Cliffhanger at Varkala

The cliff overlooking the beach at Varkala in Thiruvananthapuram is a national geological heritage site, which is fast eroding because of frenetic and unregulated tourism activities. S.R. Praveen gauges the gravity of the situation.

Updated - July 12, 2024 07:40 am IST

Published - July 11, 2024 07:26 pm IST

Warning signs put up along the Varkala cliff following the recent caving ins reported from the region. 

Warning signs put up along the Varkala cliff following the recent caving ins reported from the region.  | Photo Credit: S.R. Praveen

Boards screaming “Danger” in large letters, some of them warning of an unstable cliff and others informing visitors of restrictions, line the narrow, scenic pathway winding to the top of Varkala cliff, located about 40 kilometres from Thiruvananthapuram city, Kerala’s capital. To one side of the path lies the wide, blue expanse of the Arabian Sea. To the other are cafes and resorts designed with an international aesthetic, featuring displays of the day’s catch. 

During the peak tourist season — October to February — and on public holidays, the northern part of the cliff is choc-a-bloc with visitors, mostly youth and foreign tourists. While a majority comes to unwind at what has been touted as ‘mini-Goa’ on online travel forums and vlogs, a few arrive here to marvel at the 6-km-long, 30-metre-high cliff formation holding the geological history of up to 23 million years, as per the Geological Survey of India. In Kerala, known for its flat shoreline, Varkala is the only beach with a long cliff majestically overlooking it. 

In recent weeks though, the cool, relaxed air which marks the place has given way to one of concern for the impending danger, with the edges of the cliff caving in at various spots. Vehicular traffic through the pathway has been banned while temporary bamboo barricades have appeared at many places, warning visitors to stay away from the edges. Branches of trees at the cliff’s edge have been pruned, so that the wind doesn’t topple them and further erode the cliff. Broken remains of walls are precariously perched at the edge. 

“The slow caving in of the cliff has been happening for the past few decades. A relative of mine had an acre of land near the cliff edge, out of which close to 40 cents (about .3 acres) have fallen into the sea below over some 25-30 years. The restaurant owners are concerned as they get most of their business at the cliff front, which is facing erosion,” says Sanjay Sahadevan, a resident, and advisor to the Varkala Tourism Development Association. 

In 2014, the red cliffs at Varkala were declared the 27th National Geological Monument in the country by the Geological Survey of India (GSI), as the first step towards setting up a national geo-park. 

“We have such a unique geological formation in Varkala, but it is not stable. At the top, we have strong laterite for 3-4 metres, but below that there are much softer layers of sandstone and carbonaceous clay, which are struggling to hold the laterite layer at the top. When rainwater or wastewater seeps through the cracks in the laterite surface and reaches this soft layer, it can cause parts of the cliff to cave in. If the cliff had a proper drainage mechanism, this would not have happened. Steps should also be taken to reduce the weight on top of the cliff, by regulating traffic,” says Ambili V., Deputy Director General, Geological Survey of India. 

Triggering a controversy

Early in June, Thiruvananthapuram District Collector Geromic George courted controversy when he ordered the bringing down of a part of the cliff on the south side near the Papanasam beach, to prevent landslides from affecting the Bali Mandapam, where thousands congregate annually to conduct the ‘Bali’ ritual dedicated to departed family members. He had issued a government order to this effect, in his capacity as the chairperson of the District Disaster Management Authority. The Collector later claimed that he was unaware of the cliff’s geo-heritage status. 

“There is a disturbing trend of prioritising unauthorised structures over the natural heritage of the cliffs. If such actions go unchecked, it sets a precedent that allows any citizen to alter or destroy cliffs for personal reasons,” says environmentalist S.J. Sanjeev of the Environment Protection and Research Council (EPRC), an NGO that advocates earth-safe policies and practices. 

