When water hyacinths raised alarm bells

(A weekly column on the region’s past culled from historical documents.)

Water hyacinth makes a pretty sight, but is nevertheless a headache. The floating aquatic plant with wide leaves that zestfully spreads across our waterways, lakes and ponds, mean more harm than good. Yet, the belligerent carpets of green sporting purple flowers are a common sight across Kerala.

The water hyacinth sent the British into a tizzy. Alarmed by the presence of this “pest” in tanks and ponds, they decided to have it uprooted. It is only after funds were sanctioned for the purpose did they realise that the task at hand was daunting.

A tone of panic marks the letters between the British officers when the subject is the water hyacinth. It is in the letter of J. F. Hall, Sub Collector of Palghat, to the Collector of Malabar in October, 1914, that the plant is mentioned.

He has “noticed the water hyacinth — the plant which has proved such a pest in the waterways of Ceylon — in certain mosque tanks near Ponnani and in several places in the canal between Ponnani and Madilagam.” Hall gets into the details. Though he has noticed it in small quantities, he hears of its widespread presence in the region. “I may add that I have also seen or heard of this plant in one or two tanks of the Palghat taluk,” he adds.

Hall’s information is passed over by C.A. Innes, Acting Collector of Malabar to the Commissioner of Revenue Settlement Survey, Land Records and Agriculture in Madras. To supplement Hall’s letter, Innes pitches in with more alarming details on his own.

An exasperated Innes writes, “I understand that this plant is the most dangerous pest and I have no idea as to how it has been imported into the district.”

He proposes a plan to get rid of the water hyacinth. “If the Board approves, I propose to endeavour to get the plant removed at any rate from the canal by means of coolies…efforts will also be made to have the plant cleaned out of the private tanks in Ponnani town,” he writes.

The Board of Revenue in Madras too doesn’t take the plant lightly. By December they pass a resolution approving Innes’ proposal and even goes a step further. The Director of Agriculture wants to do his bit towards the pest issue. He “proposes to prepare a coloured leaflet dealing with the water hyacinth, translate it into all vernacular languages pointing out the danger of the plant and circularise it very widely inviting the co-operation of all government officers and newspapers in putting down the pest. When the leaflet is ready, copies may be sent to government suggesting the necessity for legislation.”

Tackling hyacinth

Soon, it is down to business. The Board’s resolution is passed down to the ground-level officers. The tahsildars are assigned the task of recording water bodies were the plant thrives. It is found in 12 tanks in Ponnani, also in the adjoining areas of Pallaprom and Kadavanad. The Collector writes to Madras saying the hyacinth is found in the mosque tanks of Tellicherry. “I fear it is very widespread. The sooner your pamphlet is distributed the better,” he suggests. An amount of Rs. 100 is sanctioned for the cleaning.

It is in the letters of the district level officers that one gets to know more about the plant. They know the extent of the issue and practical ways of handling it. Uprooting the plant at government expense is a tedious endeavour, they assert. They instead suggest putting the ball in the people’s court.

The tahsildar from Ponnani writes, “The hyacinth exists in numerous private tanks and ponds in the coast amsoms and I propose issuing a circular to the village officials to inspect the tanks and ponds and persuade the people to uproot the pest at their own expense. Otherwise the cost of removing the pest from the numerous localities will be prohibitive and may amount to hundreds of rupees.”

He writes that in his area the plant is found in the Tirur range, also in private ponds. “The hyacinth exists largely in the Canoly’s canal (from Kuttayi to the frontier of the taluk – about 13 miles) in numerous places and scattered throughout.”

He gives an idea of how the natives perceived the plant. “They say it has been in existence since many years past. People were under the wrong impression that this is a good plant for cooling the water in tanks. They are now being disabused of the impression — I am issuing a circular to the village officials…shall persuade the people to remove the pest from their tanks.”

A similar letter comes from the revenue officer of Chowghat range. Identifying the plant as “kula vazha”, he writes, it is abundant in the region. He understands that the plant grows again despite removal. He too suggests instructing people to remove it from their property.

After these letters, the issue appears to have been given a quiet burial.

A memo dated February 1915 states, “The pest is now so widespread that the Acting Collector thinks it would be waste of money to spend Rs. 100 in endeavouring to clear it out of Ponnani. The sanction is withdrawn. No further actions need to be taken except to warn people what a dangerous pest it is.” When it is known that getting rid of a “pest” is going weigh down their pockets, the potential of simple warnings are realised. What gathered as a storm finally goes out in a whimper.

Source: Regional Archives Kozhikode

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