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The polluted water bodies of Kanniyakumari

An unbelievable transformation has taken place in just a few decades

Nanjil Nadu, a large part of Kanniyakumari district in Tamil Nadu, was the rice bowl of erstwhile Travancore before it was annexed to Tamil Nadu. Its importance is explained by Manonmaniam Sundaram Pillai, the author of the Tamil prayer song Neeradum Kadal, also known as the Tamil Thai Valthu (Invocation to mother Tamil). In his verse-drama Manonmaniam, Pillai says there is hardly anyone who does not know about the fertile lands of Nanjil Nadu.

Anyone who travels the length and breadth of the district will agree with Sundaram Pillai. The district, which benefits from the South-West and North-East monsoons, is covered by acres of emerald green paddy fields, and banana and coconut groves.

I remember from my childhood innumerable water bodies, both big and small, being full of water and covered with lotus plants. The place looked like a painting. I used to see crystal-clear water oozing from the foundations of every house back then. Brooks lining the streets of Parakkai, my village, housed carps, tilapia, eel, snakeheads, panchax, fresh water prawns, water snakes, frogs, crabs and snails. I would go fishing every day. I would then transfer the fish into a small pit dug near my house. It was a visual treat to watch the snakeheads, both male and female, guard golden yellow-coloured fishlings in the water bodies around the village. Eels would catch frogs and small fish. The air was chilly back then. Ceiling and table fans had not yet made an entry into every house.

The introduction of sewerage canals in every street and bylane changed the picture gradually. The situation was further aggravated when concrete streets and bylanes were paved. All this affected the groundwater table. Till then, the water that was used to wash clothes and vessels would flow till the coconut and banana trees that stood in the backyard of the house. Slowly, the backyards were paved with concrete and, in many cases, accommodated new construction. Wells were converted into septic tanks, and the waste water was let out in the sewerage canal. It joined the clear unpolluted water flowing in the brooks. The brooks, in turn, flowed into water bodies used by many generations for cultivation and community bathing. Every household today depends on the water supplied by the village panchayats and local bodies.

Today, almost all the water bodies in Kanniyakumari district are polluted beyond belief. Gallons of untreated sewage enter them, making them unfit for use. Of course, farmers still use the water for cultivation. But it is unsafe to drink from and bathe in many of these water bodies. Paddy fields and wetlands are being converted into plots at a frenetic pace. In 2016, Lal Mohan, convener, Nagercoil chapter of the Indian National Trust for Culture and Heritage, told me that the district is losing about 1,000 hectares of paddy field every year.

When I stroll along the banks of the polluted Cooum river in Chennai in the evening, I cannot stop myself from visualising a similar situation for the water bodies of Kanniyakumari. Pachaiyappa Mudaliar, the merchant and dubash whose wealth was used to lay the foundations of many educational institutions, used to bathe in the Cooum every day. Can anyone do that today? A similar fate awaits the water bodies of Kanniyakumari.

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Printable version | May 25, 2020 3:02:04 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-polluted-water-bodies-of-kanniyakumari/article27152958.ece

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