Why scenic Alleppey in the southern Indian state of Kerala watches the sunset
Bengaluru: Nestled in the luxury of a houseboat, from the shores of Lake Punnamada, you are sure to witness one of the most beautiful auroras of your life!
But, if you look closely at the still waters from which you enjoy the sunrise, gently floating with the houseboat, the streams of crimson light penetrating the lake’s surface will expose its black, thick, heavy underbelly – the residue of your enjoyment.
Welcome to Alappuzha, or Alleppey as it is popularly called.
Wife of the remote economy of South Indian state Kerala, Alleppey is a classic case of a king’s overindulgence towards his favorite wife. Therefore, the bride has now become a sickly old woman, while retaining her cosmetic beauty.
Dotted with hundreds of houseboats, Alleppey’s filthy, oil-covered and sewage-infested lakes have become festering cesspools as their connection to the sea is blocked, spoiling their natural filtering system.
Water hyacinth clogs channels, reduces oxygen levels in the water and causes depletion of fish stocks.
Aquatic weed is a constant source of discomfort for anglers and boat captains alike as it gets tangled in nets and propellers. The Venice of Kerala is in shock!
But this is only a small price to pay in the march of progress. The show must continue.
According to Alleppey-based Kerala ecologist KV Dayal, known as the Kerala Man of the Forest, the main cause of backwater degeneration in Alleppey is continuous development without ecological consultation. “The backwaters are a typical ecosystem, it is very sensitive and fragile. Over the years, so many development programs have been rolled out without considering the science of ecology and that is the real problem,” he says.
Nature has blessed Alleppey with an abundance of natural beauties and resources, and man has robbed it abundantly.
From backwaters and lakes to canals and the sea, Alleppey is a place of serenity.
Add to that the verdant rice paddies, supple coconut palms and succulent seafood, it’s an ideal combination for a tropical vacation. It was with exactly such images in mind that we landed in Alleppey, hoping to add more nuance to our already colorful tour of southern India.
Excitedly, we started with the sunset, and it was magical to say the least, but as the sun rose over the horizon, a picture of great contrasts began to appear.
Indeed, the nature and the landscapes were as splendid as described by many, but for the informed eyes, their beauty was only on edge.
The people and business enterprises of Alleppey literally live off the waters around them. The lakes are as vast as the ocean, and countless small, mostly man-made islands dot the bodies of water, connected only by a well-oiled water transport system (pun intended).
People relieve themselves in lakes and canals, bathe, wash their clothes and fish in the same waters. It’s a full operating cycle.
The only thing that seems to be lacking is respect for nature, which is excessively exploited.
“Appropriate ecological studies are not carried out by engaging the experts in the field, before sanctioning any development initiative, agricultural or touristic, which causes more damage to the ecosystem compared to the benefits that these programs are supposed to bring”, has said Dayal, who has been closely studying the local ecosystem and biodiversity of Kerala for years and has made recommendations for its preservation.
According to the veteran conservationist, the problem is not new, it started with the introduction of rice cultivation in the Kuttanad region of Alleppey which borders the backwaters.
“The problem is nobody knows what Kuttannada is, what the transportation system should be here, what the developed landscape should be here,” he added.
Added to the misfortunes of nature are the continuous reclamation of land for agriculture (mainly rice paddies) and the construction of barriers to prevent seawater from entering lakes and canals, making the water unsuitable for irrigation.
The barriers have blocked the only natural filtering system, making the waters of the lake and canal dirty.
It is obvious that for the water quality to improve, the barriers must disappear, but this will have a negative impact on the rice fields which are below sea level.
Despite all this, in the eyes of a regular tourist the place is exotic, almost surreal.
The water is still and languid, may even seem like an elixir to some. That is, if they have time to look closely amidst all the euphoria of selfies and quaint breakfasts!
Needless to say, remote tourism is an important source of employment for thousands of men and women in the region. But, if enjoyment and employment together lead to the destruction of its source, the existence of both will be in danger.
Kerala is rich in biodiversity, blessed with a natural variety that only a few Indian states possess. But its natural resources are being depleted at a faster rate than many other states, thanks to so-called “material” progress and excessive urbanization and commercialization.
The most apt example of how nature is suffering due to endless human greed is the crown jewel of Kerala tourism – its backwater ecosystem.
— Shafaat Shahbandari is a journalist based in Bengaluru. He is the founder of Thousand Shades of India, an alternative media platform that celebrates India’s diversity.