From Ernakulam’s exorbitant land prices to fear of alienation, TNM speaks to the residents of Chellanam and surrounding areas to understand the staunch opposition towards Kerala government’s Punargeham rehabilitation project.

A house in ward 8 of KannamalyA house in ward 8 of Kannamaly
news Rehabilitation Saturday, July 16, 2022 - 21:40

Ideally, Kerala government’s Punargeham rehabilitation project should have come as a sigh of relief for the residents of the coastal panchayat of Chellanam in Kerala’s Ernakulam district. A Fisheries Department endeavour aimed to rehabilitate coastal populations facing the threat of displacement due to sea erosion, the project will award Rs 10 lakh each to its beneficiaries, from which up to Rs 6 lakh can be used to purchase a land of their liking, given that it is at least 200 metres away from the high tide limit. All coastal residents living within 50 metres of the high tide limit are eligible to be beneficiaries.

For an onlooker, the rehabilitation plan might seem like a perfect alternative for the residents of Chellanam, who brace themselves every monsoon as the sea erupts past the three-decade-old crumbling seawall to batter their homes, flooding large areas and leaving feet-high deposits of sand inside houses. It may be noted that over the past half century, Chellanam grama panchayat has lost large swathes of revenue land to sea erosion. Residents say that the matters have taken a particularly bad turn, after cyclone Ockhi hit the coast in 2017. 

Most recently, in the first week of July, the ongoing southwest monsoon had significantly affected several houses in Kannamaly and Cheriyakadavu, with areas under the Kochi Municipal Corporation like Manassery and Saude also feeling the impact. Despite this being the case, however, a majority of the population simply refuses to be relocated through the Punargeham project. Why?

Unaffordable land prices

Victoria, a resident of Cheriyakadavu (ward 5, Chellanam grama panchayat), pointed out to TNM that land prices in Ernakulam are exorbitant. “The amount of Rs 6 lakh allotted under the project is a paltry sum in comparison,” she said.

One way to overcome this land price issue would be for the government to directly build flats and/or houses to hand over to beneficiaries. However, there isn’t sufficient land under government ownership in coastal Ernakulam to construct such buildings for all beneficiaries, said Sandeep P, nodal officer of the project in the district. “A plan has been sanctioned to construct flats for beneficiaries in 32 cents of land at Beach Road in Saude. Around 30 families have expressed interest, and the project will commence soon. But most people prefer individual houses.” 

Houses along the coast in Saude
Houses along the coast in Saude

According to Sandeep, as many as 1,638 households are eligible to claim benefits through Punargeham in the district. “Of these, around 700 belong to Chellanam grama panchayat. Up to 32 families have registered for the project in Chellanam till date. Only 14 beneficiaries have received the full amount of Rs 10 lakh so far, and 12 houses are in various stages of completion,” he said. Under the project, depending on whether the land is under panchayat or corporation jurisdictions, a minimum of three or two cents should be bought respectively. The remaining amount will be transferred to the beneficiaries in phases during the construction of the house.

Livelihood security

It may also be noted that a major share of households eligible for rehabilitation belongs to the fishing community, and relocating far away from the sea would adversely affect their livelihood. When asked if the government had considered livelihood security while developing the project, Sandeep said that the project was designed for households across the state affected by sea erosion, irrespective of their profession. “The project is being implemented effectively in other districts. The resistance in Ernakulam is owed to the fact that land prices are upwards of Rs 4 lakh here, due to the proximity to urban centres,” he said.

Besides, while the land relinquished under the Punargeham project will remain under the beneficiaries’ ownership, they can only use it for agriculture or purposes related to their profession. It is also stipulated that beneficiaries cannot sell the property purchased under the project for the initial 12 years. This, in effect, makes it impossible for them to avail bank loans. Hence, in addition to uprooting them from their ancestral land, the project also crushes their financial autonomy, activists allege.

Advocate Thushar Nirmal Sarathy of the Chellanam-Kochi Janakiyavedi is of the opinion that this devaluation of their property would in turn devalue their lives. “The project will result in a sort of ghettoisation of these people,” he said. Meanwhile, Sandeep clarified that the clause was inserted to ensure that the money expended by the government on the land and house is not lost in debt. “This is the norm for any such government scheme,” he said.

The floor of a house seen as caved in
The inside of a house in ward 8 of Kannamaly. Sand deposits about a foot-high were formed here during the Tauktae cyclone in May last year.

Sense of community

Stanley, Manassery area convenor of the Janakiyavedi, alleged that Punargeham would also shatter the sense of community enjoyed by the people, most of whom have lived here for several generations. “The government’s aim is to scatter the people and destroy the ethos of the community. A plan to eventually commercialise the land or hand it over to private parties cannot be discounted,” he alleged. 

Saude resident Matilda and all her neighbours have pasted posters against Punargeham on their front doors. “We inherited this land from our forefathers and we want to hand it over to our children for generations to come. This land and this community is a huge part of who we are. Even if the sea brings down the whole house, we will continue to live on our land with whatever we have left,” she said.

A poster says no to Punargeham
A poster against Punargeham at Matilda's house in Saude

Unni Kannamaly, admin of the Facebook page Chellanam Media and a resident of ward 8 in Kannamaly, pointed out that this area is a Latin Catholic belt. “The people here are part of a culture that is unique to this place. A reluctance to part with the community is a major reason for why there are few takers for Punargeham. Those families who moved to other places through the project have said they feel alienated in their new surroundings,” he said.

Several residents are hopeful that the extension of the tetrapod seawall up to Fort Kochi will resolve the crisis. According to Unni, local MLA K J Maxi has promised that the seawall will be extended to Kannamaly by November this year. “The people have pinned their hopes on his words, as the areas where the seawall construction has begun remained relatively safe during last week’s rains,” he said. 

Houses of Rajamma Das Veliyilparambu and Mollayil Nelson in Cheriyakadavu, destroyed in May 2021

Houses of Rajamma Das Veliyilparambu and Mollayil Nelson in Cheriyakadavu, destroyed in May 2021
Houses of Rajamma Das Veliyilparambu and Mollayil Nelson in Cheriyakadavu, destroyed in May 2021

“Several residents are reluctant to relocate as they are hopeful that the tetrapod seawall will offer relief,” Sandeep noted, adding that six ‘motivators’ have been appointed on a contract-basis in the district to raise awareness about Punargeham.

Issues left unaddressed

Peter Punnackan, Cheriyakadavu area convenor of the Janakiyavedi, said that Punargeham doesn’t address the core issue of sea erosion. Regions west of the Divine Chapel in Cheriyakadavu are among the worst-hit this monsoon. Residents have been demanding a breakwater here for several years. “Right before the monsoon hits, the panchayat hires cranes to create ‘manalvadas’ (sand barricades) along the shore. These get destroyed with the first strong wave of the season. This happens like an annual ritual. Nothing besides this has been done for Cheriyakadavu in all these years,” he alleged. 

Residents said that Cheriyakadavu has faced constant neglect both at the hands of the media and the authorities. “Our need is a breakwater, not grocery kits or new houses,” they said.

Residents of Divine Chapel, Cheriyakadavu
Residents of Divine Chapel, Cheriyakadavu

According to advocate Thushar, what is special about the Chellanam-Kochi coast is that it is possible to restore and replenish the beaches here. The Janakiyavedi believes that scientific construction of a seawall and geotube breakwaters, complemented by the deposition of the sand dredged by the Cochin Port along the shoreline, will ensure that the beach is rebuilt and retained along the Chellanam coast. This, several residents argued, will cost only as much or less than the Punargeham project.

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