 to June 30 - Tamil Nadu is to release 7.25 tmc ft of water into the ayacut area of the Chitturpuzha, a tributary of the Bharathapuzha, mainly for the 16,000 hectare second crop in Chittur taluk. This amount will be in addition to the "uncontrolled water" from the Aliyaar. According to Kerala government officials, as of February 15 Tamil Nadu has provided only 4.1 tmc ft, when it ought to have released 5.6 tmc ft into the Kerala system. "We are engaged in a life and death battle here. Almost the entire second crop has been destroyed and our own government is refusing to help us," Vasudevan said.

THE government is also facing flak over its approach to the use of water by the soft drink majors Coca-Cola and PepsiCo in their production units in the district. Recently, the Kerala High Court asked the State government to explain why it sought the temporary closure of Coca-Cola's production unit at Plachimada village, in Perumatty panchayat of Chittur taluk, for the summer months, but allowed PepsiCo to continue to extract almost the same quantity of groundwater from the nearby Puthusseri panchayat.

At the sprawling water-mining complex of PepsiCo India Holdings Ltd, situated at the WISE (Western India Services and Estates Ltd) Park industrial development area in Kanjikode, company guards act like hornets at the sight of a camera. Hardly had this correspondent and the photographer found a vantage point outside the main gate, a pair of company officials drove up and pretended that they would not budge until "the intruders" left the public road outside the company. "Our plant is located within an industrial area. We have not created problems for anyone. There is no residential area nearby. There is no water scarcity here," they announced, voluntarily.

In Chittur taluk, there were touchy security guards outside other water-consuming industries too. "We have orders not to let the media take photographs of the company building," the guard outside the beer-maker UB Group announced aggressively. Coca-Cola, though, had all the bad publicity it did not want in the past few years and the guards seemed so used to media groups that the camera failed to attract attention. The company has moved its battle against the local panchayat to the courts and ignores the small group of local residents, mostly Dalits and tribal people, which has been on an agitation before the factory gates for the past two years.

A court-ordered scientific study by a group of experts, led by scientists of the Centre for Water Research and Development (CWRDM), Kozhikode, is under way in the region. But in the last week of February, the company was functioning normally, guzzling groundwater, despite the State government's temporary closure order.

Trucks loaded with soft drinks drive out of the company gates and past the pots lined up outside the thatched houses, as if cocking a snook at the residents who wait for the tanker arranged by Coca-Cola to bring them "safe" drinking water from "outside". Some of the residents, who support the agitation, have refused the offer and wait for the water lorry from the panchayat. The public wells and hand-pumps near the company have copious water. "But you can't drink it. You can't bathe in it. We are forced to use it to wash clothes," a resident said.

Adjacent to the company, the government runs an anganwadi centre, which was set up 15 years ago and provides food twice a day to over 60 people, including children, pregnant women and mothers with newborns. Its only source of water is a well nearby. But ever since the company came up, the water in the well has become unsuitable for use. Chella, a middle-aged woman who is a helper at the anganwadi, said mothers used to skip work and take turns to walk 6 km every day to bring water for their children. "Only recently the panchayat started supplying water. But how long will this go on?" she said.

There is a cluster of thatched houses behind the anganwadi, belonging to a tribal family headed by a woman who calls herself "Plachimada Papa". For over 40 years she and her husband had worked in the fields of a local landlord. The landlord eventually sold all the land to the company, except for five cents, which he gave the family. "I started working in these fields from 1962 at Re.1 a day," said Papa's 65-year-old son Pazhani. "We lived well then. We had food. We had plenty of clean water. Today we have no work for most part of the year. We cannot use the water from our own well."

To the east of the Coca-Cola factory is a four-acre agricultural land and a farmhouse belonging to a traditional farmer, Shahul Hameed. He, "the owner of four acres of fertile paddy field", is now forced to buy rice from the market. Said Hameed: "For the past three years I chose to leave the land fallow but for an occasional crop of groundnut and coconut. The borewell pump used to work continuously for over 16 hours in 2001. Now, I can pump water for the crops merely for an hour. The pond has dried up. I used to provide employment to 20 people. Now I live on my son's salary. I struggle to pay tax to the panchayat. I have sold most of my cattle. The income from the farm is not enough even to pay the wages."

