Local communities have for long believed that they own the right to life and occupation. When land is sold at cheap prices by the government, people often relocate, because where they are born, may not provide them with optimum chances of survival. It is because of this, that whole villages in Palakkad and Wayanad emerge as fully formed entities, with the same layout of streets, shops and residences as the hamlets the people originally come from. The settlers represent a new aristocracy, bringing with them the cultural ensemble of their previous homes and villages. They reduplicate the churches, temples, mosques and the gardens as well as bakeries and restaurants that they are familiar with.
As their gardens flourish, and their stakes in cash crop farming increases, they become more affluent. They are able to participate in life endorsing green activities which involve curtailment of desires, including accepting of veganism, organic farming or rearing of free range chickens for the table. Between hobby, passion and occupation there is a thin line. As they succeed, they are able to encourage tourism in these small towns, based on their activities such as bottling passion fruit juice, or growing organic red rice. Tourists descending in Wayanad or Palakkad thus provide impetus to new occupations such as kayaking festivals, tours into the higher ranges of the Western Ghats and enjoying the company of the local population. Bed and breakfast places mushroom, providing clean beds and toiletries to overnight guests who arrive in their SUVs and Land Rovers from neighbouring states, or are most often, Malayalis working in the Gulf. These individuals derive tremendous comfort from home cooked meals and visits to the local sights such as rock temples and scientific institutions with allied gardens. The landlords of these rest houses have to have licenses, and if in the radius of a highway can sell liquor to tourists. Safety is provided by the security officers of private companies and local police, and the good manners of a new class of professional hosts.
Rain came early this year, in April instead of June, and raged without appeasement by August. Karkaddam is referred to as pattini massam (the hunger months) as fishing is prohibited, because of dangerous waters, and protection of spawning fish. What vegetables are available come through the Coimbatore Pass, loaded with chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Of course, tourists still arrive, as guest houses describe it as “non-season” and lower their prices.
Children continue to go to school, offices are open, housewives are at their wits end as to how to dry clothes and make houses free of that sepulchral damp which enters all homes in monsoon season in India. When the rain does not stop for days on end, the dams fill and go beyond their safety point. Panic rises, and administrators and politicians take time to think about what is the best policy before sending people into rehabilitation camps. Usually poor people, or first generation settlers tend to live near the dams. Tribal communities are the first to be isolated and at risk, since their dwelling of tin roof and cloth curtain cannot possibly withstand the velocity of continuous rain.
When the sluice gates of smaller dams are first opened the effect is immediate. When Mallapuram and Iddikki follow, the settlers lose crops and property. In a larger context, the possibilities of famine follow, as the rice, bananas, sugar, ginger, pepper, tea, coffee, cinnamon, vanilla, rubber, grown in the ghats and its hinterland, are part of a larger economy.
Those who are able to get away do so in time, but for the rest, everything is left to chance. We don’t have a solution for natural disasters but climatologists and planet watchers and naturalists do give us advice. One of these is to keep river beds clear of construction, the other is to clean the beds of long rooted grasses, and wind blown seeds which produce trees over time in the river. When artificial islands form as a result of sand mining, and water hyacinths proliferate, thereby creating stagnant pools, the river is already showing signs of dying. When the dams are opened, the quantity of water dispersed per second is so voluminous that it clears out everything in its path. The larger the dam, the greater the damage to people and property. Animals like humans feel fear, and die unwillingly. Every life lost is a calamity which money can never recompense. There are 48 rivers in Kerala, many of them lethal dumping grounds.
The border between Kerala and Tamil Nadu has always been osmotic. People crossed over, as did ideas, languages, crafts, food, currency and labour. The Mullaperiyar has always been a contested territory between the two states. It’s now time for a more concerted dialogue between Tamil Nadu and Kerala, as the dangers of a 19th century mortar dam dissolving in the possible context of a heavy Retreating Monsoon is not to be discounted.
(The writer is professor of sociology at Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU)