How a Kerala panchayat brought a dying river back to life

For over two decades, the Kuttamperoor lay neglected and abused and, by 2005, it had been reduced to a marshy, polluted cesspool perhaps 10-15 feet wide, with patchy water and almost no flow.

Written by Nandini Rathi , Shaju Philip | New Delhi/kochi | Updated: May 9, 2017 2:55 pm
(Left) The Kuttamperoor river, its flow choked and its surface overrun completely by vegetation; the river after restoration, its water running in a clear flow. Express

The Kuttamperoor stream in Kerala, connecting the Pampa and Achankovil rivers, had been a nearly stagnant, shrunken cesspool of dumped waste and weeds for more than a decade. Some weeks ago, it was resuscitated as a flowing river, thanks to the will of the Budhanur gram panchayat in Alappuzha district, and the commitment of 700 local men and women who worked to bring the river back to life under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).

The Kuttamperoor was once a full 12 kilometres long and, at places, over 100 feet wide. The river originates from Achankovil at Ulunthi, near Mavelikkara, and flows through Ennackad, Budhanur, Kuttamperoor, Mannar, and Pandanad before merging with the Pampa at Nakkida near Parumala in Pathanamthitta district.

According to legend, it was originally a man-made canal on which wide-bodied vessels known as kettuvallams carried items of trade and daily requirement. The river irrigated 2,000 acres of paddy fields, and was the lifeline for thousands of people who lived on its banks. Country boats (palliyodams) once raced on it during the famous Aranmula boat race. The river was also a natural flood control channel between the Pampa and Achankovil.

The advent of modern transportation, coupled with urbanisation, began the process of the river’s slow death. The kettuvallams ceased to operate. Weeds overran the river, and the hotel industry and local residents converted it into a giant garbage bin. Three bridges were constructed across the river in a manner that severely restricted its flow. There was unchecked, illegal sand mining on the riverbed, its banks were dug up to mine clay for brick units, and there was rampant encroachment. Chemical fertilisers from fields and sewage from human settlements flowed into the river.

For over two decades, the Kuttamperoor lay neglected and abused and, by 2005, it had been reduced to a marshy, polluted cesspool perhaps 10-15 feet wide, with patchy water and almost no flow.

The move to revive the river was proposed in 2013, and received a push after a dry spell in the region. Environmental activists and organisations, and people’s representatives had been debating options to rejuvenate the river, and ideas such as employing a dredger to clear the river of weeds had been considered. However, issues of funding kept the project from getting off the ground.

The initiative, finally, was taken by Alappuzha district’s Budhanur panchayat, which lies on the river’s eastern bank. (On the western bank are the panchayats of Mannar and Chennithala, also in Alappuzha district.) The decision to revive the river under MGNREGS was taken in December 2016, and work began on January 15 this year, Panchayat president Advocate P Vishwambhara Panicker said. “Seven hundred workers, mostly women, were deployed to clean the river to restore its flow. After 30,000 man-days, water flow through the 12-km river was restored.”

The work was finished on March 20. No machines were used in the river’s rebirth, Panicker said. “For the women workers, it was not merely a job guarantee scheme. They toiled with a social commitment. It was exemplary asset creation under the MGNREGS,” he said.

Fish have started to reappear in the river,” environmentalist N K Sukumaran Nair, general secretary of the NGO Pampa Parirakshana Samithi, said. Water levels have risen significantly in wells and ponds up to a distance of 5 km from the river, Panicker said. Thousands of people have begun to use the water of the river again for washing and bathing, and come the next farming season, the river is expected to again turn into the lifeline it once was. The panchayat now plans to clear the clogged ducts along the sides of the river to take water to the fields.

When a community takes ownership of their resources and shows the drive to protect their water bodies, such actions are far more effective than any top-down approach led officially. Mass mobilisation is the only sustainable way to revive and maintain water bodies that have long been neglected by their communities,” said Prashanth Nair, former Collector of Kozhikode, who has led several initiatives in the district to revive degraded water bodies.

