Alleppey is my birthplace. It is where I was brought up. It is the place that made me what I am. I have every reason to love the place. And I have every right to dream too.
I have a faint idea about the affluence the town bathed in some time back. The two canals, the arteries of the town, flowing smoothly with crystal clear water, full of country boats laden with coir and other products, the surrounding area filled with the fragrance of pepper, cardamom and other spices, the shores bustling with the hum and fury of activities, its banks fringed by godowns and factories, the labourers overflowing the banks, the festivals that made the nights alive….. everything runs back into my mind when I think of my infant days. They were the golden days of Alleppey, but certainly, things of the past.
Gone are the days of trade and shipment. Envisaged as a port town by a great visionary the then Diwan of Travancore Raja Kesavadas, Alleppey served the purpose quite effectively till the development of road transport and the rise of Cochin as a major port. Yet, the downfall of Alleppey, the ill-fate that began to rule over the town, was not entirely the contribution of these. There were other reasons also.
The vast godowns on either side of the canals had no purpose, once the trade shifted to Cochin. The coir factories could not sustain themselves during the lean period after Independence. They had to be eventually closed down, as the Foreign owners who invested in these companies withdrew from here one by one. Local people had not gained the strength to take over the factories or run them properly.
Closing down the factories naturally resulted in unemployment. The political upheaval that shaped itself around Punnapra-Vayalar had its impact on the labourers too. They were becoming aware of their rights; they strongly fought for their due. But it all ended up in hastening the total collapse of industry in the area.
The effects of the frustration that arose out such a dire situation are, in my opinion, still prevalent in the Social Culture of Alleppey, at least psychologically. An empty mind is said to be the workshop of the devil. I would like to modify the statement somewhat to say that unemployment is the root cause of all divisive and destructive tendencies that crop up in the society. The highly charged political atmosphere which manifests itself in blocking all developmental activities in the area is perhaps the long-term outcome of this disillusion.
But that is not the point in question. The second thing that resulted in the ‘death’ of the once-busy waterways – the canals – is the construction of the Thanneermukkom bund. It was hailed as a permanent solution for all woes of the farmers of Kuttanad. It was then considered an engineering wonder and a man-made blessing that would free the peasants of all miseries. It was even thought that the Bund could forever provide self-sufficiency for the State in rice cultivation. It was believed that the onslaught of brackish water from the sea could be permanently blocked. The prospect of doing two or three crops every year was the promise.
I don’t have to dwell at length to describe how this ‘blessing’ has turned into a ‘curse’. The Bund itself was not completed, the shutters were not used properly, and the rest of the project was neglected. All this resulted in the total imbalance of Nature - loss of fish, increased use of artificial manures and pesticides, intense pollution and absence of natural cleansing. The eco-system of the area was completely upset. Needless to say, the Bund miserably interfered with Nature’s yearly process of making the land fertile and cultivable.
But its greatest impact was on the Canals and the surrounding areas. The natural ebb and flow of sea water was blocked by the Bund and it lead to the ‘killing’ of the Canals. The water became stagnant. And, as the saying goes, stagnant water pollutes. Add to this the natural death of their use as waterways to move country boats that carried things to be exported.
The Canals were naturally overgrown with weeds. The water got polluted day by day; People found them a convenient place for dumping waste. It is a happy breeding ground for mosquitoes and all sorts of water-born germs and pests. The banks of the Canals were a haven for their primary needs and anti-social activities. The false exercise of cleansing the canals of weeds and debris has been going on a yearly basis for the past thirty five years or so. I remember being a member of a ‘Sramadan’ team some thirty years back, but the situation has only grown worse. Crores of Rupees are pumped in every year for this useless exercise and the weeds continue to grow. What happens is that the disease is not treated, but only the symptoms are attempted to be removed. The problem really is lack of flow of brackish water through natural ebb and low tide in the sea. The path for this is blocked on either side – in the east with the Thanneermukkom Bund and in the west by the sea shore.
Well, the Canals have their own use, incidentally. They provide many with a reason and means for existence. The yearly cleansing process makes a living for many people. Make hay while the Sun shines. Make money as long as the canals are there.
The narrow bridges which were once constructed to enable the movement of pedestrians continue to be the same even during these days of heavy vehicular traffic, causing incessant traffic blocks. True, some of them have been widened, but the canals and the narrow bridges still make traffic movement hazardous.
The recent controversy over felling the trees on either side of the canals is another ploy to protect the subversive interests of some people. You can litter only a place that is already littered. The trees make good shade for anti-social activities. In any case, these were not planted in a planned scheme; they had just grown there in the absence of proper upkeep of the banks. But, environmentalism is a good hideout for blocking any developmental activities in our State!
And, then there are people who flock to preserve the canals and all the dirt around it in the name of Tradition. But they forget that the canals are only about 200 years old and they were man-made channels meant for the particular purpose of transporting the hill-produce to the shore. The canals served that purpose effectively during their tenure and that purpose is not going to be re-generated at all. They are now dead and putrefying; the only treatment is amputation as in the case of Gangrene!
