Friday, March 8, 2013

Fantasies of Airporting Aranmula: A Spot Report

Kozhithode, a river blocked downstream by earth fill 

It is a case of what a poet wrote, in Malayalam, Thala Aruthu Koduthu Jnanoru Thoppi Vangi, I bought a fancy hat selling my head. About so called development at the cost of the survival systems. With an illegal and unviable airport coming up in the wet lands of Aranmula, fifth airport in a very small state, the Aranmula Puncha, and the human habitations around, are readying for a battle. It is a fight to survive. ‘This is a war that has begun on the banks of river Pampa and it is time now for conscientious people to make their positions clear’ tells Mohan Aranmula, a poet, dalit leader and former Panchayat President. He sings loud, his own poem. On one side is a monstrous project, KGS Aranmula International Airport Limited, floated by a private company, which has bought vast areas of the wet lands and filled it. They have also, with impunity, filled Kozhithode, a key tributary of Pampa and also another river, the back bone of the wet lands here, Karimaram thode. They purchased and razed down hills as earth fill and were busy buying more. What has created havoc in the riverine ecosystem. The shocked people are watching in disbelief, those who have made a habit of duping the graceful farmers are crossing all borders, tells the old timers.

Kurunthar Uthaman, farmer whose lands became lakes
‘Our farm lands are water logged, lakes got formed between hamlets. Despite far too many laws being violated, complaints made, ironically the state machinery is supporting the wrong doers’, tells  Kurunthar Uthaman, a farmer and the Secretary of the Karshaka Sanghom, who has only a fragment of his old paddy fields. With political clout and international capital they go scot-free despite the violence to nature, people. Uthaman has been fighting the battle from the start. ‘It is only an appetizer’, says Sreeranganathan, a photographer and key activist in the struggle, ‘this huge project is a looming threat, the ecosystem, landscape and community profile are heading for total anarchy’. That is when the peace loving people of Aranmula reacted. Unhealthy interventions in nature and large scale land alienation are chronic problems in the region. And for Kerala with its high density of population farm lands are dear. Farm lands are now real estate for traders, rice cultivation systemically damaged. And unhealthy crops like  rubber promoted at state cost. Last few decades saw an invasion. ‘In the melee Aranmula may trigger a chain reaction, it should’, said Mullakkara Ratnakaran, a former Agricultural Minister talking at a local meeting.

‘The revival of our farm lands, the lost paddy field culture, shall start at Aramula said Ratnakaran. Aranmulas shall sprout at every paddy field in Kerala, what shall rewrite history', the Communist leader added. No wonder almost all major political parties in Aranmula have come together, a rare feat achieved. There are Communists, Socialists and the Hindutwa folks all there, so also, various social and environment activist groups. Meanwhile at Aringottu Kavu, one of the hills within the wetlands and with a place of worship, Sacred Grove and a Mahadeva temple, the company has offered huge sums to buy the adjoining lands. The large number of temples and Sacred Groves, Kavu and Malanadas, forming part of the nature worshiping culture are now coming under the area ear marked for the airport. It was declared ‘Industrial Area’ by a dubious special Gazette notification. The people living in and around the beautiful Pallimukkom Goddess temple, at Kidanganoor, a part of Aranmula, when talked to had no fear though.

Scenic Beauty: Pallimukkom Temple, Pond and Sacred Grove
‘It cannot happen’, says a temple neighbor, about the airport becoming a threat to the temple. The slogans at the protest rallies are provocative. ‘These are just non-issues before us, if we react there shall be turmoil, they know, let us wait. Look at the Goddess images, she always has weapons, though she is graceful, forgiving, but not always',  he added. The determination in his words was evident. This temple, part of the rice culture here, has a pond, a patch of wilderness protected as a Sacred Grove, and ancient temples. Gods of a rain forest people, enthralling natural beauty. The hillocks that spread around the vast paddy field wet lands have important ecological functions, like giving a home to pollinators and pest eating birds, how they are kept unmolested and sacred. The first harvest goes to the Gods here, that is the belief.  Many of the hills coming under the proposed plan are called Malanadas, and part of the belief systems of the people. But to the Mt. Zion group, and its owner Abraham Kalamannil, that started the project, these are just mud hills good for filling wet lands. It is a people who have been brain washed, heavily funded from abroad. Though later seeing the people’s wrath they pulled back with the company called KGS group later pushed in front. 'If this group violated the laws to protect the ecosystem, laws made to save a land, they went scot-free; but when the affected people violated the other laws, burned their earth filling machinery, the state reacted and far too many criminal cases were leveled on them' what is a common refrain. The unsuspecting owners of wet lands who were not cultivating it for some time were in for a surprise, their lands were captured making false records. This included poor dalit laborers and the operation was with the connivance of government officials. Despite proof, despite some low level officers taking nominal action, the state government refuses to act against the Mt. Zion group who did it first. And some of the land losers with other landless farmers have made huts on a part of the land.   

