Updated: Jul 15, 2021
My father gets loquacious when he recalls his days in Kuttanadu. His stories include the fun times with his friends in the waters that passed in front of his home, the small canoe boat rides he had with his peers, and the scenic beauty of rivers and canals filled with lotuses and water lilies on either side of the road. Source: Kerala Tourism
I too have a vague – but fond – childhood memory of these rivers, where my father taught my elder brother and I to swim with the help of plantain trunks.
Source: Kerala Tourism
Sadly, we can no longer relive these memories as Kuttanadu is no longer the same.
A World Created by Nature and Humans
Kuttanadu is the rice bowl of Kerala, lying in the heart of backwaters in the Alapuzha district, India. What sets it apart is its unique geography. At just 0.6-2 metres below sea level, Kuttanadu has the lowest altitude in India and water for agriculture needs to be pumped out and not into paddy fields.
What's more? Most of this distinctive geography is entirely man-made; similar to the Netherlands, Kuttanadu was created by reclaiming land from surrounding water bodies. It is understood that the land was drained by four rivers, making the region very fertile, which then attracted people from near and far to settle down here.
Despite frequent flooding, the land has benefitted many generations by creating employment, income, settlement, and sustenance through paddy farming.
Seeing the mass potential of this land, developers have tried to construct infrastructural stopgaps to avoid recurring floods and thereby increase profits from paddy production.
But many of these solutions have been poorly implemented - the creation of spillways, big bunds, and roadways, have led to water stagnation, pollution, waterweed overgrowth, water scarcity and a decline in fish and coconut industries amongst many others. Today, they continue to jeopardise the ecological balance in Kuttanadu.
The illegal developments happening here over the years have led to more reclamation of land, worsening the flooding in these areas. Now, the locals are facing back-to-back floods, with many losing the homes that they have built over their lifetime. Also, developments supported by state government have made people covert these paddy fields to nonagricultural lands. This poses a threat to the livelihoods of many as paddy cultivation is the main and sometimes only occupation of more than 80% of the population in Kuttanadu.
These new land reclamations are engulfing not just the paddy fields, waterbodies, and the wetlands, but also the rich history of the area. The myths and folklore that connected inhabitants to the region are getting erased. The ‘face' of Kuttanadu is being transformed, altering the reputation of the Kuttanadu as the ‘Rice Bowl of Kerala’ or the ‘Granary of Keralam’.
Growing Development, Growing Pains
The remoteness of Kuttanadu’s geography helped make the agriculture community independent and self-sufficient in the past. One key development was the Green Revolution in the 1960s, where organic cultivation methods like fertilisers were replaced by chemical pesticides. Such modern methods of ‘scientific’ agriculture took Kuttanadu by storm. Subsidies on the high-yielding variety seeds, chemical fertilisers and pesticides quickly pushed traditional seeds and organic manure out of the markets.
Sure, the country grew its rice exports, but it soon saw an increase in ecological problems too.
The intensive usage of chemicals has led crops and pests to be immune, creating an endless cycle where the people of Kuttanadu are becoming more dependent on these high-end methods of cultivation. Over time, the new techniques have led to ecological degradation which in turn creates unhealthy living conditions.
This also has health implications. A survey conducted by India’s Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers, in 2016-2017 showed that Kerala occupied the fourth place in per hectare consumption of pesticides.
Source: The Indian Express
The consistent use of these chemicals has considerably deteriorated the fertility of the soil, necessitating more and more application of chemicals, perpetuating this toxic cycle of reliance. The study noted that 40% of the chemical pesticides used in the area had the tendency to accumulate in organisms and become more concentrated as they pass through the food chain. The study also confirmed the use of banned products such as endosulfan in Kuttanadu’s paddy fields. According to the same study, such residues may lead to the contamination of the food chain or chemicals polluting the soil, mixing with the runoff water, and affecting the adjacent water bodies or ground water.
Source: The News Minute
The story of Kuttanadu is a constant reminder that our development should always be in a balanced environment, in which the exploitation of resources, direction of investments, orientation of technological development, and institutional change are all in harmony with the environment we are in.
Today, Kuttanadu is facing another flood, this time, it is one that may make a positive impact: People of the region are flooding social media with the "Save Kuttanadu" campaign in an attempt to highlight their woes and worries, hopefully reaching authorities or people in power. This is a call for help.
Let us stand with them in support by sharing their story using the hashtag #SaveKuttanadu.