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Hi-tech building plans threaten to displace Valanthakkadu's dalits

By N P Chekkutty

The tiny island of Valanthakkadu, situated in the middle of Vembanadu lake in Kerala, is being eyed by builders and land developers who want to turn it into a 'high-tech city'. The local dalit population, which lives entirely off the rich ecosystem, is up in arms

The tiny island of Valanthakkadu in Maratu panchayat, off Kochi, is a unique ecosystem. Barely a kilometre from the national highway, in the midst of the commercial capital of Kerala, this 246-acre island is surrounded by the richest mangroves in the south of the state. Situated in Vembanadu lake, Valanthakkadu is home to a variety of fish that are unique to estuaries, as the lake itself is a mixed waterbody of salt and fresh water extending to hundreds of kilometres to the east and spread over the districts of Ernakulam, Alapuzha and Kottayam.

Until a few months ago, Valanthakkadu was a sleepy village populated by no more than 44 families, all of them poor fishermen who eked out a livelihood from the surrounding lake. The main sources of livelihood were fishing, collecting shellfish like clams, growing prawns in enclosures, and cultivating a particular variety of rice, known locally as pokkali, a unique variety seen only in these parts. The rice plants grow above the salt water while their roots are sunk in the lake's bottom.

Valanthakkadu's unique social and ecological system is now under threat: the island is being eyed by builders and land developers. Around 200 acres of private land, which had been left untouched for generations, providing people with common fishing and farming grounds (they normally remain submerged, except during summer) have already been taken over by builders with a view to developing the area into a 'high-tech city' that will bring in huge investments and money.

As workers from the builders' firms descended on the island in large numbers, and began cutting down the mangroves surrounding the village, the people rose in protest, turning the small island into a battleground between the developers on one side and the local population on the other.

"We have lived here for generations, and all of us supported ourselves with the natural resources available on the island," says Sahajan, a young man in his 20s, who is now a leading activist with the recently set up Committee for the Protection of Valanthakkadu. He points out that, except for a few youngsters who are employed as casual labourers in the city's booming construction industry, the entire population of Valanthakkadu depends on the island's rich ecosystem for their livelihood.

Sahajan says people are unimpressed by offers being made to them by builders and developers who have promised the state government that the high-tech city they are planning will generate 75,000 new jobs and modern houses for those who live on the island. "Why do we need those houses? Without the ecosystem we will have no way to survive here," Sahajan says.

There are other features of the island too that will come under threat from the so-called 'development' of Valanthakkadu. On a recent visit to the island I realised that of the 44 families living here, except for one Christian family, all the rest are dalits belonging to the Pulayacommunity. As untouchables in a caste-ridden society, they were sent to this uninhabited island in the midst of the lake generations ago. Now they are being uprooted again, as much of the land is originally owned by rich families who live on the mainland. Each local family owns around 15 to 25 cents of land, while a major share of the land on Valanthakkadu is owned by outsiders whose properties have, until recently, been hired as common fishing and cultivation areas.

Most families have their own fishing nets and other traditional implements that are now being predominantly used by women or older people as the youth prefer crossing the lake in search of jobs outside. The island is connected to the outside world through a ferry manned by 65-year-old Vasu Chettan, who says he earns around Rs 50 a day.

It was evening when we went out onto the water; small fish were jumping on its still silver surface partly obscured by green hyacinth. The boat landed at the foot of the primary health centre, the only public institution on the island which doesn't even have a primary school. The few scattered houses, some of them tiled and concrete structures, can be reached through narrow footpaths. Most of the houses are modest dwelling places; fishing nets and other implements hang from their walls.

There are two types of fishing nets: the prominent one used by men who go out onto the lake in boats and swing the nets wide, and the smaller variety that's used by the women who tackle smaller species of fish. Women also collect clams and other shellfish, diving deep into the waters. The nets are woven in such a way that younger fish can escape.

"We go fishing early in the morning and sell whatever we get at the market across the lake," says Biji, a 36-year-old unmarried woman. She says her mother Chinnamma, 65, takes the fish to the market and normally comes back with Rs 50 to 60 a day. "We have no other income; our brother is bedridden and we don't know what we will do when we are forced out," she says.

Ambika Gopi is a mother of two. She was on her way to the lake with her net when we met her. A former president of the island's microfinance group, Kudumbasree, Ambika says her family's only income is from fishing. They recently bought a small boat and fishing net with a loan of Rs 10,000 from the microfinance unit, and have to repay Rs 350 towards the loan every month. She has two children -- a college-going daughter and a son who is admitted to a private course for which Ambika has to shell out Rs 400 a month. "The new owners of the land are not allowing us to fish and we will face doom if the government does not intervene to save us," she says.

Most of the families on the island share Ambika's concerns. But except for a few activists like C R Neelakantan, a nuclear scientist-turned-environmental activist who is associated with the Valanthakkadu Protection Committee, not many people from Kerala's public life have bothered to come here to investigate. One exception is Kallen Pokkudan, a dalit activist and campaigner for the protection of mangroves, who is known for his heroic efforts for the preservation of mangroves in Kerala's northern parts. "Pokkudan came here and was horrified by the way this precious ecosystem is being wantonly destroyed," says Neelakantan who accompanied him on the visit. An expert in local mangroves, Pokkudan was able to identify 12 varieties on the island. He believes this is the largest system of natural mangroves in the southern part of Kerala.

Neelakantan said the Valanthakkadu Protection Committee has petitioned the state government against the destruction of the island's fragile ecosystem; the committee has also filed a petition in the Kerala High Court against any move to destroy the mangroves.

Meanwhile, Kerala's chief minister has instructed the industries department to take note of the people's concerns before any MoU is signed for development of the proposed high-tech city. But the local population remains sceptical about these promises, fearing they are powerless against the immense capital resources of the developers.

(N P Chekkutty is a Kerala-based journalist. He is presently Executive Editor of Tejas)

InfoChange News & Features, October 2007