Kuttanad Project: Worst ecological disaster unfolding in Kerala
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 24 Mar 2012 5 Comments

Almost five years ago, when the Rs 1980 crore “Kuttanad Project”, devised by a celebrated agricultural scientist and his team was launched with much fanfare in Kerala, I had predicted that the project was doomed to take Kerala to ecological disaster. None had listened. So that is what is happening now. In September 2011, I was in Kuttanad helping poor farmers with their rice cultivation and was aghast to see what was happening there.

Kuttanad, once known as the “Rice Bowl” of Kerala, is turning into a “Granite Bowl”, thanks to the mindless loot of public money. The Project Leader has disappeared with his huge commission, while the poor rice farmers are facing a very dark future. All that happened was huge publicity – television, print media, so on and so forth, and political “back slapping” of appreciation. Now what happens to the poor rice farmers and people living in this most ecologically fragile region is nobody’s concern. The politicians and their agents are making a huge killing – looting public money.

Looking at the unfolding picture, one finds that the only thing that is happening is the construction of granite bunds on the outer side. The State government has sanctioned Rs 3500 crores for constructing outer bunds on a stretch of nearly 4000 kilometers!

Granite boulders are quarried from far off places and used to construct these bunds by placing the granite slabs one next to the other in very long rows. As much as 250 lakh tonnes of granite will be needed for this huge task.

The construction of bunds is not being done according to priority of flood control, and those being
erected now are in areas where the threat of floods is comparatively much less – according to the farmers. Bunds are under construction in taluks such as Vaikom, Kottayam, Changanacherry, Thiruvalla and Karninagapally (in the vicinity of Kayangulam), areas not included in the original project. Priority should have been given to areas which consistently face the threat of breach of bunds, such as Mangalam and Manickyamangalam.

Apart from destroying the environment and ecology of Kuttanad, this will inflict severe damage to the midland and highlands of Kerala State, from where huge volume of granite is quarried for the construction of these bunds. It is important to remember that when the late Murickkan and his family members from Kuttanad, almost a century ago, conceived the idea of constructing bunds to control flood waters and reclaim the land for rice cultivation, the material used was all local clay.

In most of the Kuttanad area, the soil is clayey and very heavy in texture and when it is dried, it becomes very hard, even harder than granite. That is why it formed the basic material for construction of strong bunds which have stood the ravages of flood water for over a century.

Why are we not using this important local resource? The Murickkan family used this clay to make boulders to construct bunds which have stood the test of time. Even now, use of clay, natural vegetation, geo textiles, growing vetivar plants, grass and other natural materials could be used to construct the bunds. The best thing to do would be to excavate the clay under the water and make boulders and construct the bunds.

Instead, a huge volume of granite is being quarried and transported to Kuttanad, destroying the local ecology from where it is quarried, and dumped into the water in Kuttanad region. Why? Who stands to benefit from this Rs 3500 crore to construct the outer bunds? Obviously, only corrupt politicians, bureaucrats and contractors. And no one is addressing the worrisome question is the ecological price Kuttanad will pay after several decades.

The entire focus of the “Kuttanad Package” has been centred on irrigation and its control, overlooking other major issues like pollution, sanitation and preservation of the original ecosystem. Kuttanad region cannot be viewed as a test site to expand “chemical agriculture” (also called “green revolution”) which has destroyed Indian soils, polluted ground water, increased soil salinity, dried aquifers and led to the vanishing of bio diversity. 

Go to Punjab, “cradle” of the so-called green revolution, and you will understand. Kuttanad region has unique characteristics, in many ways resembling vast areas of The Netherlands (Dutch, Nederland) where the soil has been reclaimed from the North Sea. In fact, cities have been built according to this concept, and while travelling on the road you can see boards on the side saying “You are 5 meters below the sea”! The word “Neder” means “underground”.   

Kuttanad is similar to The Netherlands, but there are many differences. In the latter, the administration wanted to build cities for human habitation; hence Amsterdam, Rotterdam etc. But
Kuttanad is a part and parcel of Kerala ecology and environment; it is dangerous to treat it as though it is a huge mass of land  surrounded by water which can be reclaimed by flood control, irrigated, and put to “High Input” rice farming.

The development of Kuttanad must be in harmony with the entire development of Kerala State, because nowhere else in the world do we have a site as unique as Kuttanad. We cannot try to “develop” Kuttanad as though it is a huge mass of soil, submerged under water, where we can cultivate rice or practice aqua culture by controlling the water flow. Yet this is precisely what has been proposed in this Rs 1980 crore project. The whole approach is scientifically wrong and proves the bankruptcy of original scientific ideas.

To cite a similar example: Some decades ago, in Kattampilly region, Kannur district, the then government thought of building huge structures to stop tidal waves from the Arabian sea flowing into the Kaipad region, in the belief that this could be used to expand the so-called green revolution area (high input chemical agriculture). Even then, the writer had warned that these shutters would stop the flow of sea water which has a great cleansing effect on the soil mass, and unless removed, the entire Kaipad region would become unsuitable for paddy cultivation after some years. 

But political expediency prevented this correction, and thousands of acres in the Kaipad region became useless for rice cultivation. It was only after much struggle that the shutters were finally removed two years ago. And the flooding sea water has had a very beneficial effect on the soils and now hundreds of acres of Kaipad region soils have been reclaimed and have become fit for rice cultivation again. The poor rice farmers are grateful for my determined fight.

As many as 12 government departments are involved with the implementation of the Kuttanad Package, and each has started proposing its own projects without any coordination with the others. While the Irrigation Department is the only active agency (perhaps because of the huge sum of money involved, which naturally opens the door to large-scale corruption) busily constructing these granite bunds, it has not even consulted the Agriculture Department while doing so. In the backwaters, concrete piling and placing concrete slabs in between each pile is the method being used to construct these long outer bunds, which will have a disastrous effect on the entire ecosystem of the unique Kuttanad region.

I can confidently predict that the unique Kuttanad ecosystem will fall victim to thoughtless and scientific incompetence, starting from the persons who put together this “package” to the unscrupulous politicians who only see the immediate political advantage, ignoring the long range disaster. Future generations of Kerala will pay a huge price for this political expediency. It will be another replay of the so-called green revolution which was hailed in the mid-1960s, but ruined our soil base and environment beyond repair, and made lakhs of poor farmers commit suicide due to bankruptcy following the so-called green revolution methods of “High Input” farming! 

In a project of such dimensions, and involving such huge investments, the entire ecosystem should have been considered as a contiguous unit. But the Project Leader and his team lacked true scientific knowledge of soils, local vegetation, water bodies, forestry, and ecology of the region. The whole exercise is now leading to an ecological disaster in Kerala – perhaps it is no longer god’s own country!!!

The author is a Kerala-based international agricultural scientist and can be reached at drkppnair@gmail.com

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