22 km of the Kallai river, a relic of Kozhikode’s once flourishing international timber trade, has been lost to encroachers.
The Kallai river is an orphan. A relic of Kozhikode’s once flourishing international timber trade, the river and its necklace of prosperous saw mills are but shadows of their former selves. Both have lost space to influential encroachers, real estate mafia and official apathy, which broker illegal takeover of public land by parasitic private entities.
With its origins in Cherukkulathur along the Western Ghats, the river which runs 40 km before meeting the Arabian Sea was the first and most prominent navigable waterway during the Zamorins’ reign, transporting timber, hill produce and spices from Nilambur forests to the then commercial port of Calicut.
The salt water of the river had triggered the imagination of the then Malabar Collector Henry Valentine Conolly to build an 11-km canal linking the Korapuzha river in the north of Kozhikode to Kallai River in the south via an inland waterway.
Plots leased out to saw mills and for timber storage have over the years changed hands.
“About 22 km of the river has been encroached. After the timber industry faded away and the saw mills closed down, the land continued to remain in the hands of some private individuals who developed the land by filling up and constructing buildings on it,” Faisal Pallikandy, a member of the Kallai River Protection Council, said.
The council, a group of local youth, has been demanding a survey of the entire river banks since 1996.
Two government projects to revitalise the river and reclaim its banks have failed to take off.
A Rs.35-crore project launched by former Minister for Water Resources N.K. Premachandran has not seen the light of the day for the past three years. The money allotted for the first phase of the project lies unused in the revenue coffers.
“The project was launched as part of the 12th Finance Commission recommendations. It aimed to widen, deepen, build side protection walls and bring back the complete management of the revenue lands along the river into government hands. At the time, we felt that the project was essential for the river to survive the rampant encroachment it is facing. I do not know what happened after the government changed,” Mr. Premachandran said.
The Irrigation Department, which is supposed to implement the project, has no clue about the fate of the project.
“It has been very long since we forwarded the tender estimates to the government. The amount quoted was 25 per cent above the tender estimate. We are still waiting for a response from the government. So far, the full length of the river has not been surveyed,” Abdul Rasak Koottil, Assistant Executive Engineer, Irrigation South Division, said.
The second project concerns de-silting Canoly canal till the mouth of the Kallai river in a bid to revive the old inland waterway. Estimated at Rs. 4.6 crore, the project was announced by the District Administration a year back in August.
The then District Collector K.V. Mohan Kumar had assured that there would be extensive de-silting from Kaduppini to Kallai starting in October 2012. No work has commenced so far. But his successor, C.A. Latha, differs.
“Tenders have been approved. Rs.2.41 crore has been allotted from the rural infrastructure fund. As the work proceeds, the rest of the Rs.2.19 crore will be released,” Ms. Latha said.
But revenue officials are hesitant about evicting encroachers from the river banks. They choose to not dwell on it.
Though they say a survey team has been formed to identify the areas of encroachment, it is a touchy subject.
“Actually we cannot find any use to the land even after evicting the encroachers. What will we do with this land? So there is a popular opinion to allow the present occupiers to continue use the land under the name of beneficial enjoyment. We can give them the land on lease,” said a senior official, providing a glimpse of why laws like the Kerala Land Conservancy Act, 1957, which was amended in 2009, continue to be paper tigers.
Under the amended version, passed by the Legislative Assembly, Section 7 prescribes imprisonment of up to five years and a fine of Rs.2 lakh for unauthorised occupation of public property.