Shahid Kuttipuram is a lanky, shy young man, seemingly an unlikely candidate to don the mantle of 'documentary filmmaker'. Yet, his short film Inganeyyum Oru Grammam (A Village Like This) has touched a chord among the local people.

The film chronicles a story that's all too familiar in these parts - the death of a river that was the lifeline of many villages. Once the muse of poets and kings, the Bharathapuzha, or the Nila as it's fondly called, is today barely a trickle in the summer months. In most parts, the 209-km long river is covered with shrubs and weeds, and looks more like an unkempt ground than a water body. Its destruction has been rapid and steady. Over the past decade, unregulated sand mining has all but devoured the riverbed, even as deforestation shrunk the river's catchment areas. One year later, there is still no concerted movement to regulate sand mining. And as trucks race to the middle of the riverbed to collect sand, a bit of the river dies every day.

Shahid Kuttipuram's documentary captures the unfortunate fall-out of a river that's been forced to wither. In the villages and towns around the river, groundwater levels have fallen drastically, and wells are almost perennially dry. In the village of Chellur - the subject of the documentary - drinking water has to be supplied from outside much before the onset of summer, usually as early as January. Last year, Palakkad (a district largely dependent on the river for drinking water) saw one of the worst droughts in its history as the Bharathapuzha ran completely dry - only one's imagination could conjure up a beautiful, free-flowing river on its site.

A losing battle

The extent to which sand mining - legal as well as illegal - flourishes is clear from the fact that even the Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) working in the area find it difficult to provide estimates of the quantity of sand mined. Not that there is a dearth of rules to control sand mining. Among other things, the law states that: "sand mining be allowed only between 6 am and 3 pm; vehicles should not be run on the riverbed and have to be parked at least 25 metres away from the riverbank; there should be no sand mining in areas where there is a possibility of seawater mixing with the river water; sand should be mined only from areas designated as sand mining pits, and that too only if the requisite passes - indicating permission to mine sand - have been issued by the panchayat or municipality."

Trucks are driven to the riverbed to collect sand at Pattambi in blatant violation of rules. (Picture credit: Shailesh D Nair)

However, even a mere drive down the river is enough to prove that rules are followed more in the breach. One mid-morning in May this year, standing on the Pattambi bridge above the river, I saw three trucks on the riverbed, and men busy scooping sand from the bed onto the vehicles. Government rules regarding sand mining say that those who violate the law can face up to two years imprisonment or Rs 20,000 fine, or both. Clearly, the possibility of punishment is not a deterrent here.

C. K. Sujith Kumar, a consultant with the Thrissur-based Centre for Ecological Agriculture, Development Alternatives and Research (Cedar), who is conducting a study on the rivers in Kerala for a book likely to be published in October this year, says that sand mining has become a source of livelihood for the people in the river's vicinity. "The workers get as much as Rs 1,000 a day. Earlier, people would go to the Gulf (countries) to make money. Now, they find sand mining a simpler alternative," he points out. The construction boom in Kerala has also given ample impetus for mining large quantities of sand. Building houses in Kerala is considered a good investment for the state's many migrants who live in the Middle East.

Add to that the fact that the sand mining lobby is powerful and doesn't baulk at flexing its muscles. As M. M. Zubeida, vice-president of the Nila Samrakshana Samiti, a panel of local people who got together to save the river, says, "Many of our members were beaten up when they tried to stop vehicles on the riverbed." Adds P. S. Panicker, member of Bharathapuzha Samrakshana Samiti, another NGO that works for the river's protection, "There is no political will to stop sand mining, and the mafia is therefore very powerful."

The lobby also finds it easy to misuse the passes issued for mining sand. If a pass provides for taking one load of sand from the river, it's used to dig up at least 10 to 20 loads of sand. Action is hardly - if ever - taken against offenders. Says Sujith Kumar, "Authorities who are well aware of this malpractice intentionally keep quiet, and the mafia rewards them for their silence."

When a river runs dry

The result has been devastating for a river that provides drinking water to 175 villages in Palakkad, Thrissur and Malappuram districts, catering to a population of over 5.9 lakh in rural areas and 1.73 lakh in urban areas. Today, with the sand cover gone, shrubs have been sprouting all over, and in a place called Manjadi Kadavu, even an acacia grove is to be found in the middle of the river. Meetings and conventions are often organised on the dry riverbed, even as drinking water becomes a sought-after commodity in the neighbourhood.

The damage that sand mining has caused to the riverbed is not limited to a fall in the groundwater levels. Sujith Kumar explains, "The absence of sand on the riverbed affects the velocity of the water flow, making it violent during monsoons. Saline water also enters the river easily, especially in summer." In fact, this problem was noted as early as 1997 by an expert committee set up by the Kerala government to study the problems in Bharathapuzha. Its report - largely ignored by the government though it's one of the few studies conducted on the river - says that the "lowering of water table has accelerated the intrusion of saline seawater into the main river". Committee members also found that the wells dug for water supply schemes were non-functional, and that some of them, in places such as Nariparamba in Thavannur, had become saline.

