By Akber Ayub
The author traverses the length of river Nila to explore its romance, and discovers to his dismay that this great river of kerala is inching towards a slow agonising death.
Great rivers have always spawned rich civilisations along their banks – nurturing not just arts and culture, but creating the very ethos of a region. River Nila, running across the breadth of central Kerala, is one such, or more precisely, has been one. For, there is a dark, almost foreboding reality facing the river today. Nila is dying – pushed inexorably towards a slow, agonising death. The name Nila derives from the Malayalam word neelam, meaning length, a nod towards its 209-km-long journey through Kerala, before it merges with the Arabian Sea at Ponnani – making it the longest in the state, ahead of the legendary Periyar. Its official name though is Bharathapuzha, as it runs past the holy Bharatha Kandham near Thiruvilwamala. Fed by a rich web of tributaries, scattered across an extensive catchment area of nearly 6180 square kilometres, Kerala’s heavy monsoon rains swell the river before it slams into the sea at Ponnani’s scenic estuary. However, once the rains depart, Nila transforms, all too soon, into a ghost river, like a terminal patient with his life support system taken away. To see the transformation I had to experience the river while swollen with the monsoon and again, when shrivelled in the sweltering summer.
The best way to know a river is to traverse its length. I wanted to glean the spirit and character of Nila – to discover how it had once triggered the imagination of countless poets, writers and novelists. It had roused artists and lovers and inspired innumerable others from pioneers in arts and dance forms to avid movie directors. To explore its romance, I began my journey at its rather innocuous origin – the natural springs on the slopes of the Thrimurthy hills in the Annamalai range in neighbouring Tamil Nadu.
I started the first leg of my journey in mid-August – after the monsoon had well and truly set in – from Pollachi, the bustling, sultry trading town in central Tamil Nadu. A 40-km drive took me up the lush slopes of the hills to the headwaters of the river – offering practically no indication of its travails during the dry season. The picture-postcard peaks and meadows of Thrimurthy hills, the wooded hillsides and sparkling streams bespoke of a different ambience. It is not hard to imagine Nila as it was once upon a time, when you behold its birth in these sylvan surroundings. A time when the river, also called Perar, flowed mellifluously all through the year.
Turning back from the hills and following the course of the river, my sojourn took me next to the little village of Kalpathy around which some of its major tributaries, minor streams merge, and then, gathering momentum, it flows past Palakkad. A little ahead, the Chittur river joins up to form the Kalpathy river. Some 30 km away, at Thiruvilwamala , another major tributary melds, after which the river is known as the Nila. The next important landmark downstream is the idyllic village of Cheruthuruthy, for it is here that Kerala’s famed poet Vallathol set up the state’s premier institution of performing arts, the Kerala Kalamandalam. His beloved Nila was a fount of inspiration. As I continue my journey beside the sinuous river, cultural hotspots and heritage centres like Thirumuthakode, Thrithala and Panniyur come up, then the charming bend in the river at Kuttipuram. In the days of yore, when the river was at her prime, the view was so romantic and sublime that poets and writers gathered on its banks for unfettered creative inspiration. Rainwater gushes down hilly embankments and flows into the distended river in muddled torrents, with the rage of the monsoon. When the skies open up, sheets of water reduce visibility so much that they shroud the distant banks altogether and the river begins to look more like a sea.
Historical places like Tirur and Thirunavaya follow, linked to the river in one way or other. My travels throw up vignettes of life along its banks. People wash and fish in it, and transport men and material in dugout canoes. Wooden boats glide along its tributaries and less turbulent sections laden with earthen pots and other merchandise. Slender canoes lie tethered to banks beside patches of green fields. Black cormorants sweep across skimming the water. Finally, the aquamarine waters of the Arabian Sea greet me at Ponnani, a scenic coastal town, sitting on a tongue of land surrounded by the estuary and the backwaters.
It was May with summer at its peak; the first showers of the monsoon were still a good one-and-a-half months away. Once again, I land in Pollachi. Sweltering heat shuts out any thoughts of lingering in the town. I drive through, heading for the assured coolness of the Thrimurthy hills.
Up on the hills, I look for sprightly streams, but find occasional flashes of water. I look for gushing brooks, but find sad-looking streamlets. The grim images appear to scream of Nila’s current plight. It doesn’t take too much of an imagination to realise that in the sweltering heat of the dry months Nila is as far from its former glory as a caterpillar is from a butterfly. Sadly, while the caterpillar could metamorphose into a dainty creature, Nila is traversing a reverse path, set on a course headed for doom. I turn around and drive downhill.
