Whither Kerala?  Problems in the Environment


It was with great excitement that I used to view  the splendor of the verdant landscapes, the sea and the mountain range with its intricate patterns.  But, gradually, I began to see the decimation of the face of Kerala. I saw the gradual disappearance of beaches, ponds, canals, and mountains.  The paddy fields and mangroves have given way to highways and malls.  High rise apartment building have defaced the open vistas and blocked the passage of winds and breezes.  The sun is beating down more harshly than it was in my adolescent years. The rivers are sluggish because of the huge pits in their beds owing to the sand and clay mining. The Kerala environment is facing imminent danger.

Urbanization and industrialization coupled with population growth and avid consumerism without  regard to the environment  have polluted the  air, water, and land.  The nonrenewable raw materials are consumed greedily and their wastes are disposed  imprudently.  Natural disasters like earth quakes, tsunamis and landslides, changes in land use patterns leading to soil erosion, and depletion of biodiversity have contributed to the ravages to the land we termed “God’s Own Country”.

Bacteria in solid and liquid wastes contaminate rivers and open wells. They come from emptying domestic and industrial sewage, agricultural discharge  and bathing.  These affect  ground water.  In the coastal areas, the presence of excess salinity, high fluoride, hardness, coliforms (found in the feces of man and other animals), low pH, high iron content, high amount of TDS (Total Dissolved Solids) and higher chloride concentration contribute to the problem. In Palakkadu and Alapuzha, higher than permissible levels of fluoride are seen and low pH and high iron contents are seen in the midlands.  The industrial pollution affect groundwater in Kochi, Palakkadu, parts of Kollam, Kozhikode and Kannur.  Many industries are located in this area and discharge directly into marine and fresh water bodies.  Three hundred medium or large scale and 2,000 small scale industries are culpable.  One million m3 of sewage is created daily and 30,000 m3 of it reaches the surface water.

Kerala has the untold wealth of 44 living rivers. Now, these comfortable waterways and homes for diverse flora and fauna are dying.  Recent droughts, siltation, land and clay mining, deforestation, unauthorized encroachment of banks by resorts and settlers, construction of dams such as the one planned at Athirampally, manufacture of bricks by deepening river banks, indiscriminate use of fertilizers and pesticides, soil erosion, salinity intrusion, discharge of industrial and domestic wastes, and sand mining are major causes of the death of rivers.  The hazardous chemicals like phosphates, fluorides, sulphides, ammonia, and heavy metals reach downstream of these rivers.  Periyar and Chaliyar are prime examples of industrial effluents.  From the Kochi industrial belt, 260 million liters of industrial effluents reach Periyar daily.  Drinking water has become scarce in these conditions.

Indiscriminate and unscientific sand mining is the biggest cause of the destruction of the river ecology.  The foreign remittances  and desire for ostentation have led to a construction boom that led to sand mining from rivers.  Removal of sand pushes the water down and adversely affects the diversity of the ecosystems of the rivers.  Sand holds water and raises the water level of  the nearby ponds and lakes.  Mining of sand sinks water beds and allows the seepage of salinity,  reducing the supply of fresh water and damaging bridges.  Conservation of bird species like storks, sandpipers, and egrets who feed on river beds and fish breeding and migration are also affected.

While travelling, the verdant rice paddies on either side, fringed by coconut palms were always delightful.  Today, open areas have shrunk.  When some proudly claim the grandeur of visiting the Lulu Mall and Shobha City, they seem to have conveniently forgotten what kind of land was destroyed for these private, commercial enterprises.  The real estate operators have been filling paddy fields, canals, and ponds in order to construct luxury villas.   Paddy fields collect rainwater  preventing a free flow into the sea, thus replenishing ground water.    Hundreds of acres in Palakkadu and Kuttanadu, both producing 20% of Kerala’s rice production, are used for setting up industries and others are converted to real state.  Tiling the front yards and surrounding areas do not allow rain water to reach down the ground. The building boom converted the paddy fields in the districts of Thrissur, Malappuram, Kozhikode, Palakkadu, Ernakulam and Kollam into clay mines to meet the demands for bricks and roof tiles.  The abandoned mines collect water in the rainy season depriving water for irrigation.  They also become the breeding grounds for mosquitoes and dumping grounds for garbage.

