Sitting on his traditional canoe on the Vembanad lake, fisher A. K. Sailan believes that the gods have finally started smiling down on him. While on the eco-sensitive lake, in close proximity of Nediyathurthu Island, he points to the spots where he and fifty-six other fishers of his neighbourhood had installed licensed stake nets for traditional fishing.
A little over a decade ago, the nets were removed for the construction of a tourist resort and the fisherfolk went to court to stake their claim. Early this year, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the fishing community.
â€śWe had 13 stake nets installed on the backwaters of Vembanad till the year 2007, when tourism promotion consortium Kapico Kerala Resorts Private Limited had bought 11.5 acres,â€ť said Sailan, claiming that the purchase of land on the island was not done legally.
â€śThey soon started construction of seven-star rated villas there, carrying raw materials by boat and they removed all of our stake nets citing inconvenience to the construction. There began our long and chequered legal war against the rich and powerful â€“ the people behind the construction, including the popular Kerala private money lending company Muthoot Finance,â€ť he added.
â€śThirteen years have gone and finally the Supreme Court has found our grievances valid and ordered its demolition. Come after six months and you will see all our 13 stake nets back in place,â€™â€™ Sailan told Mongabay-India as he rowed the canoe to the close proximities of the posh tourism resort, which has been now declared illegal and is set for a complete demolition.
â€śFrom time immemorial, fishing in the Vembanad Lake has been the only source of livelihood for most of us. Now the apex court has ordered the demolition of the resort and our nets will be restored,â€™â€™ he added.
On January 11, exactly a day before the start of another demolition drive on illegally-constructed luxury flats on the shores of Vembanad Lake in Maradu on the outskirts of Kochi, that the Supreme Court ordered razing of the 7-star Kapico, also located on the shores of Vembanad in the neighbouring Alapuzha district.
When the fisher families had lost their livelihood, Sailanâ€™s relative K. R. Ratheesh moved a local munsif court (a district-level court), alleging that the resort and its posh villas have been constructed in violation of the prevailing Coastal Zone Regulation (CRZ) Act. It was in 2008 and the court had summarily dismissed the petition.
Refusing to relent, Sailan and Ratheesh then approached the sub-court at the nearest town Cherthala and obtained a stop-memo against Kapico. The resort owners had refused to obey the memo and then the legal battle reached the Kerala High Court. The Kerala Matsya Thozhilali Aikya Vedi, an umbrella organisation of fish workers in Kerala, and some environmental groups had impleaded in the case saying the resort was coming up in a critically vulnerable coastal area.
On its part, the High Court had ordered the resortâ€™s demolition in 2013, but the resort owners had filed an appeal with Supreme Court. But the apex court finally upheld the high court verdict, much to the relief of the fishing community of Vembanad.
Encroachment along the shores of the Vembanad lake. Photo by Thoufeeq Aslam.
â€śWe treat it as a major victory to protect both the environment and livelihoods. The private group had constructed the resort violating all existing rules and undervaluing our ability to fight an expensive battle in different courts. The illegal construction reclaiming paddy fields and backwater portions had caused extreme damage to the Vembanad Lake and its fragile eco-system. The investors had colluded with local politicians and the bureaucracy to materialise the project,â€ť alleges Charles George, president of Kerala Matsya Thozhilali Aikya Vedi.
The Panavally Gram Panchayat, which earlier permitted the construction of the resort, is now welcoming the demolition order and demanding guidance from the state government in the safe pulling down and disposal of the structures.
â€śNow onwards, we would have zero tolerance to illegal constructions damaging the ecology. All illegal constructions must go. As the panchayat lacks the finance and expertise required to demolish the resort, we have sought the help of the state government,â€™â€™ said Pradeep Koodaikkal, president of the panchayat.
Vembanad, a wetland of global importance
Spread across Alapuzha, Ernakulam and Kottayam districts of Kerala, Vembanad Lake is the backbone of Keralaâ€™s world-renowned backwater tourism. The view of the lake from the windows of traditional houseboats with modern facilities, including swimming pools, attracts tourists from across the world. Many come to Alappuzha for a high-end stay aboard the decorative boats to drift along the backwaters, quietly experiencing the peace, tranquillity and sea food that Kerala has to offer.
Islands filled with coconut trees and traditional fishing vessels plying in between are an added attraction in the vast expanses of Vembanad Lake, the second largest wetland in India and the largest tropical wetland ecosystem in the countryâ€™s south-western coast.
Vembanad is a recognised Ramsar site; a wetland of global importance as defined by the Convention on Wetlands signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971, and joined by India in 1981. Keralaâ€™s major rivers Periyar, Muvattupuzha, Meenachil, Manimala, Pampa and Achenkovil merge with this backwater eco-system at different locations.
Moreover, itâ€™s a complex network of waterways: coastal backwaters, lagoons, marshes, mangroves, and reclaimed lands, interlaced with natural and man-made channels. Much of the reclaimed land lies below the sea level in the Kuttanad region, making it a recipient of nutrient-rich alluvial soil when floodwaters recede.
However, illegal resorts and apartments have mushroomed in the last three decades in the area, funded by the money inflow from Gulf countries, where there is a significant Kerala diaspora. These constructions have started affecting the very existence of Vembanad lake. Following the Maradu demolition drive, which was done citing violations of coastal zone regulations, the Kerala government has identified 26,000 cases (both big and small) of suspected CRZ violations. Many of these have been identified on the shores of this sensitive eco-system.