"The absence of sand on the riverbed affects the velocity of the water flow, making it violent during monsoons. Saline water also enters the river easily, especially in summer."
With sand mining adversely affecting even agriculture, Palakkad, often called the 'Rice Bowl of Kerala', finds itself no longer worthy of the title. A. Biju Kumar, who conducted the first biodiversity study on the Bharathapuzha on behalf of the University Grants Commission between 1998 and 2000, says that the intrusion of seawater has affected the cultivation of rice, especially in areas such as Chamravattam.

Uncontrolled sand mining has damaged the river's ecosystem as well, destroying the habitats of organisms living on the riverbed. Fish breeding and migration - the fish move between marine and freshwater habitats during spawning - have been affected because of sand mining and the check dams constructed on the river, says the biodiversity study. The river is also a source of food for many bird species such as egrets, storks, terns and sandpipers. Sand mining has put a question mark over their very survival. Worse still, "species seen in the sea are moving up, and this indicates more saline water in the river," says Biju Kumar, who is currently studying the river as part of a central government project.

Dammed future

For three months during the monsoons every year, sand mining is explicitly banned in the Bharathapuzha. It is supposed to be a time for the riverbed to replenish itself, for the river to come together again. Unfortunately, bans hardly have any effect. The fact that illegal sand mining flourishes during this time is clear from the increase in prices of sand during the 'ban' period. While the prices vary between Rs 1,000 to Rs 3,000 per truckload in other seasons, it goes up to as much as Rs 5,000 in the monsoons, says Sujith Kumar.

The number of dams that have been constructed on the river - 11 in all - has added to the river's troubles. The Bharathapuzha, which originates in the Anaimalai ranges in Tamilnadu, flows past four dams in that state. Seven more dams stand in its way in Kerala. Not only have the dams interrupted the natural flow of the river, their construction was also accompanied by the felling of trees in those parts. As a result, the catchment areas of the river have all but disappeared. Now, the Bharathapuzha has only two catchment areas: the Silent Valley National Park in Palakkad district, through which its tributary Kuntipuzha flows, and the Chennoth Nair Reserve, located between Malampuzha and Kalladikode in Palakkad district.

Apart from these main dams, many check dams have been constructed on the river. In Thiruvilyamala in Thrissur district, at the point where the Gayatripuzha, a tributary of the Bharathapuzha, meets the main river, a check dam has been constructed - so that there is water for people to perform the last rites of ancestors and relatives (the spot is considered sacred by Hindus). The water body looks more like a pond - it's even covered with moss - than a river. Beyond the check dam, shrubs have eaten into every part of the riverbed, covered with pits left behind by indiscriminate sand mining.

The 'people' factor

It's clear that sand mining has thrived to such a dangerous extent in the Bharathapuzha because of local support. A common refrain heard in the area is that sand is necessary for constructing houses, and that the sands of the Bharathapuzha are of better quality than those in other areas, as it's high in silicone content. But, as T N Mohan, president of the Nila Samrakshana Samiti points out, "The river cannot be considered a factory."

Not only do many people support sand mining, they also contribute to the river's destruction - by polluting the Bharathapuzha or encroaching on the river basin. The Samiti members say that though they have made several complaints to the local authorities about encroachments, no action has been taken. "There is a river management fund which is supposed to be used for dealing with such cases, flush with money from sand auctions. However, the fund is never used for protecting the river," says Nassar Pottarath, secretary of the Samiti. Moreover, in many places, waste materials, including slaughtered animal parts, are dumped into the river, a point noted by the expert committee set up by the state government in its report.

It is only recently that small pockets of resistance have come up against sand mining, that too only because of the lack of water. Panicker says that in a place called Cheerakuzhi near Payayannur, women picketed trucks carrying sand as there was a water scarcity. Yet, "apart from a few protests, people have a positive mindset towards sand mining," says Sujith Kumar. "Most of them are not aware of the ecological importance of sand and the consequences of indiscriminate sand mining."

In places, the river has been reduced to a ground full of pits, sans any traces of sand. (Picture credit: Shailesh D Nair)

The efforts of the Nila Samrakshana Samiti are, therefore, all the more heartening. Its members enlisted the help of parents and students in a school that lay in the path of trucks heading to the river (in Kuttipuram), and forced authorities to ban mining in the pit there. There is now some water in this part, and sand, yet the Samiti members say that their hard work could soon come to naught. "Trucks now ply from the other side of the river, and are driven on the riverbed all the way to the banned side, so that sand can be collected," says Pottarath.

Solutions and suggestions

Considering the extent of damage to the Bharathapuzha, and the high demand for sand, it's difficult to imagine that there's a solution to the problem. Experts who have studied the river say that the damage is reversible, but restoration could take years, perhaps decades. The biodiversity study recommended a people's movement to protect the "natural heritage", adding that the river management fund needed to be put to better use. The state government's expert committee recommended that inter-state transport of sand be banned, and that studies be conducted on the sand levels at each site, and permission for mining given only if sufficient sand was available. Most importantly, the panel said, "Check posts should be established at each kadavu (area where sand is mined) and a watchman appointed."

Sujith Kumar suggests that the technology available to minimise the use of sand for construction activities needs to be availed of. "The government should implement the regulations efficiently, and the use of river sand for purposes (such as land filling) other than construction activities be prohibited," he adds. Unless the recommendations are implemented, the hapless tale of the village in Shahid's Kuttipuram's documentary might become the larger story of the three districts through which the Bharathapuzha now sputters.