Tears In God's Own Country

As the Kerala government goes on an overdrive to sell tourism, its major destinations are beginning to resemble garbage dumps.

It's been two years since the World Travel and Tourism Council's ill-fated short-listing of Kerala, along with Greece and Mexico, for its Destination of the Year award. The nomination drew widespread civil society criticism, which protested that Kerala was no model of sustainable tourism by any international standard, and that tourism had in fact done very little to ensure "maximum benefit to local communities", a key criterion for the award. They also highlighted the massive degradation tourism promotion has wrought on Kerala's highly sensitive ecology. The council finally dropped the nomination, dealing a temporary setback, at least, to the vaulting ambitions of Kerala's tourism stakeholders.

In the months since, the divide between local communities and the state's tourism industry seems only to have grown. Powerful lobbies have made rampant encroachments on forest and revenue land, targeting hill stations, backwater regions, coastal areas, wildlife sanctuaries and small land holdings owned by Adivasis and other economically disadvantaged groups. To take the Munnar hill station case alone, encroachment here was as much as two lakh acres, according to government figures. Last week, Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan admitted in the Assembly that last year's much-hyped eviction drive had retrieved only 15,000 acres in Munnar and 3,000 acres in the rest of the state. The numbers, however, do not tally with those of the state Revenue Ministry, according to which only 4,500 acres have been retrieved in Munnar. The anti-encroachment drive, meanwhile, has died an unmourned death as vested interests managed to influence mainstream parties in both the ruling front and the Opposition.

A major casualty of the damage done to Kerala's unique backwater region is the Vembanad Lake, the largest in the Alappuzha-Kottayam region, the setting for Arundhati Roy's novel The God of Small Things. According to fisheries and backwaters expert Dr S. Bijoy Nandan, about 65 percent of the lake has fallen victim to reclamation projects. His finding is corroborated by the Kerala Council for Science, Technology and the Environment, which reports that the state has only 23 percent of its backwaters left.

The famous Kumarakom bird sanctuary in Kottayam is another martyr to flawed concepts of tourism promotion. Situated near Aymanam village, where Roy's novel unfolds, it became a must-see over the last few years. Three years ago, large stretches of mangrove forests in the sanctuary were destroyed by government agencies to ensure "easy visibility of birds to visiting tourists". As a result, the number of bird species in the sanctuary has come down from 189 to 66. "If this continues, Kumarakom will have no birds in another decade," foresees Kerala's well-known birdwatcher PA Uthaman. Another warning comes from environmentalist MK Prasad, who points to the horrifying shrinkage of the mangroves from 70,000 hectares to just one percent of their former size. "Hotels and holiday resorts have mushroomed in reclaimed wetlands which were once part of the mangrove ecosystems. Nobody is bothered about the mangroves in Kerala now," he says.

In the coastal region, illegal construction has made a mockery of all laws to curb environmental degradation. The tourism lobby is also alleged to have forced traditional fishermen to quit their lands and livelihoods by inducing them to sell their usually minuscule properties at throwaway prices. Fisherman Tenson, 52, used to own about a fifth of an acre near Alappuzha's famous Mararikulam beach. He lost it all a few months ago when he sold it for a pittance. "Thirty-eight men came to my house one morning to convince me over three-and-a-half hours to sell. How can a poor, unlettered fisherman like me resist such tactics?" Tenson's eyes brim with tears. "Later, after I'd thought about it, I wanted to give back the advance they'd given me and get out of the agreement. But even though I tried continuously for six months, which was the period in which I could walk out of the agreement, they never showed up. Finally, I was forced to transfer my property into their hands." Hundreds like Tenson have been rendered bereft of their centuries-old livelihood in coastal Kerala. Dalits and tribals in hill stations like Wayanad, Idukki and Palakkad have met the same fate.

Meanwhile, says fishermen's leader Lal Koyilparambil, the privatisation of Mararikulam's "public" beach is almost complete with almost 90 percent of it in the hands of private entrepreneurs. While the Kerala government continues to tout Mararikulam as a shining example of "responsible tourism", the beach's erstwhile fishermen have been dispossessed forever of the lands and sea they once called their own.

Another pet Kerala concept that's bitten the dust is eco-tourism. "Come to Wayanad and you'll see the mushrooming number of resorts close to pristine forests. They offer illicit liquor and wild game meat along with opportunities to sexually exploit tribal girls," says firebrand tribal leader CK Janu, who has campaigned hard against the resorts along with her outfit, the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha.

"Kerala's long-term sustainability as a tourist paradise is under threat," says Sumesh Mangalassery, a tourism researcher and head of the NGO Kabani ' The Other Direction. "Even the government is now admitting the fact that major tourist destinations suffer from a host of serious problems: piling of waste and garbage, water and air pollution, loss of biodiversity, lack of landuse and infrastructure planning, encroachment, unauthorized constructions and drinking water shortage are just some." A sad pass for a state once rated by National Geographic Traveller as among the 50 must see destinations of a life time.

Sewage is another menace. State Pollution Control Board (PCB) studies have found that 100 ml of sewage water discharged from the houseboats' so-called "bio-toilets" contain 9,000 to 30,000 coli-form bacteria. The permissible level is 50 in 100 ml of drinking water and 500 in 100 ml bathing water.

According to the PCB, one million cubic meters of sewage is generated in the state's coastal areas, of which 30,000 cubic metres reach the surface of water bodies. The backwaters in Kochi alone receive 60 tonnes of sewage from the city. Streets in major tourist destinations like Alappuzha and Kochi now resemble garbage dumps, leading to the outbreak of epidemic diseases like chikungunya in post-monsoon periods over the last few years.

When contacted, Kerala State Pollution Control Board chairman G. Rajmohan said the board is in consultation with the tourism department and local bodies to evolve a permanent mechanism to minimise pollution. He also claimed that efforts were already on to initiate legal measures against large-scale violators. The board can act tough only with the help of local bodies and so its success depends on their sincerity, he said.

For future action, says Kerala Home and Tourism Affairs Minister Kodiyeri Balakarishnan, "The state's acceptance of responsible tourism as a motto is part of efforts to save the situation. Nature will be protected and haphazard growth of tourism will not be encouraged."

But the government has made a poor showing so far. As Kerala Congress (Secular) MLA PC George points out, "The ruling CPM and CPI have leased 90 percent of their multi-storeyed party office buildings in Munnar to private hands to run resorts. The irony is that both party offices are situated on encroached lands, something the land mafia cites to justify their own encroachments. So, just who of these will initiate the rectification drive?" In all likelihood, neither.     


More by :  K. A. Shaji

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