Discharges from the numerous houseboats along with waste disposal by nearby local bodies and plastic waste have together contributed to the polluted situation of the lake. Soil erosion in the catchment areas of the rivers linked to the lake is also standing as a major issue.
The Maradu demolitions and the subsequent judicial scrutiny of the violations on Vembanad are giving hope of a possible rebirth of the lake. The Supreme Court has clearly ordered all the violations must be identified and the officials and builders who facilitated the constructions must be taken to task. This is the first time such scrutiny is taking place in the case of Vembanad, which according to the amended 2019 CRZ notification, is a critically vulnerable coastal area ranked along with Sunderbans in West Bengal and Gulf of Kutch in Gujarat.
â€śIn Nediyathuruthu where the Kapico resort is situated, a humongous task now awaits the state government, which has brought in experts from South Africa to raze down the Maradu flats without much risk. There must be strict vigil against the possibility of hazardous materials like lead and asbestos reaching the crucial waters of Vembanad during demolition,â€ť said K. V. Thomas, a former scientist with National Centre for Earth Science Studies in Thiruvananthapuram.
There are 54 cottages in Nediyathuruthu and the lake ecology would be seriously affected if hazardous and toxic waste from the structures reaches the water body. There is a need to demolish nearly 2,500 RCC (rubble-cement-concrete) subsurface piles along with several sub-surface structures and retaining walls. During such a process, there is the possibility of the lake waters surging from all sides and hitting the island severely. The emission of dust may affect the air quality of the region.
Residents of Kuttanad region in Kerala on the Vembanad lake. Photo by Sajit Babu Cherthala.
Kayaking in the Vembanad Lake, the backbone of Keralaâ€™s world-renowned backwater tourism. Photo by Sajit Babu Cherthala.
However, the ensuing Nediyathuruthu demolition alone is not expected to ensure justice to the lake and its islands, which are facing constant threats from the construction industry violating rules. Officials of the Kerala Coastal Zone Management Authority (KCZMA) have confirmed that banks of the lake have as many as 625 large buildings blatantly violating CRZ rules and can be bracketed along with Kapico and Maradu flats. They all must be razed down if the Supreme Court guidelines are taken at face value.
It was only recently, the KCZMA has appraised Kerala High court that the process to bring the officials who permitted such illegal constructions to book has already been started and the vigilance wing of Kerala police has begun registering criminal cases against them. Most of the officials who face cases are panchayat secretaries, who manage administration of surrounding local bodies.
In Ernakulam district to which the Kochi city belongs, 383 major violations including illegal resorts have been identified along the Vembanad Lake and they are all facing the threat of demolition. In Alappuzha, there are 212 illegal buildings and there are 30 in Kottayam district.
â€śMan-made interventions are taking a major toll on the fast-shrinking Vembanad Lake, the lifeline of Ernakulam, Alappuzha, and Kottayam districts. The lake is receding at an estimated rate of 0.288 sq. km each year because of high rate of soil erosion and dumping of wastes. Illegal buildings are contributing to the grim situation,â€™â€™ said P. K. Dinesh Kumar, a scientist with National Institute of Oceanography in Kochi.
According to officials of the KCZMA, the spread of the lake was around 130.68 sq. km, in 1967; it reduced to 9.382 sq. km in 2004 and 3.292 sq. km in 2011. Other than construction-related encroachments, the lake is facing threats from illegal agricultural expansion, aquaculture, large engineering structures, harbour development and tourism.
When contacted, the Alappuzha unit of Kerala State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) has confirmed the presence of high levels of coliform bacteria in the lake, especially at Punnamada, the houseboat boarding point. The total coliform count in water collected from Punnamada was 8,000 per 100 millilitres in April 2019, against the permissible levels of 500 per 100 ml.
According to officials, illegal houseboats are discharging waste and sewage water directly into the water body, with the lake ecosystem taking the brunt.
High levels of coliform bacteria are found in the Vembanad lake, especially at Punnamada, a houseboat boarding point. Photo by Sajit Babu Cherthala.
A sewage treatment plant (STP) started by the state government for houseboats at H-Block of Kuttanad is now remaining non-functional. The high density of population along the banks of the lake has resulted in the growing level of water contamination, it has been pointed out.
â€śThe ecological decay of the wetland was on the rise due to intense pollution and unauthorised constructions. Weak enforcement of environmental laws, large scale corruption and high political influences are contributing to the violations. No strict action so far and so the Supreme Court ordered demolitions have turned a rude shock to many,â€ť pointed out environmental activist Harish Vasudevan. If the Supreme Court ordered demolitions in Maradu had not taken place, the natural water flow of Vembanad might have been affected, according to experts.
Keralaâ€™s popular science forum Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) is now demanding a fish sanctuary status for Vembanad Lake to ensure it a fool proof protection like in the case of countryâ€™s wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. Only that status can help the government implementation of revival missions along with the removal of encroachments, said KSSP district president P. V. Joseph.
In the recent past, Kerala has been subjected to recurring large scale natural calamities, mainly annual floods. Vembanad being a wetland ecosystem contributes to Keralaâ€™s ecological resilience; a future free from encroachments and violations is vital for the lake and the cities that surround it.