Scene after scene of a wasting river greet me at every stop. Vast sandbanks on its flanks shimmer in the sun like the exposed flesh of a carcass. Brush and shrubs sprout from its bed like warts on the skin. While at some places people relax in pockets of casuarina groves that have sprung up on its loamy soil, at others cattle graze on mid-span grasslands where fish once chased prey. Sensing the imminent death of the river, birds colonising its lower basins have departed for good. Unbelievably, in places like Kuttipuram and Thirunavaya people have struck on a new innovation – growing vegetables and paddy right on the river bed, fed by a scraggly stream winding around brushwood and boulders.
The story begins in 1970 when Kerala signed an interstate water sharing agreement with neighbouring Tamil Nadu – the Prambikulam Aliyar Project (PAP) agreement that was conceived for harnessing and sharing the waters of the inter-state rivers Nila, Chalakkudypuzha and Periyar. However, a crucial mistake regarding Nila was in the agreement unnoticed by the officials at the time. Only the irrigation needs of about 20,000 acres of land downstream in Kerala was considered while apportioning the waters of Nila. While this was grossly underestimated, other critical needs were surprisingly ignored too. The huge drinking water requirements of the downstream districts of Palakkad, Thrissur and Malappuram, the minimum quantum of flow required to avoid saline water intrusion from the sea, the flow required to maintain the ecological balance downstream, and even the need to sustain the rich biodiversity of the region were simply not taken into account. Irrigating the solitary Chittur taluk alone figured in the agreement. Thus, a massive quantum of water was diverted to another basin without assuring the minimum flow needed downstream to sustain the river itself. Dams were built even on major tributaries like Aliyar and Palar. The result, predictably, has proved disastrous.
Experts on river management and officials connected with the inter-state agreement are unanimous in their opinion that PAP indeed sounded the death knell of Nila. Other pernicious factors are responsible too. Like large-scale logging around its headwaters – on the hills of Annamalai – reduces retention of water and lets rainwater flow down the hilly slopes unfettered. Clearly, commercial interests were smothering the very life of the hills. Large-scale logging in much of the forestlands in its basin especially in Walayar, Dhoni, Agamalavaram and Nelliampathy has played havoc with the supporting ecosystem. Only the rain-forests of Silent Valley and a few others stand as mute spectators amidst this widespread denuding.
There is yet another insidious process that is hastening Nila’s end, sand mining literally gouging out living parts of the river exposing its underbelly. To meet the growing demands of the construction industry, licences were issued for limited sand mining from designated sandbanks along its course. However, this is grossly misused and unbridled sand mining has become the order of the day. According to unofficial estimates, a thousand truckloads of sand are being mined daily from the Nila. Under this onslaught, some tributaries have already dried up. At many places, miners reach more than ten feet below the top layer exposing vast stretches of clayey subsoil on which shrubs and brush have promptly taken root and spread. With the top layers gone, the subsoil, exposed to the sun, loses moisture fast. As a result, the subterranean water table has gone down and with that, wells in the region have begun drying up. Equally serious is what this is doing to the ground itself. With the combination of the drying sub-strata and the tons of sand mined, earth begins to settle and before long residents along the banks find new cracks on their walls. Fault lines snaking across the corridors and halls of the government college at Chittur is a prime example.
A drive along the river today throws out stark vignettes that seem to bemoan its current plight. Truckloads of sand are carted away where dugout canoes once glided carrying mounds of fish. Electric pumps suck water from ditches in the bed, feeding scraggly fields of paddy where broad channels guided gushing water into carpets of green. Village boys kick football on the loamy riverbed where urchins dived headlong for their morning ablutions. And perhaps lending a poignant touch is this deeply symbolic scene: in the gloaming, women gather on its banks carrying coloured plastic cans and wait for municipal water trucks, as the last rays of the sun gild the skeleton of the once mighty river behind them!
Amidst these dark clouds, there is a silver lining. Artists, writers, poets and intellectuals who have drawn inspiration from the Nila for ages have picked up cudgels against this mindless onslaught. Through meetings and seminars, they have been raising their voices, which the press have obligingly picked up. The same pens that once wrote paeans on the river are now writing reams in a belated effort to save it from doom. It will take more than these voices to save the Nila. It will take detailed studies, strategic planning, amicable negotiations, bold measures and above all an inspired political will. Meanwhile Nila barely hangs on, propped up by the life support system dealt by the seasonal rains.
In the sweltering heat of the Kerala summer, tropical winds gusting across the riverbed moan as they hit the dusty casuarinas. The plaintive wail sounds eerily like the swansong of the Nila. Akber Ayub is a mechanical engineer by profession, an ex-marine engineer, ex-industrialist, member of a college faculty, and finally, following his heart, now a writer.
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