Water is drained from fresh water lakes and low lying lands are reclaimed for agriculture, increasing the depth of lakes owing to siltation from soil erosion, filling up lakes and ponds to build houses, construction of weirs for fish farming, growth of algae and all kinds of pollution that affect rivers.

Pseudo ideas of progress increased pollution in Kerala.  Automobiles and industries contribute to the major portion of noise and air pollution.  In the cities of Thiruananthapuram, Kozhikode and Kochi, vehicular emission and noise pollutions have reached high levels.  Four major industrial areas contribute drastically to the pollution of air: Eloor, Ambalamughal, and Udyogamandal in Ernakulam and Kanjikode in Palakkadu. Unplanned urban growth has also added to similar pollution.  Loudspeakers are used indiscriminately adding to the chaos. Body absorbs sound and often reacts physiologically and psychologically.  Kerala has become a giant in consumerism and we witness a culture enmeshed in plastic.  The effects of plastic pollution is irreversible.  Its constituents like benzene and vinyl chlorides are known to cause cancer.  The drains are clogged with throwaway plastic bags.  Automobiles emit exhausts containing carbon monoxide, hydrocarbon, nitrogen oxide, lead, sulphur oxide etc.  Motor vehicles cause 60% of the air pollution.  There were .581 million vehicles in 1991; but by 2010, there were 5.397 million.  The number is increasing.  The blaring horns add to the sound pollution.

The indiscriminate use of pesticides and fertilizers has poisoned Kerala’s food chains, vegetables, grain, fish, meat, and even breast milk.  Only 0.1% of the targeted pests are destroyed  by these lethal uses.  The rest is absorbed by humans, cattle, vegetation, and all other biota.  The aerial spraying of endosulfan over government owned cashew plantations has terminated in 486 deaths and affected the health of 4000 for the 25 years since its use began.  Corporations play culpable roles in such situations:The Plantation Corporation of Kerala (spraying of endosulfan),  Grasim Industries of Kozhikode (for 30 years cutting down forests in Western Ghats to feed a rayon factory owned by Birla Group),  and Eloor Industrial Estate in Kochi.  The Chaliyar river pollution devastated fisheries and the air pollution made life in the area unliveable.  The factory is now shutdown leaving jobless workers and a destroyed ecosysytem.  The Coco Cola factory in Plachimada is charged with sucking ground water. Accidental spills from storage tanks, pipelines and oil transportation cause oil pollution.  Methane and ethane in oil cause suffocation,  inhalation of benzene  cause anemia, sulphur damages liver and kidneys  and the suspended particles released by refineries cause lung disease.

Man had been systematically abusing and destroying the land and water in Kerala.  While visiting Wayanadu, I saw lorries being loaded with crushed rock next to the Phantom Rock. The decimation of mountains and the rape of the land was appalling.  The mountains that stopped the Monsoon clouds are gone.  The cavalier excuse is the need for houses.   Respiratory illnesses such as silicosis, asthma, and allergy are common from the dust.  The fragmentary debris fly into trees causing problems for pollination and obstruct and pollute water systems.

Kerala’s ecosystem was lavishly provided with evergreen mangroves (tidal forests) or ‘kandal kaadugal’.   They are the bulwarks against the soil erosion and flooding.   They create a protective zone against wave and storm damages and minimize hurricane destruction of property and life.  Water by the shore is prevented from contamination because of its ability to absorb nitrates and phosphates.  They lessen the impact of global warming by absorbing carbon dioxide and storing carbon. Marine ecosystems are protected here and they are homes to many species and habitats for birds.  By treating them as wastelands or swamps, they are facing deforestation.  Kerala which had 700 km2  of such ‘forests’ at the beginning of the 20th century has only 17km2  at present.  The Container Road in Kochi is a prime example for such destruction.   Encroachment by people, shrimp farming, sand mining, and dumping of wastes contribute to the calamity.  Now commercial hospitals, hotels, and apartment buildings are constructed in areas that need to be preserved.   The common excuse for all these is ‘development’.

Disintegration of Tharavaadu system was detrimental to the sacred groves or ‘kaavu’s.  In the olden times, the presiding deity was menacing to those who encroach and destroy.  These groves are home to a variety of flora and fauna and they preserve biodiversity. They also safeguarded the ancient secrets of herbs.  They cycled water and nutrients and are foremost in conservation.  Water table is replenished owing to controlled water flow. Antisocial activities like poaching and overgrazing are detrimental to the survival of this unique biosphere.

