July 28, 2020
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The Vanishing Lake

Farmers and environmentalists squabble over the fate of a lake

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The Vanishing Lake

AT first glance, the palm-fringed Vella-yani Lake is picture postcard perfect. But the coconut palms ringing the lake are actually killing it. For each palm that springs up, a bit of the lake—Kerala's sole surviving freshwater body—vanishes. And when you consider that it was government policy that allowed large tracts of the lake to be filled up and used for farming, then you have a case of state-sponsored degradation of a unique eco-system.

On the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram city, Vellayani Lake is on the brink of a man-made ecological disaster. Its area has shrunk at an alarming rate and the water contaminated by 50 years of uncontrolled chemical-dependent paddy cultivation, devastating marine life. Coconut palms and banana plants are rapidly invading its space.

A delegation of paddy cultivators recently submitted a memorandum to chief minister E.K. Nayanar seeking an end to the government's apathy in the matter. The farmers demanded one of two options: either declare the lake a protected ecological zone and develop it as a freshwater resource or turn the water body over to private enterprise for full-scale paddy cultivation. They feel their stand is reasonable. Hundreds of families eke out a livelihood on the banks of the Vellayani by cultivating rice, a hereditary occupation since pre-independence days. Today, as a result of official and scientific bungling, their lands lie inundated and their livelihood is in peril. "We must be allowed to grow paddy. Or else the government should take over our submerged paddy fields and compensate the loss," says Sadasivan, a small-scale farmer and crusader for cultivators' rights.

The state's plans went wrong several years ago when it embarked on an ambitious lake reclamation project intended to promote paddy cultivation. The Kerala Agricultural University (KAU), which controls large areas around the lake, was entrusted with the mass cultivation of rice, but the scheme folded up when the experiment proved economically unviable. Pumping out the lake water to raise paddy resulted in a drastic drop in the ground water level in the surrounding areas. And the pesticides and fertilisers used for cultivation contaminated a once-rich drinking water resource. After this fia-sco, KAU was given the go-ahead to reclaim parts of the lake to grow coconuts. But this scheme was also abandoned after floods wrecked the crop.

Local farmers point to the aborted projects to ridicule the scientific fraternity and to establish the superiority of traditional farming practices. They insist that paddy cultivation is economically viable and want the government to give them a chance to prove this. KAU scientists grudgingly acknowledge that small-scale rice cultivation could be profitable, not the kind at the scale attempted by the university. Acting Dean Raghavan Pillai explains: "Dewatering the lake resulted in environmental problems.

Local drinking water sources dried up. Untimely, rains led to crop loss due to floods. We suffered huge fin-ancial losses. And coupled with high labour rates, paddy cultivation was not remunerative for the university." Pillai claims coconut palms were planted only on the banks of the lake; that there was never any large-scale reclamation of the lake for this purpose. Pillai is also not sure about the extent of the lakeside owned by the university.

Curiously, no one is sure how large the lake is or how much of it has been encroached into. The revenue department puts the lake's total area at 441. 98 acres, while the irri-. SAJU gation department says it extends over a thousand acres. What's visible to everybody, however, is the perceptible shrinking of the water body over the years.

History too has contributed to the lake's degradation. The Vellayani Agricultural College—once the lakeside summer palace of the Maharaja of Travancore—was the focus of the grow-more-food campaign of the '50s, leading to large tracts of the lake being filled for cultivation.

Environmentalists fear that the Vellayani lake may end like the other two freshwater lakes in the state—Sasthamcotta in Kollam and Pookkode in Wynad—which have undergone irrevocable ecological damage for the same factors that are in operation today at Vellayani. A '93 legislative committee report catalogued these dangers, but its findings languish in the archives of the legislature library. The report suggested steps to save the lake, including desilting, tree plantation to check soil erosion, declaring the catchment area a protected zone and restricting the construction of roads and hotels in the vicinity. It calls for a halt to paddy and coconut cultivation, strict action against encroachers and recommends a resurvey to assess the exact area of the lake.

The report has government wedged between the interests of the farmers, who see rice cultivation as a subsistence occupation, and the environmentalists, who are committed to protect the lake as a freshwater resource.

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