Our Lake Warriors: An 84-year old man's battle to save the once mighty Bharathapuzha
news Monday, May 18, 2015 - 05:30
OUR LAKE WARRIORS - 3: The 2011 census recorded the highest increase in rural to urban migration, which means a large, likely permanent increase in urban population, whose needs urban local bodies need to look after. Most sources of water in urban areas are under severe threat owing to the rising pressure on resources made worse by mismanagement by governing authorities. Ordinary people in south Indian cities are battling to keep water freely accessible to all, and also trying to ensure that these water bodies do not succumb to environmental and urban pollution. This is the first in a three-part series by The News Minute team. Indianoor Gopi believes strongly in this old Kerala proverb - â€śIf a man fails to honour the rivers, he shall not gain the life from them.â€ť In fact he has spent close to three decades of life after retirement protecting the Bharathapuzha River, the flowing heritage of Kerala. He is now 84. Also called the Nila, the Bharathapuzha is the second longest river in the state and flows through Palakkad and Thrissur districts before joining the Arabian Sea at Ponnani in Malappuram district, its mighty flow almost reduced to a trickle in the summer. â€śWe are responsible, we ourselves are responsible, we killed Nila; sand mining and dams killed itÂ little by little,â€ť he says. â€śEvery river has three stages childhood, youth and old age, but Bharathapuzha wonâ€™t have [an] old age,â€ť Gopi says as there are 11 dams obstructing the flow of the Bharathapuzha â€“ four in Tamil Nadu and the rest in Kerala. But this was not the only threat to the Nila. In 1988, two villages of Thrissur district experienced severe drought, prompting a group of villagers to consult experts. According to them, Gopi says, excessive sand mining was causing the water under the sandy bed of the river to dry up, reducing the overall amount of water. Subsequently, a group ofÂ 10 peopleÂ formed theÂ Bharathapuzha Samrakshana Samithi (BSS) an organisation to protect the river, with Gopi as its founding secretary. BSS is celebrating its 27thÂ anniversary this summer. Once an inspiration for some of the most prominent Malayalam writers such as Vallathol, Kunjan Nambiar, and MT Vasudevan Nair, the Bharathapuzha has now become a shadow of its former self, Gopi says. BSS has fought a multi-pronged battle â€“ from street protests and awareness campaigns to Public Interest Litigations in the Kerala High Court, to combat sand mining. Despite obtaining threeÂ High Court directives that prohibit sand mining in the Bharatapuzha, hundreds of truckloads of sand are mined from the river bed in a blatant violation of the rules. â€śWe conducted awareness programmes for the public, rallied them for protests against sand mining. Almost every month we would to approach authorities to take necessary action. They would pass laws will remain on paper,â€ť he says. Recently, the BSS checked the Kochi Metro Railâ€™s attempt to take sand from the Ponnani area of the river in Mallappuram district. â€śIt was successful, they withdrew from the move due strong pressure from the media,â€ť Gopi says. Indiscriminate sand-mining in the Bharathapuzha has reportedly caused acute drinking water shortage in 175 gram panchayats which have a total population of over six lakh people and nearly a dozen municipalities in Palakkad, Malappuram and Thrissur districts. Gopi says that it was a known fact that extraction of sand speeds up the flow of water, thereby reducing the collection of water beneath the river bed, which makes the river dry except in the monsoon. Despite this, he says that â€śthe sand-miners have the tacit support of political parties.â€ť Gopi says that when he started BSS they had hoped to save Nila, but today they are dejected and unsure. â€śNow I am 84, I donâ€™t know whether I will be able see a healthy Nila. Although we could bring some change, we were not able to save the river. But until my death I will fight for it,â€ť he says.