As agitations at Aranmula and across the state spread like wild fire the investors who want profits from real estate deals, and the airport if possible, are hiding behind soft facades of hired people. The lands bought dirt cheap were reportedly sold at sky high prices, duping naive investors from Tamilnadu. And they are using their political clout to manipulate the state apparatus. Another gimmick was to push the agenda taking the name of Sabarimala, a forest hill shrine, that it is meant for pilgrims. A pilgrimage where arduous trekking is the gist, what failed to work. They got the state government to get the prime wet lands notified as Industrial Area, made the state offer public money as share in the company, even got the President of India to declare a small time private airport in faraway Kerala as national priority. But each of these steps made the public opinion against them, what is alarming. At the lawns of the famous Parthasarathy temple in Aranmula, Kummanam Rajasekharan, Patron of the Paithruka Grama Karma Samithy, the frontal organization that is spear heading the agitation, sits confidently. ‘We are ready for any eventuality and People’s Committees are formed in all adjoining villages, people to people linkages are also ready’ Kummanam said. ‘Only insane people shall support such projects, saner people shall all support us, its all about ecological sanity, water and food security, beliefs.’  For the well-known Malayalam poet Sugthathakumari, whose birth place is Aranmula, who has taken the state wide leadership of the struggle, it is a war between Dharma and Adharma, as she said, a war of virtue and evil.

Kannangattu Madhom Temple: Long Prayer To Forgive 
The series of temples near by, groves and hill shrines, all linked to the main temple at Aranmula, of Lord Parthasarathy, are part of an ancient temple centred settlement and there are mutual linkages between all these. Where exactly the airport plan was launched. Here for the festivals it is mandatory to have the participation of the smaller network of shrines. And a large number of these are owned and managed by the dalit, a rice people, later in history made farm labor, communities. The priesthood is also with the dalits at places, some of them called Ooralis and highly venerated. The beliefs here are not Vedic as in major Hindu temples but down to earth and Sakteya. Many of these places did not consider meat and drinks as taboo. The Kannangattu Madhom, too close to the proposed run way of the fictional airport, is part of a belief where the upper castes ill treated a dalit woman in the past and even today some of the caste Brahmins do penance to redeem the wrong. The period of corrections is here as it seems. The Kanjiraveli Sastha temple, Gurukkal Kavu, Punnakkadu Krishna temple, Chooral Kavu, are all among the various places of worship coming under the proposed site as told. However no clear picture is given to the people and no one knows the boundaries, plans. That is far too serious a scenario that can be called undue advantage. There are also important ashrams like the Kidanganoor Ashram, which played a crucial role in the past development of the place and its man making.                    

Aringottu Kavu Mahadeva Temple: Deep Inside a Grove
The attack came stealthily, in a peaceful temple community minding their business, when the church based group, Mt. Zion Society, started buying up bits of Puncha wet lands claiming to start fish and paddy cultivation. Later they started filling it and said it is for a small air strip, to start an aeronautical engineering school. There was no objection but then the cat was out, the secret plans were out. The proposed 'aeropolis', a airport complex with star hotels, malls, industrial estates and international business conclaves, shall wipe away the wet lands, with the community that is organically part of the  system. Kerala, a naturally endowed state that saw systemic destruction of its natural bounty and paying a heavy price has not learned any lessons. When the politicians go around begging for drought relief funds, when people go walking so many kilometres to fetch drinking water, when the once perennial rivers are drying out one by one, it is a crime that they are killing the wet lands that replenish ground water. But for those who greed for immediate money, mad- rush to progress, it blinds these callous lobbies to embrace the self-destructive path. 

Google Map of the area with the Aranmula temple and the river Pampa at the top left 
It is also a paradox at Aranmula. For the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), in association with the Government of India, had a decade earlier declared Aranmula as of   global heritage value.  The Aranmula Parthasarathy temple, associated boat race, arts and crafts together was selected, only one site from Kerala, and a development paradigm was evolving. There were series of projects ear marked to evolve a healthy development model for the region, what meant all round growth and international prominence. What those who honor heritage were actively pursuing when the air port project came as a severe blow. The Paithruka Grama Karma Samithy had organized collective farming in the puncha lands, had other place specific ecofriendly plans. 

River Pampa near the temple, once full, now under attack, bruised 
When the secret deals of Mt. Zion group began, with their international links and manipulations, the deal slowly becoming menacing. The land was lucrative, they were moneyed, could manage the political system, and were adept in dubious ways of conspiring with the like minded in every other agency. Where the saviors of the land, those who had stakes, were caught in a double bind, an explosive reaction shall mean social turmoil, there are hidden sparks waiting to be ignited, for this is a region that saw land alienation of a large scale in the last few decades where  those with NRI and international capital have bought over most of the lands, farmlands changing to real estate. With ensuing environmental calamities after irresponsible interventions in ecosystem. And the people of Aranmula are demanding stringent action against the law breakers, restoration of the water bodies, compensations, this agitation will not end without that, and it is a consensus opinion. And on the banks of the once majestic river Pampa, now a skeleton of its old self, where once boats went up and down in all seasons, it is literally a struggle to protect the survival system. 

No comments:

Post a Comment