The construction of the Bali Mandapam managed by the Janardanaswamy temple at the foot of the cliff a decade ago had kicked up a controversy back then over its legality. Also in question is the legality of some of the over 200 cafes and resorts that line the cliff; a few have swimming pools close to the edge. At the end where the cliff reduces in height to meet the sea, a cafe has now been built over the seawall erected by the Irrigation department. 

The part of the cliff near the Balimandapam at Varkala which was demolished recently on the orders of the District Collector. 

The part of the cliff near the Balimandapam at Varkala which was demolished recently on the orders of the District Collector.  | Photo Credit: S.R. Praveen

One of the oldest available visuals of the Varkala cliff is in the popular ‘Kadalinakkare Ponore’ song from the 1965 classic film Chemmeen, which shows a cliff top filled with coconut trees. According to those who grew up at the time here, the land on the top of the cliff did not have permanent structures until the late 1990s. The path along the cliff was made by the landowners here by combining their land holdings closer to the cliff face. The government paved it with stones in 2004, adding to the weight closer to the edges. Now, resort owners have added concrete structures as well as interlocking tiles at some places. 

“Till 1996 or so, temporary, thatched sheds used to appear at the cliff during the tourist season for about three months. Slowly, these started transforming into permanent structures without any licence from the municipality. The municipality has issued notices repeatedly to many of the owners over the years, but they secure a stay to prevent any action,” says C. Ajayakumar, councillor of the Papanasam ward. 

Unauthorised restaurants

A list of unauthorised constructions prepared by the Varkala municipality in December 2023 shows 69 restaurants and cafes located within 10 metres from the cliff end, with one of them located just 1.5 metres away from the end. Notices have been issued to all of them under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, but most continue to function. Varkala comes under the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) 3B category, where development activity is permitted only beyond the 200-metre mark from the High Tide Line. However, temporary tourism facilities such as shacks and toilet blocks are allowed on the beaches. 

“The notices have been issued mostly to the smaller cafes, many of which have their outward temporary structures made of mild steel. However, some of the larger resorts, especially on the south cliff, have been spared despite gross violations. A good number of these structures have no permit, as it is not allowed under CRZ rules, and hence the municipality also loses a considerable annual licence fee. As for the notices, the owners easily get a stay. This has been going on forever,” says R. Anil Kumar, Leader of the Opposition in the Varkala municipality. 

Poor waste management

According to the owner of a restaurant, who spoke on condition of anonymity, many of the eateries on top of the cliff do not have a proper waste management system. The wastewater from the kitchens is pumped out to the cliff face through pipes laid under the footpath, inadvertently aiding the erosion of the cliff. Now, concerns about the future of tourism in Varkala have led to plans among the owners to have common wastewater management systems. 

The National Centre for Earth Science Studies (NCESS) and the National Centre for Coastal Research (NCCR), Chennai, have been carrying out a stability study of the Varkala cliff as per the request of Vision Varkala Infrastructure Development Corporation Ltd (VVIDC), a Kerala government enterprise that builds infrastructure. The report is set to be submitted in a few months. 

Suggestions from experts

“Such cliff-like soil formations near the sea will always be unstable. Even if the waves are hitting far away, the hydraulic pressure would affect the bottom of the cliff. Strong engineering interventions should be made to stabilise the bottom portion,” says scientist V. Nandakumar, Group Head, Crustal Dynamics Group, National Centre for Earth Science Studies, based in Thiruvananthapuram. He says that the slope should be stabilised with soil-binding plants and coir mats, with a water drainage system in place. “Vehicle traffic should be completely banned, even away from the helipad where vehicles are now parked. The State government should form a task force with engineers, geologists, and other experts to protect the heritage site.”

For many residents, tourism is one of the mainstays of the local economy. But environmentalists say there’s a need strike a fine balance between people’s livelihood and the conservation of these important cliff formations. Only that can make tourism in Varkala sustainable. It will end in a crisis otherwise, they say.

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