What causes my greatest dismay is that none of these people who throng to protect and preserve the Canals and their stinking surroundings are worried about the lack of a proper drainage and sewage system in the town. Worse still, there is criminal unconcern about Solid Waste removal. The authorities have no time or means to organize these things, whether it be the Municipal Council or the Government Agencies. For them too, presumably, the Canals are a great solace as the stocking point of all dirt and waste. Interestingly, the Municipal elections are hotly contested, but the incumbents are more worried about their chairs than the welfare of the town. By the time a District Collector begins to study the situation, he gets transferred for ambiguous reasons!
My Dream Alleppey
In the Alleppey of my dreams, there is no Thanneermukkom Bund. The vast Vembanad Lake and its full expanse gets yearly nourished by the flow of the pure waters from the rivers and gets cleansed everyday by the ebb and flow of the tides from the sea. The farmers are content with one crop every year, which is more productive than the many crops they fail in. All sorts of Fish naturally grow in the backwaters and the seasonal birds do not come to any harm through pesticides and pollution.
All the expanse of the backwaters is studded with houseboats carrying thousands of tourists from all over the world. The water is so safe that they can even swim in it. The cool breeze during the day and the bright sunset in the evenings behind the swinging coconut trees enthral them with an exotic experience. The calm and serene surroundings, well in contrast with the din and bustle of the cities, persuade the tourists to stay on and on.
On the banks of the Punnamada Kayal, there are permanent pavilions to view Boat-races conducted many times a year in the fashion of Nehru Trophy Boat Race. Close to the pavilions, there are jetties for Transport Boats, Pleasure Boats and House Boats. The place is reachable by roads provided behind the pavilions. The ground floor under the pavilion houses any number of tourist offices, ready to help the tourists at cost-effective rates. Tourist guides are also stationed there, along with lifeguards. Of course, there are all facilities for the primary needs of the tourists within the pavilion.
In my dreams, the Canals are just not there. They have been laid with large drainage pipes and covered completely, leaving manholes at necessary points. All the dirty water from the buildings on either side flow into the drainage pipes and get disposed into the sea. The tops of the Canals are used to widen roads, and at vantage points, provide for shopping malls, theatres, fun centres and comfort stations at regular intervals. Safe and pure drinking water is available everywhere. There are no heaps of dirt and waste anywhere in the vicinity. All have been taken away during off-peak hours by men deputed for it in tipper Lorries.
On the outskirts of the town at the South and North, there are garbage collection centres. All the waste collected from the town is properly disposed off, either as compressed waste or organic manure.
The bypass on the National Highway has become a reality. The Railway line is doubled and electrified. There are Electrical Multiple Units (EMUs) plying between Trivandrum and Ernakulam through Alleppey. The KSRTC Bus station has been shifted close to the Highway. There are frequent town buses, both KSRTC and private, plying through all the areas of the town and touching the Main Bus Station and the Railway Station. Long distance buses do not enter the town just to satisfy the pranks of politicians.
Another bypass connecting Pallathuruthy to Nehru Trophy Ward also is a reality. People coming from Changanacherry cross over to NH 47 somewhere near Arattuvazhy without entering the town, if need be. This bypass is a busy thoroughfare, with scores of Hotels, Motels and Lodges to cater to the needs of the tourists. Either side of the road is highly developed to the extent of making it another township with perfect residential facilities.
The four-lane NH 47 has considerably shortened the distance from Kochi. Alleppey is fast growing into a comfortable residential area for all the high-tech professionals who are employed in Kochi and surrounding areas because of low-cost living and congenial atmosphere.
An Export Processing Zone has come up somewhere on the outskirts of the town. Coir is still the major produce of Alleppey. In spite of the major and mechanized Coir factories, there are thousands of houses and small workshops where coir products are made as cottage industry. There are co-operative societies that ensure proper price for the products in the EPZ. Container facilities are provided here. The fertile sands of the villages all around the town produce organic vegetables in plenty and they get exported in great quantities. Alleppey has also become a major exporter of readymade garments.
The change that has come over in Bhattathiripurayidom is incredible. There is first class 400M track, Stadium and all amenities for Sports and Games there. The Conference Hall and the Gymnasium and facilities for development of the Physique are of international standards.
What surprises and thrills me most is the change that has come over the Politicians. Politics is not their means of existence, but their strength to get things done for their native place. Differences of opinion and colours of flags are forgotten when it comes to the development of Alleppey. They all stand together and make hot bargains for the progress of Alleppey. It is not the craze for power that rules them, but their desire to do the best for their soil.
Finally, what I find in Alleppey is that unemployment has ceased to be a problem to the younger generation. Nobody waits for the paltry unemployment pension. The youth have realized the value of work and entrepreneurship. They have formed themselves into self-help groups and work day and night. Tourism-enabled jobs are in plenty. The youth of Alleppey know very well that even a ‘Thattukada’ with tasty items can make a living for a few. It has dawned on them that political processions, hartals and bundhs are organized not for the good of the youth, but to gain political mileage for some at the top.
I know that what I see is only a dream, but it is a dream from which I do not want to wake up!
Note: Most of my dreams continue to be a dream even after eight years, but I am sure somebody somewhere is thinking about making them a reality! Let us hope for the best.
(This article was originally published in one of my blogs on 09 July 2005. )