Monday, August 01, 2011

Spoiling a river

Members of the Voice of Nature group try their best to prevent the environmental degradation of the Kodoor river near Kottayam

Photos: Dr. Praveen George Ittycheria, the president of the 'Voice of Nature' group, with the captured lorry; A train going on a bridge over the Kodoor river

By Shevlin Sebastian

There is always a sense of elation when you see a river for the first time. The Kodoor river, near Kottayam, evokes the same reaction, especially when you come to it through congested roads. But your mood can get quickly spoiled when you have to haggle with the boatman, a lean and wiry man, over charges for a journey. Ultimately, following delicate thrusts and counter-thrusts, a rate is fixed.

As you set out, with the diesel engine making a throbbing sound, a closer look at the water evokes a grimace. It is chocolate-brown, in colour, like slush, and thick. On one bank, there are car workshops and a vegetable and fish market. As we go past, an unbearable stench rises up.

“They are throwing the waste into the water,” says Dr. Praveen George Ittycheria, the president of the 'Voice of Nature' group. “I have seen chicken sellers come at midnight, to a nearby bridge and throw the remains into the river. We have alerted the municipal authorities about this.”

Recently, the group had cleaned both sides of the bank, near a bridge, which was choked with garbage: construction material, sand, mud, bricks, slippers, and plastic bottles, all of which would inevitably find its way into the river. In its place, plants and grass have been planted. “But garbage was still being thrown,” he says.

So one, night, the group kept vigil. Suddenly, a lorry with the words, 'Drinking Water' written in bold letters at the front and the back, drew up silently. The driver went to the back, and aimed a pipe into the water. On closer investigation, it turned out to be human excreta. When confronted, the driver jumped into the lorry and fled. The members of the Voice of Nature group, led by Praveen, chased him in their car. Ultimately, the driver was apprehended, taken to the police station, and a FIR was lodged.

Says Mary Roy, the principal of Pallikoodam school, “Heavy fines should be imposed on anybody dumping garbage into the river.Today it is Rs. 300. It should be Rs. 1 lakh, with imprisonment. The rules must be changed.”

Praveen says that a constant degradation of the Kodoor river is taking place. Incidentally, the river is 20 kms long and has a width of 80 feet. At the boat chugs along, and goes further away from the town, the river begins to shake off the depredations it has suffered. The waters begin to get clearer and there is a swifter flow now. Soon, the slap of waves hitting the banks can be heard.

On one side, there are small houses, with asbestos roofs. Behind them are several paddy fields: a lush-green carpet, broken now and then by small mud partitions. In the distance, there are tree-laden hills. A gentle breeze is blowing. The boat picks up speed. The flow becomes faster now.

Surprisingly, as the driver approaches a railway bridge, the boat moves to one side, towards the bank. “More than 15 years ago, a goods train derailed,” says Praveen, by way of explanation. “Two bogies, containing oil, fell into the water. The Railways have yet to remove it. So, if we go straight, the underside of the boat will scrape against the wagons.”

If you stare hard, you can barely make out the outlines of a wagon, just below the surface. And so, the boat is carefully manoeuvred and goes past the bridge.

About half a kilometre from Puthupally town, there was a huge mound of garbage in the middle of the river. Fishermen had put up nets to trap fish, but a lot of waste also got stuck. Over the years, this had become an obstruction. “With the help of a local group, the Ericadu Club, we have got rid of a lot of garbage and created a passageway,” says Praveen. “However, more work has to be done.”

A dentist by profession, Praveen has a close connection with theriver. “I grew up beside it,” he says. “I remember in my childhood, the waters were crystal clear and we would often swim in it and have so much fun catching fish. That is why to see the river in this condition pains me. So, I am trying to do something.”

The Voice of Nature group consists of dentists, engineers, doctors, politicians, religious leaders and social workers. “We are a group of middle class people who want to stop the degradation of the environment,” says Vice President Aleyamma Cheriyan. “And we also want to spread a message to people that they should love and respect Nature.”

(The New Indian Express, south India and Delhi)

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