At the time of his birth, Pokkan's umbilical chord looked like the bloated, elongated seed of the mangrove tree, and people affectionately tweaked his name to 'Pokkudan', a play on his physical condition. It was this kid with the bloated umbilical chord, born to untouchable pulaya parents in a Kerala village in the early 1930s, who went on to become the legendary Kallen Pokkudan, a name now synonymous with mangrove conservation not only in the state, but all over India.
Throughout his life, Pokkudan has lived in close contact with the nearby wetlands and, for over a decade, been collecting, preserving and planting the seeds of the "mad mangrove" tree (the long-fruited, stilted mangrove known as rhizophora mucronata). Some 22 species of mangrove trees welcome you to Pokkudan's village nestled in the rich wetlands of north Kerala's Kannur district. Over the years, this humble farm worker has planted over 1,00,000 mangrove saplings with his own hands in his native village.
When at the age of 52, Pokkudan started planting mangrove seedlings in the village in 1989, people called him a crackpot. Environmentalists had then not begun to pay attention to the destruction of mangrove forests, a vital part of the coastal ecosystem. In just four decades, mangrove forest area in the state had dropped from over 700 sq km to a paltry 17 sq km. Yet, Kannur still has nearly 45 percent of the state's remaining wetlands, thanks mostly to Pokkudan's initiatives.
Curiously, what led to Pokkudan's passion for mangroves was an acute political disillusionment. He had spent most of his life building up the CPM's local agricultural laborers' union. The association soured when he raised his voice against caste discrimination within the party. After leaving the CPM, Pokkudan did nothing for almost a year. In that time, he noticed monsoon storms drenching little children as they walked to school on narrow mud paths in the wetlands. The lashing winds would often take away their umbrellas and storm waves would regularly destroy the embankments in the paddy fields.
Pokkudan knew from experience that mangroves were the best buffers against the wind and the waves. But, over the years, the wetlands had turned into dumps for garbage from nearby towns. This had severely affected their ecological functions such as nutrient cycling, flood control, ground water recharge, salt dissipation, absorption and dilution of pollutants and creation of microclimatic niches that supported a variety of life forms.
Rooted to the wetlands as he was, their deterioration pained Pokkudan immensely. For the pulayas, the mangroves had always been a source of food, fuel, fodder and medicine. There was the fish that could be cooked or kept apart for times of famine, and the berries and tubers that could be eaten both raw and cooked. Many of these had medicinal properties. "The fish, the birds and the people all depended on the mangroves," says Pokkudan. He calls the trees "the security guards of the earth" and is convinced that floods in coastal regions would not kill so many if there were mangroves.
Collecting the seeds of the mangrove trees was strenuous work. Besides, the swamps were choked with waste. The seedlings planted initially didn't take root because he didn't know the techniques well. But when the 300 seedlings he planted the following year grew, Pokkudan's work began to be noticed. Soon, the media, environmentalists and forest officials arrived on the scene. With Pokkudan's help, the Department of Forests set up a mangrove nursery of around 30,000 seedlings. Youth clubs organized campaigns about the need to preserve mangrove forests. People began to put up resistance against destruction of wetlands in the name of development.
In Kerala, Kallen Pokkudan is the last word on swamp ecosystems. He talks of a Dalit's oppression in the same breath as the slow death of an ecosystem. "The birds that roam the skies and nest in mangrove branches, tree heads, paddy fields and river banks also have a life similar to ours. As a Dalit, I had always tilled the earth for others. Maybe that's why I tried to go deeper into the possibilities of protecting mangroves." The idea of man as a child of nature is complete when he says, "If someone asks me how I want to be known in future, I would say KandalPokkudan ('Mangrove' Pokkudan)".