Keezhattur farmers want the highway to bypass their paddy fields and wetlands

  • The proposal to build a bypass for the Kochi-Mumbai coastal highway through paddy fields close to Taliparamba town in Kerala has run into an environmental controversy.
  • Villagers at Keezhattur are protesting against the road project, since they feel that it would destroy their paddy fields and wetlands, which are a source for groundwater recharge.
  • While the Kerala Government and Keezhattur residents are at loggerheads, the controversy has again brought into fore the importance of protecting the remaining wetlands and paddy fields in Kerala.

Keezhattur village in Kannur district of Kerala has become the focal point of an environmental controversy. While the Kerala Government wants to acquire land passing through paddy fields for constructing a road that will bypass Taliparamba town for the national highway connecting Kochi to Mumbai, villagers have been opposing it to protect their wetlands from being destroyed.

The group of farmers agitating against land acquisition for a national highway bypass in Keezhattur  call themselves Vayalkilikal, meaning birds in the paddy field. Six months ago, it was just a protest by 60 farmers of the village. Over the time it had converted to a huge battle providing sleepless nights to the state government.

The project aims to construct a four-lane highway as part of NH 66 that will avoid traffic congestion in Taliparamba. For this project, the National Highway Authority of India needs to acquire 29.11 hectares of land. Of this, 21.09 hectares are wetlands including paddy fields, which serve as the water recharge points for Keezhattur and nearby villages.

Villagers gather to protect their paddy fields. Photo by Vayalkilikal.

Water source would be lost

“Keezhattur is not ready to wait in a queue near a public tap for drinking water in hot sun,” state the agitating farmers as their slogan. They stress on the fact that their protest is motivated by environmental concerns and not political ones.

Suresh Keezhattur, one of the leaders of Vayalkilikal said that the most valuable natural resource on earth is drinking water. Drawing from his experience while working in Equatorial Guinea, a small country on the west coast of Africa he reminisced that the country had plenty of natural groundwater. However, vested interests propagated information that the groundwater was not potable. Thus, the poverty-ridden communities were forced to buy bottled water. “I cannot let Keezhattur face similar crisis here,” he said.

Vayalkilikal have concerns against filling soil to raise an embankment over wetland paddy fields. Once the field is filled with soil, where will rainwater get stored? How would the village be able to retain the water that will drain off? What will happen to the abundant ground water of Keezhattur ? Where would the estimated 2.6 million tonnes of soil needed for raising the embankment come from? How many hills would need to be destroyed to excavate the soil?

“There are wells in Keezhattur, from where water is sourced for distribution in the entire municipality of Taliparammba. This shows the village’s abundance in water. Our paddy fields and marshy lands are responsible for it,” Suresh Keezhattur said and alleged that that the authorities were even not ready to discuss these issues.

During a stand-off with the authorities. Photo by Vayalkilikal.

Reducing area under paddy fields in Kerala

The Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), a people’s science movement of Kerala, in their report released in March 2018 had warned of adverse environmental impact of this proposed highway. The report says that from 1991 to 2016 Kerala’s paddy fields have reduced from 541,000 hectares to 197,000 hectares.

“Water from the nearby town area flows to Keezhattur and through a stream it joins Kuttikol river. This means that the area helps to increase ground water recharge. Even during extreme summers water is abundant here. There are 16 bigger and 50 smaller ponds in this village. Many of the nearby areas fetch water from this village to distribute in urban areas. If this project gets established, a major part of these wetlands will be gone,” states the KSSP report.

The report also proposes an alternate project to tackle the traffic issue. It proposes to build a flyover near Taliparamba town, which would be cost effective as well as environmentally feasible.

In February 2018 the state government amended the Kerala Paddy Land and Wetland Conservation Act of 2008. The protesters claim that through this amendment government showed that they are no longer interested in environment protection.

“Around 30 percent of the total wetlands of Kerala has already been destroyed in last few decades. A hectare of wetland can hold more than one million litres of water, so they are extremely important to our environment,” Byju a member of Vayalkilikal said.

“Please don’t support in destruction of this village. Till my last breath I will fight against taking over of these lands,” said 75-year-old Nambradath Janaki, who was one among the protesters who had drenched herself in petrol and had threatened to self-immolate when the NHAI officials visited to survey the land in March. Police arrested the protesting villagers to complete the survey.

The women from the village join in the protest. Photo by Vayalkilikal.

On March 27, many environment activists from other places congregated and led a rally from Taliparamba to Keezhattur. Medha Patkar, the leader of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), and well-known social activist Daya Bai have expressed their support to the protesting villagers.

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