An Island with a long history of agitations

An island in the outskirts of Kochi isolated by state government apathy
news Environment Saturday, November 19, 2016 - 19:33

Spread over 200 acres on the outskirts of Kochi near Nettoor in the Vembanad backwaters lies the Valanthakad Island, home to 50 families. Almost all of them depend on the day’s daily catch for their livelihood. Small country boats are seen beached on the shore. 

A fisherman engaged in collecting mussels shouts from the middle of the lake: “To go to the island you will have to wait till some islander comes this way in his boat.” There is no common ferry service available.

With a handful of school children for company, this reporter waited on the Vembanad banks for half an hour till an islander put in an appearance. He was returning home after finishing some work on the mainland.

Step on to the island, and you are greeted by a peculiar sight. Not a single road is to be seen. “This is Valathakad. We do not have roads here. We actually cross each other’s courtyards or backyards to get from one place to another. We do not even have a bridge. Any medical emergency sees us rush the patient to the mainland in a boat. A primary health centre does exist…but other basic civic amenities are still a distant dream,” grimaces AK Gopi, while speaking to The News Minute. 

Gopi is a native leader who has helmed many a protest, trying to grab the attention of the authorities to the sorry plight of the islanders. The wait for a bridge began decades ago. 

Gopi

“Proposals and promises galore by politicians did come our way. One of K Babu’s -former state excise minister in the previous UDF government- 2011 electoral promises was a rainbow bridge. We are yet to sight one. NABARD proposed a bridge on the eastern side, which did not materialize due to some technical hindrances. In 2015, the Maradu Municipality even allocated Rs.15 lakhs for a floating bridge. Nothing happened,” recounts Gopi.

Rajan -another native- says that school-going students suffer the most: “Young school-girls find it difficult to row canoes alone. Boys manage to do so somehow. During the rains, travel becomes a nightmare for the kids. What makes it worse, is that right next to the landing place on the other bank is an abandoned ground, frequented by miscreants for drugs, drinks and other nefarious activities. Imagine the plight of these children who have to wait long for a canoe to row them home!”

"All we want is a small bridge that will take our kids to school and that will allow an ambulance to pass through," he adds.

An Island with a long history of agitations

Agitations seem part and parcel of the islanders’ shared past. The biggest was the one waged to protect the environment. 

In 2009, the natives successfully stalled the proposed Hi-Tech city from being set up on the island. But not before a 600-acre mangrove forest that surrounded the isle was ravaged, as part of the said project. Their pain at such callous destruction of Nature still continues to rankle.

In a series of blatant violations of Coastal Regulation Zone Laws, Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act (2008), National Environment Policy (2006), Kerala Forest Policy (2008) and the National Wetland Conservation Programme, Shobha Developers -real estate moghul- had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Kerala government in August 2007 to set up the Rs.5000-crore Hi-Tech city. 

The ambitious project envisaged the establishment of a township with commercial complexes, multiplexes, star hotels, an IT research centre, an ‘oceanarium’ and a ropeway -all this at the cost of mangroves, paddy fields and water bodies that lend the island its lush green cover.

“They started by cutting down the mangroves and reclaiming the paddy fields. We protested with all our strength. Look, all our paddy fields are lost,” rues Gopi.

Huge protests that followed led to the Kerala High Court stepping in to put a stop to the project.

60-year old Thankamma recalls how they fought against Ernakulam’s Lakeshore Hospital for dumping waste in to the lake.

“When the hospital was built, they promised the islanders free treatment. On the day of its inauguration, they had even distributed biriyani here. Later, we realized it was a mere blind to deceive poor, uneducated people like us. Not even once was free treatment provided to us. Tons of waste are dumped into the lake by the hospital through large pipes. Sacks of waste can be seen floating in the lake,” she says.

This time too, massive protests were held, but the hospital seems to have had the last laugh. “Even the media did not support us in our fight then, as at the other end, was one of the biggest business conglomerates in Kerala. Even now, you get to see blood-clotted cotton swabs, surgical waste, syringes, even septic waste floating on the water,” fumes Gopi.

Valanthakad PHC

In February 2016, the islanders had to take a strong stance against the heavy influx of house-boats on the lake that led to further polluting of the lake.

“In the beginning, it was fun to watch foreigners travelling on house-boats around our island. Later, the numbers increased. Waste from these boats including sewage got dumped into the water. Fishing is now even more difficult with the decreasing number of fish day by day,” complaints Asokan -another local.

The locals did manage to limit the number of house-boats, but the pollution shows no sign of abating. “A bridge and other basic amenities are what we require. We are not against development, but not at the cost of the environment,” avers Gopi.

 

 

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