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How the Will of the People From Kerala Brought a 9-Km-Long Dead River to Life

With the help of the locals and people from different political affiliations, the dead river found its forgotten path once again

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Water has been at the centre of many recent discourses. Human interventions in the natural ecosystems and water bodies over the centuries have brought about some irreparable damage to the planet, in varying degrees at various places. Water crises loom over the generations of the present and tomorrow, with no immediate solutions in sight.

While the situation paints a gloomy picture, a participatory campaign of people, government bodies and legislators in Kerala has created a wonder of sorts by rejuvenating a river that was almost dead due to human interventions and continued neglect.

Varattar, a tributary of the Pamba river, which is an important part of the culture of the state, used to flow through the Pathanamthitta and Alappuzha districts of southern Kerala. Pamba is an important part of Kerala’s cultural lineage. The annual vallamkali (snake boat race) held in the Pamba is a major tourist attraction and an important festival of the region. Varattar connected Pamba with the Manimala river. In its days of glory, Varattar used to be the main source of water for hundreds of households, and also acted as a natural flood control mechanism between the two rivers, carrying the excess water both ways. Sand mining and land encroachment, coupled with short-sighted developmental activities spelt the death-knell for Varattar some decades ago, and the river was left as just wet patches of land, increasingly encroached upon.

All this has become a tale of the past now, within the span of a couple of months.

The ‘Varatte aar’ (‘let the river come’ in Malayalam) campaign is a unique experiment in water conservation and environment management efforts, where the will, resources and power of the people is effectively utilized for rejuvenation of an almost dead river. Transparency and accountability were ensured, and a concurrent social audit was initiated along with the processes.

The vision for the programme was provided by the Haritha Keralam (Green Kerala) Mission, headed by the Chief Minister as Chairperson and Dr. T. N. Seema, Vice Chairperson, and includes ministers and experts from various fields.

Mobilization of people and resources served as the soul of the whole programme right from the start.

The campaign kicked off on May 29, 2017, with a walk along the banks of the dilapidated river, in which ministers of the state, MLAs, and people’s representatives from the local bodies participated, along with an enthusiastic crowd, who wished to see the river run its course once again. The civil works started after a walk with the participation of various groups including MGNREGS workers, Kudumbashree activists, students, local self-government institutions, and various others. Unscientifically constructed man-made structures along the river’s path were removed after building consensus through local-level consultations. All financial resources were pooled without any financial assistance from the state government, and the daily accounts were recorded and presented in the WhatsApp group created specifically for the coordination of the campaign activities.

Thus, a new model of concurrent social audit of a public programme was successfully implemented, thereby ensuring transparency in operations.

Once the path was almost cleared and assisted by the abundant monsoon rain during the third week of June, the river started flowing through its forgotten path once again, days ahead of the expected opening. This was a true festival for the people, and they celebrated the rebirth of the river by taking to the waters in large numbers. Local fishing nets and fishing hooks were once again taken out and selfies with the reborn river flooded Facebook profiles. Works had to be stopped for a few days because of the water flow and resumed once the rain subsided.

The river rejuvenation drive does not stop restoring the water flow. The finance minister Dr. T. M. Thomas Isaac has announced a number of beautification and conservation plans, including footpaths and parks along the riverbank, bar-coded trees, geotextiles for soil protection, and tourism promotion activities, aimed at livelihood opportunities for the local populace.

Nattukoottams (local gatherings) at various places along the river’s course are being organized to identify ways to preserve the river and maintain it without external interventions. The turnouts in such gatherings have been overwhelming.

The efforts of the varatte aar campaign have inspired S. Suresh Babu, a filmmaker, to make a documentary film on the campaign, the shooting of which is underway. The Kerala Institute of Local Administration (KILA), an autonomous deemed-to-be University under the Kerala Government, has declared that this unique model of people’s participation sans socio-political boundaries will soon become part of its curriculum for elected members of local self-government institutions.

The varatte aar model and its phenomenal success have created a wave of optimism and collective enthusiasm among the people.

Drawing inspiration from this experience, the minister for water resources, Mathew T. Thomas, has announced a similar drive to rejuvenate Kolarayaar, another river in the Alappuzha district which is threatened of extinction. The mammoth efforts put in by the people, keeping aside all their differences, to rescue a river that once served as the lifeline of a land have captured the imagination of many and the news has been covered by local media and newspapers with fervour. The hope is that this success will inspire a new movement of conservation which places people’ s participation at the centre and builds a new culture of nature-friendly living.

All pictures: Facebook 

About the author: Chinchu C. is a research consultant, science activist, psychologist, and a very reluctant-and-occasional writer. Activist of the KSSP, a People’s Science Movement, and Yuvasamithi, a youth collective engaged in the popularization of scientific temper, he freelances as a Web Content Developer as well.

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