Swansong of the Nila

Quiet flows the river: For now.

Quiet flows the river: For now.   | Photo Credit: Photo: S. Ramesh Kurup

Travelling along the Nila in Kerala, one witnesses the methodical suffocation of a river. Will it come through intact? AKBER AYUB

Once the rains depart, Nila transforms, all too soon, into a ghost river.

Great rivers have spawned rich civilisations — nurturing not just arts and culture, but creating the very ethos of a region. The Nila, running across the breadth of central Kerala, is one such, or more precisely, has been one. For, there is a dark and foreboding reality facing the river today. Nila is dying — pushed inexorably towards a slow, agonising death.

The name “Nila” derives from the Malayalam word “Neelam”, meaning length, a nod towards its 209-km-long journey. Its official name, though, is Bharathapuzha, as it runs past the holy Bharatha Kandham near Thiruvilwamala. Fed by a rich web of tributaries, scattered across an extensive catchment area of nearly 6,180 sq km, Kerala’s heavy monsoon rains swell the river before it slams into the Arabian Sea at Ponnani’s scenic estuary. But once the rains depart, Nila transforms, all too soon, into a ghost river, like a terminal patient whose life-support system has been taken away.

Aura of romance

The best way to know a river is to traverse its length. So to glean the spirit and character of Nila, to discover how it triggered the imagination of countless poets, writers and novelists; roused artists and lovers and inspired innumerable others from pioneers in arts and dance forms to avid movie directors — in short, to explore its romance — I began my journey at its rather innocuous origin, the springs on the slopes of Thirumurthy hills in the Anamalai range in neighbouring Tamil Nadu.

I started the first leg of my journey in mid-August — after the monsoon had well and truly set in — from Pollachi, the bustling, trading town. A 40-km drive took me up the lush acclivity to the headwaters of the river, offering practically no indication of its travails during the dry season. The picture-postcard peaks and meadows of Thirumurthy hills, the wooded hillsides and sparkling streams bespoke of a different ambience.

Turning back from the hills and following the course of the river, my journey took me next to the little village of Kalpathy around which some of its major tributaries and minor streams merge and then, gathering momentum, past Palakkad. A little further, the Chittur river joins up to form the Kalpathy river. Some 30 km away, at Thiruvilwamala, another major tributary melds, after which the river is finally known as the Nila.

The next important landmark downstream is the idyllic village of Cheruthuruthy, for, it is here that Kerala’s famed poet, Vallathol, set up the State’s premier institution of performing arts, the Kerala Kalamandalam. His beloved Nila was a fount of inspiration. As I continue my journey to the sea along the sinuous river, cultural hotspots and heritage centres like Thirumuthakode, Thrithala and Panniyur come up, and then the charming bend in the river at Kuttipuram. In the days of yore, when the river was at her prime, the view was so romantic and sublime that poets and writers gathered on its banks for unfettered creative inspiration. Now, with the monsoon raging, rainwater gushes down hilly embankments and flows into the distended river in muddled torrents.

Historical places like Tirur and Thirunavaya follow, linked to the river in one way or another. My travels throw up vignettes of life along its banks. People wash and fish in it, transport men and material in dug-out canoes and wooden boats along its tributaries and less turbulent sections and maintain small farms on its banks. Patches of green fields appear sporadically. And finally, the aquamarine waters of the Arabian Sea greet me at Ponnani, a scenic coastal town, sitting on a tongue of land surrounded by the estuary and backwaters.

Another sojourn

It is May and summer is at its peak. Once again, I land in Pollachi. Sweltering heat shuts out any thoughts of lingering in the town. So I drive through, heading for the assured coolness of the Thirumurthy peaks.

Up on the hills, I look for sprightly streams, but find occasional flashes of water. I look for gushing brooks, but find sad-looking streamlets. The grim images appear to scream of Nila’s current plight

Scene after scene of a wasting river greet me at every stop. Vast sandbanks on its flanks shimmer in the sun like exposed flesh of a carcass. Sensing the imminent death of the river, birds colonising its lower basins have departed for good. Unbelievably, in places like Kuttipuram and Tirunavaya people have struck on a new innovation: growing vegetables and paddy right on the river bed, fed by a scraggly stream winding around brushwood and boulders.

Genesis of trouble

The story begins in 1970 when Kerala signed an inter-State water sharing agreement with Tamil Nadu — the Parambikulam Aliyar Project (PAP) agreement that was conceived for harnessing and sharing the waters of the inter-State rivers Nila, Chalakkudypuzha and Periyar. However, a crucial mistake regarding Nila lurked in the agreement unnoticed by the officials at the time. Only the irrigation needs of about 20,000 acres of land downstream in Kerala was considered while apportioning the waters of Nila. While this itself was grossly underestimated, other critical needs were surprisingly ignored too — among them, the huge drinking water requirements of the downstream districts of Palakkad, Thrissur and Malappuram; the minimum quantum of flow required to avoid saline water intrusion from the sea; the flow required to maintain the ecological balance downstream; even the need to sustain the rich biodiversity of the region. Irrigating the solitary Chittur Taluk alone figured in the agreement. Thus a massive quantum of water was diverted to another basin without assuring the minimum flow downstream needed to sustain the river. Dams were built even on major tributaries like Aliyar and Palar. The result proved disastrous.

There is yet another insidious process that is hastening Nila’s end. Sand mining. To meet the growing demands of the construction industry, licences were issued for limited sand mining from designated sandbanks along its course. But this is grossly misused and according to unofficial estimates, a thousand truckloads of sand is being mined daily from the Nila. Under this onslaught some tributaries have already dried up. At many places, miners reach more than 10 feet below the top layer, exposing vast stretches of clayey subsoil on which shrubs and brush have promptly taken root and spread. With the top layers gone, the sub soil, exposed to the sun, loses moisture fast. The result? The subterranean water table has gone down and with that wells in the region have begun drying up.

Equally serious is what this is doing to the ground itself. With the combination of the drying sub-strata and the tons of sand being mined, earth begins to settle and before long residents along the banks find new cracks on their walls. The government college at Chitoor is a prime example.

Poignant vignette

A drive along the river today throws out stark vignettes that seem to bemoan its current plight. Truckloads of sand are carted away where dugout canoes once glided carrying mounds of fish. Electric pumps suck water from ditches in the bed, feeding scraggly fields of paddy where broad channels guided gushing water into carpets of fields. Village boys kick football on the sandy riverbed where urchins dived headlong for their morning ablutions.

And perhaps lending a poignant touch is this deeply symbolic scene: In the gloaming, women gather on its banks carrying coloured plastic cans and wait for municipal water trucks, as the last rays of the sun gild the skeleton of the once mighty river behind them!

Amid these dark clouds there is a silver lining though. Artists, writers, poets and intellectuals who have drawn inspiration from the Nila for ages have picked up cudgels against this mindless onslaught. Through meetings and seminars they have been raising their voice, which the press has obligingly picked up. The same pens that once wrote paeans on the river are now writing reams in a belated effort to save it from doom.

But it would take more than these voices to save the Nila. It would take detailed studies, strategic planning, amicable negotiations, bold measures and above all, an inspired political will. Meanwhile the Nila barely hangs on, propped up by the life-support system dealt by the seasonal rains.


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