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Mining, Commercial Forestry Destroy A Mighty River

Viju B, When main stream flows on margins, Sep 7, 2017: The Times of India

Mining And Commercial Forestry Have Destroyed A Mighty River, Once The Cradle Of Kerala's Cultural & Social Landscape

Rivers like stories have a be ginning, end and, of course, a middle where they attain full flow. Bharathapuzha, Kerala's storied river, however lacks a proper and full-fledged middle.Long and intermittent stretches have become desiccated like a desert, with rocks and invasive stands of sedge defacing a landscape where, just a few years ago, sediment-rich ochre-coloured water hurtled downstream east to west at an average of three to four metres depth.

Bharathapuzha still irrigates most parts of Palakkad district, known as the granary of Kerala, which produces 84,000 hectares of paddy annually , and all along its 208km stretch is living evidence of the centuries-old cultural efflorescence the river, known locally as Nila, has fostered. The Bharathapuzha has been, both, muse and motif to an array of arts-from the blossoming of Kathakali and Koodiyattam to contemporary literature and cinema.

Today, its cultural watermark remains but the river itself is a travesty of its former tumultuous self.Massive deforestation along the banks, unscientific damming and pervasive sand mining has led to the slow destruction of a river, which is a primary water source for 8 lakh people across 108 panchayats. “This was not the case a decade ago, as the southwest monsoon would have replenished the river and its vast sandbed would have been submerged, says Dr A Biju, head of the department of aquatic biology , University of Kerala.

Environmentalists point out that the state forest department made a historical mistake by cutting down natural forests along the banks and planting acacia, eucalyptus and teak trees for commercial purposes. “The forests used to hold back the water and replenish the groundwater table around the river, says Biju.

Bharathapuzha has the maximum dams among all rivers in Kerala--11 in all. “Over the years, this has destroyed the natural flow of the river. The water in check dams could not prevent the lower portion of the river from getting dried up, says Dr Latha Anantha, founder of River Research Centre and member of the Madhav Gadgil committee. The deforestation of four major tributaries -Gayatri, Kalapati, Kunti and Chittur ­ has also led to drastic reduction in Bharathapuzha's water flow.

To worsen matters, Kerala, which historically received annual rainfall at twice the national average, has recorded below normal readings over the past three years. The incessant downpour so typical of monsoon months has been replaced by intermittent dry spells. Last year, the state had 34% below normal rainfall; trend seems to be the same this year-eficit is at 22% as end of the season approaches.

Sand mining too has become rampant and its effect catastrophic.Environmentalist C Rajagopalan, who lives on the banks of the river and is part of Bharathapuzha Samrakshna Samiti, says only 60 cm depth of sand dredging is permitted, but miners dig pits nearly 10 feet deep and this has converted the river into shallow drains.

Panchayats have been authorised to issue licences to mine sand from various kadavus (piers) in an indiscriminate manner. “There has been no sand audit till date. As a result, the tributaries have got rock-beds and water flows quickly into the sea.Earlier, the expansive sand bed used to slow down the flow of the river, thereby increasing groundwater table, says Dr Latha Anantha.

Sahitya Akademi award-winning writer C Radhakrishnan, who was bor n and raised next to the Bharathapuzha and has seen its sad decline, says almost every region around Bharathapuzha has a history that is integral to the development of modern Malayalam language, its culture and arts. “The river witnessed the blossoming of Malayalam culture and literature. Poets like Kunchan Nambiar, Melpathur and Ezuthachan were born and nurtured here. Even many modern writers like VKN, O V Vijayan and M T Vasudevan Nair lived in villages surrounding the river, he says.

Radhakrishan still hopes that the river can be reclaimed but his warning is dire. “The river is a university in itself...if you destroy it, you are killing a civilization.

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