BUT to be drawn in by the aridness and anger at Plachimada is to miss the woods for the trees. The rivers, fields, ponds and canals in Chittur taluk, "the granary of the granary" as this heartland of rice cultivation in the district is known, and in the neighbouring taluks are as dry as they are near the soft drink factories. Though six other districts in the State, too, are facing the fury of a desiccating early summer, it is the water scarcity in Palakkad district that has alarmed environmentalists the most. Palakkad has long been considered the main "granary" of Kerala, growing a variety of crops, including rice, coconut, groundnut, cotton, sugarcane, pepper, banana, ragi, rubber, mango, orange, coffee, cardamom and vegetables. Its economy is sustained primarily by agriculture, which engages more than 65 per cent of the workers and by the Bharathapuzha, the second longest river in the State, and its tributaries, including the Gayathripuzha, the Chitturpuzha, the Kalpathypuzha and the Thuthapuzha. Many locations in Palakkad with their enchanting rural households, green fields and breathtaking natural beauty, were till recently the haunt of film-makers from far and near. Now, as the population of Palakkad, 90 per cent of which is rural, rues, the greenery and the beauty have been transplanted to the other side of the Western Ghats, to the once arid regions of Tamil Nadu, such as Pollachi. "Nature has switched sides," is a common refrain.

Nowhere are its drawbacks more evident than at the heart of the Bharathapuzha, at one of its widest stretches at Shoranur, near the `Cochin Bridge' linking Palakkad and Thrissur districts. Extensive deforestation in the catchment area, calamitous sand mining and changes in land use pattern along the banks, eight major dams and many smaller ones along its course, agricultural and industrial pollution, clay mining, saltwater intrusion, and a myriad other abuses that it is subjected to by an ever-increasing population spread over 4,000 villages, have contributed to the death of Kerala's mother river.

At Shoranur, the river's bosom, which had inspired generations of poets and writers, is a hot desert, complete with thickets, shrubs and rodent holes. A few pools of water between the old and new bridges, shared by elephants, dogs, men and women, were the only signs of a river having existed there. Sand mining pits and abandoned concrete "observation pits" pocked the desert masquerade of the river. An earthmover machine was working continuously. Its driver said he had been at the wheel for over four days digging a channel in the middle of the riverbed for the Kerala Water Authority (KWA), which is supplying drinking water to Shoranur municipality and beyond. Finally, he had struck water at a depth of three metres. The orders were to dig further, perhaps two more metres. Occasionally, as the Frontline team watched, an innocuous-looking vehicle arrived, or men came on bicycles, and left with sacks of sand. "Sand-mining is prohibited," one of them said, with a grin.

At the Shoranur bank, a clear 15-minute walk from the centre of the waterless Bharathapuzha, a pump house of the KWA, part of the urban water supply scheme for the town and a nearby panchayat, was humming. Both the 110 HP motors were surprisingly on. During the southwest monsoon period, the motors would work for over 21 hours every day. Now they struggled to suck water from the river sand, or what little was left of it after the mining. Pumping lasted barely eight hours the previous day. The riverbed has been sinking every year and the water that is extracted for distribution has the colour of mud.

Many pump houses on the Bharathapuzha, along Palakkad, Thrissur and Malappuram districts, are now deserted. Pattambi (near Shoranur), the most polluted area along the river according to a recent biodiversity study sponsored by the University Grants Commission, has a KWA pumping unit near an urban waste dump. The motors have to work at least eight hours every day if the entire town is to receive water. Now pumping stops after two or three hours. A KWA employee stationed there for the over 15 years said that over a decade ago, during the monsoon, the pump house situated 20 metres above the river bed used to be submerged. "We used to hang the motors from the roof to protect them from the flood waters. Now, even at the height of the rains, the river would not touch the walls above the foundation of the building," he said.

On March 4, at an urgent press conference in Thiruvananthapuram, the State Minister for Water Resources, T. M. Jacob, announced that over 30 water supply schemes along the Bharathapuzha, many of them the only source of drinking water for scores of villages and towns in Palakkad and Malappuram districts, may have to be shut down any day because of the "unprecedented drought in the State". "Many schemes are going dry. We are able to manage barely 30 minutes of pumping in some places. We have tried digging deeper for water, but to no avail. The situation is grim," he said.

The alarm has been sounded, finally: Kerala is in the red.

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