Sunday 11 January 2009

Killing the Bharathapuzha

Bharathapuzha is a 209 km long river which originates in the Anamalai hills of Tamil Nadu and flows into the Arabian Sea. The course of this river is richly intertwined with the history, arts, culture and growth of towns and villages of North Kerala. But the progress that mankind saw in the twentieth century devalued this great river into a sole provider for the need and greed of the people living on its banks and policy makers living far far away from it. Once a perennial river that was a muse to writers, poets, dancers and musicians, today it is a dead river with vast dry stretches which fills up for a few days in the year when the monsoons arrive. When the rains fail, the sandy stretches of Bharathapuzha are a reminder of the desertification that lies in store for Kerala if it continues to ruin its rivers.

11 dams, 4 in Tamil Nadu and 7 in Kerala stand through its course. These projects diverted water from these rivers for the purpose of irrigation. Then came river interlinking treaties between Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Then came hydro-electric projects. The river soon started drying up and its huge sandy beds became a rich source for indiscriminate sand mining. The river bed is today encroached indiscriminately for residential purposes. Today with several parts of North Kerala stretching south upto Thrissur district in the clutches of water scarcity, plans to construct hundreds of check dams to conserve water in specific areas of the river have been proposed and dozens of them already in place. However what nobody ever speaks about is the restoration of the river to its original flow which would solve all these problems.

Today agriculture in Kerala is almost non-existent. No one talks about whether these dams were useful for agriculture in the long run. But every month, plans for new constructions on the Bharathapuzha river appear regularly in the media. Today energy has replaced agriculture as the raison d’etre for having new dams. Sample this article, http://www.kerala.gov.in/keralcallsep04/p05-09.pdf which appeared in the September 2004 issue of Kerala Calling magazine as cover story. It has the audacity of pitching environment versus energy needs to win their case for the Pathrakadavu Hydro Electric project, a substitute for the Silent Valley Hydel Project which was abandoned in 1973 after a spirited agitation.

The government entrusted the Environmental Risk Assessment to a little known registered voluntary organization in Trivandrum called Environmental Resources Research Centre staffed by ex-bureaucrats, government scientists and faculty of Kerala University for a princely amount of Rs.22 lakh. The report mentions in passing the loss of 22 acres of forest land and some flora and fauna and even claiming that Pathrakadavu and Silicon Valley are separate entities. Their main object of concern was the road to Pathrakadavu which would open Silent Valley to people and cause environmental degradation, and otherwise giving a green signal to the project! The effect of this project on the dying Bharathapuzha is supposed to be minimal as no reservoir is needed and it is a ‘run of the river’ dam. The report can be accessed here - http://www.infraline.com/power/state/kerala/CEIARepPathrakkadavuProj.pdf

Except for the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History which came out with a detailed rebuttal of this report (http://www.geocities.com/indianliving/silent_valley_1.htm), no media organization has thought it fit to look into the ERRC document that skims over the environmental hazards that the project can cause but goes into great detail over how the project is being built to cause minimal environmental damage. Here is an article in The Hindu on Pathrakadavu and a read of the article's blurb itself shows which way the correspondent’s sympathies go! http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/2007/04/30/stories/2007043001730200.htm
Yet another article that inadvertently calls into question the credibility of the ERRC and succeeding Kerala Governments is here: http://www.hindu.com/2007/04/27/stories/2007042711850400.htm
Also damning is the role of the newspaper and the special correspondent, who in this case did not bother to pursue the contents of this report.

Bharathapuzha has also suffered irreparable damage from the Parambikulam Aliyar Project (PAP) agreement which Kerala was forced to sign with Tamil Nadu under pressure from the Centre to divert a part of the waters of Aliyar and Palar rivers which are tributaries of Bharathapuzha to Tamil Nadu. What followed was the drying up of the waters of Bharathapuzha and affecting the drinking water needs of people. Here are some interesting articles that appeared in the media on PAP and the national river water interlinking debate that is raging with even leading voices like ex-President Kalam lending it support. Of course, the question of how Kalam is technically qualified to assess river interlinking’s ecological aspect stands. Probably his passion for national integration makes him take up all the wrong causes!
http://www.hinduonnet.com/2004/04/11/stories/2004041100060500.htm
http://indiatogether.com/2003/oct/env-nolink.htm
http://www.sandrp.in/drp/july_aug03.pdf

Here are a series of articles, on the fascination with dams over the Bharathapuzha! However not a single article mentions how these already existing check dams have helped solve the drinking water woes.
http://www.hindu.com/2005/01/29/stories/2005012905900500.htm
http://www.hindu.com/2008/01/05/stories/2008010554780500.htm
http://www.rediff.com/money/2007/mar/28dam.htm

The Bharathapuzha Action Plan, which is reported in this article, lists a number of reasons why Bharathapuzha has died and it is surprising that extensive damming doesn’t top the list or even find mention! And the newspaper report does not even bother to raise this question. And the solution suggested here is to increase the number of check dams. Obviously more construction, means more money in kickbacks for these engineers! The possibility of demolishing currently useless dams to restore the normal flow of the river is not even discussed.
http://www.hinduonnet.com/2004/04/29/stories/2004042903450500.htm

Excellent articles have appeared in the offbeat media about other issues facing Bharathapuzha like sand mining and the dubious actions of Cola Majors which have set up shop on its banks.
http://www.indiatogether.org/2005/jun/env-sandmine.htm
http://www.frontlineonnet.com/fl2106/stories/20040326001904100.htm

The media coverage of Bharathapuzha has been regular, constant and often empathetic. However it has failed very often in recent times to bring into play a moral question or check the power of politicians, bureaucrats and local people to tap into the river’s seemingly endless economic possibilities for all kinds of uses ranging from dam construction, irrigation projects, sand mining and most recently drinking water schemes. The difficulty the media today faces is establishing the quite obvious links between politicians, bureaucrats, engineers, contractors and research bodies with solid proof. Sometimes journalists seem to be choosing not to walk the extra mile, to get a hard story. As is obvious from most of the articles I have cited here from The Hindu, the reportage is solely based on facts presented to the media by experts or by government handouts or press conferences. A focus on outcomes of past projects, a fresh look at solutions and highlighting local struggles to save the river, could be the media’s sole chance to help set right the fading course that Bharathapuzha is taking.

P.S: An environmental critique of the media done as part of course work. I chose the Bharathapuzha river as my subject after haggling ceaselessly and I must guiltily admit - rather disinterestedly, over other crucial environment related issues like plastics, cellphones, nuclear energy, fertilizers, etc, etc for my topic. But water, rain, rivers and greenery has some sort of an emotional hold on almost every Keralite and I proceeded with the Bharathapuzha; not without some apprehension on what, if at all anything that I would be able to uncover.