The tropical forests of Kerala suffer from man’s intrusion. Opening up the forests for cultivation, population density,  encroachment, artificial fires and corruption at official levels have contributed to deforestation.  Species are endangered for lack of habitats and  rainfall patterns  change dangerously.

Kerala enjoys a large coastal area (16.4% of the total).  It extends over 580 km. There are 27 estuaries and 7 ‘kayals’. Around 30% of the population  living in this area causes the major harm to the environment around them.   Development of ports and harbors, construction of dams, sand mining for construction and industrial sites along the coast have contributed to coastal erosion.  About 30 to 70 kilometers of Kerala coast is subject to coastal erosion at varying degrees.

Deforestation and soil erosion have given rise to the new phenomenon of landslides in Kerala.   They have become common in Idukki especially during the rainy season.   Environmental degradation is the major cause.

Temperature in Kerala is rising.  Monsoon has become erratic.  In 2017, Thrissur hit the highest temperature in its history: 40degrees Celsius.  In 2016, Kerala experienced a drought after 115 years.  Add to it the seam-bursting population growth, deforestation,  consumption of fossil fuels emitting CO2  and methane from coconut husk retting. Methane  converted to CO2 accounts for 16% and nitrous oxide accounts for 2% of global warming.  Combined, they add up to 93% of Kerala’s donation to greenhouse gas emission.  Changed land use pattern also is harmful to the climatic condition.

Indigenous species of flora and fauna are either replaced or supplemented by foreign species.  Some arrived with natural disasters like the tsunami of 2004 and others came as the result of globalization.  Some came even as status symbols.   The natural order is disturbed by such invasion.  Ichornia from Brazil (1902),  Salvinia from South Africa (1955), eucalyptus  from Australia, widely invasive Lantana from South America,  and Amon,  Uppatorium oderatum are some of the well known species.    A weed causing severe allergy is spreading in Kerala: Parthenium.  The wide variety of rice  are now displaced by newly created hybrids.

The Western Ghats region is home to 24 major biodiversity areas.  Now, indigenous animals are mostly replaced by foreign species and hybrids among the domesticated.  Hybrid varieties of plants and chemicals are exhausting the land. There are 4,500 species of flowering plants, 102 species of mammals, 476 species of birds, 169 species of reptiles, 89 species of amphibians, 202 of fresh water fishes in the state.  But Kerala is experiencing the loss of biodiversity owing to  degradation of domestic agri-ecosystems, conversion of agricultural land, introduction of exotic crops, and mechanized farming. Deforestation due to illegal harvest, forest fires,  diversion for non-forest purposes, soil erosion, bad management , and poor regeneration all harm the biodiversity  natural to Kerala..

Kerala has become a hotspot of tourism in recent years.  All the above issues with pollution augmented when the influx of tourists increased and consumption demanded  more buildings, more encroachment of beaches and environmentally sensitive zones, indiscriminate and unscientific disposal of plastics and other wastes.  Rain forests, wetlands, mountain slopes, coastal areas, and sanctuaries are all ravaged.

People are leaving their homelands  because of their environmental corruption and their inability to earn adequate  livelihood in the changed conditions.  The number of these environmental refugees is rising.  Droought, industrialization, soil erosion, desertification, deforestation, degradation of land  and absolute poverty drive these poor souls.

Kerala is a modern, developed state. India’s propaganda today is for a “Swachcha Bharat”.   Together, there should be some advancements in liberating Kerala from this environmental crisis.  In 1984, a State Pollution Control Board  was set up in Kerala.   The Clean Kerala Mission has been established for a litter free Kerala.  There are State Biodiversity Board and Coastal Zone Management Authority to monitor according to the Biodiversity Act, 2003  and Coastal Regulation Zone respectively.  The Kerala government banned endosulfan in 2011.  Government needs to pass appropriate laws to safeguard our water and the corrupt practices of officials providing sub rosa permissions illegally has to rigorously monitored. But none of these will matter until society and people view their land altruistically.  A change in attitude about self interest and community interest should take place for Kerala to retain the title “God’s Own Land”.

Heavily indebted to:

  1.  blogspot.com/2011/10/environmental-problems-of-kerala.html , Oct 20, 2011
  2. Personal experience.

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