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  1. R
    Ram
    May 8, 2017 at 5:03 pm
    People should ensure that soaps and detergents are not used for bathing/washing clothes. This will ensure that the canal is kept clean. The run off from the fields loaded with chemical fertilizer and pesticides is another issue they need to tackle. One must go forward, one-step-a-time. Congratulations and please don't give up supporting the river !!
    Reply
    1. S
      Satish Chandran
      May 8, 2017 at 3:27 pm
      TREMENDOUS JOB DONE, I FEEL SITTING ON THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN, WITH JOY ! BECAUSE ONCE I HAD TAKEN DAILY BATH ON THIS RIVER. NOW I AM AWAY, WHEN I REACH MY NATIVE ENNAKKAD VILLAGE, ONCE AGAIN I CAN HAVE A GOOD SWIMMING BATH, OTHERWISE SATISFIED WITH PIPE WATER BATHES. THANKS FOR THE ENTIRE TEAM
      Reply
      1. R
        Ravikant
        May 8, 2017 at 3:01 pm
        Hats off, Salute the spirit ,hard work of the villagers and the vision of Collector and Panchayat. Suggest crowd funding for further expansions.
        Reply
        1. A
          Amit Sinha
          May 8, 2017 at 2:18 pm
          Successful models should be applied in the entire country. We have most of the rivers suffering from pollution and human apathy.We need to have community involvement to ensure that our rivers are in safe hands.River Hindon is also awaiting similar attention and efforts.Tagging GDA for their attention. #GDA
          Reply
          1. G
            Gowdam
            May 8, 2017 at 1:36 pm
            Wow ! wow! and only wow! for such an amazing work done by the Panchayat and women and men workers . This is the most beautiful gift to future generations by these karamyogis
            Reply
            1. A
              Arvind
              May 8, 2017 at 1:27 pm
              People must take inspiration from this initiate and it should act as a triggering point to bring life to several other streams sucked up with the Garbage in various part of the India. Great job by the village Panchayat and what a great use of MGNREGA scheme.
              Reply
              1. Y
                yuvaraj
                May 8, 2017 at 1:02 pm
                Salutes to the entire team. should be spread to all rivers and river beds across the Country.
                Reply
                1. A
                  Anad
                  May 8, 2017 at 12:59 pm
                  It is high time social media and channels focus on these sort good news ,create a social awareness and motivate the entire nation to parti te in noble cause. Local people should take ownership and initiative to clean rivers, ponds, wells and rivulets in their locality utilising the central funds as well so that it will become a movement by itself this context , i would like to mention the good effort being taken by Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev from Easa foundation who is undertaking a yatra from Kashmir to Kanyakumari with the same idea of motivating people to clean all rivers and ponds etc .
                  Reply
                  1. S
                    sampath
                    May 8, 2017 at 12:28 pm
                    Take a bow Keralites. This is appreciation from Karnataka!!
                    Reply
                    1. S
                      Shabih Siddiqui
                      May 8, 2017 at 12:26 pm
                      Great work done! Now the maintenance work should be a regular affair for continuing prosperity and further man made damages such as untreated effluent
                      Reply
                      1. S
                        SANKAR
                        May 8, 2017 at 11:55 am
                        great job hope clean up ganga will follow.........the best example kudos to the local community for their excellent commitment continue the great work...............
                        Reply
                        1. B
                          B.S.Murthy
                          May 8, 2017 at 11:28 am
                          I request Social Media to show this and also further other developments in TV channels instead of showing useless news. Salute to the people who have worked and redeveloped the river for usage.
                          Reply
                          1. M
                            mtv
                            May 8, 2017 at 2:19 pm
                            Fully agree with you.
                            Reply
                            1. V
                              VIVEK
                              May 8, 2017 at 3:19 pm
                              TVwallahs will never have time for such news.
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                            2. G
                              Gopal Sriniwasan
                              May 8, 2017 at 10:30 am
                              An eye opener report of an effort take by the local populace.It is a classic example of Community initiative and development. The effort of the local community should serve as a case study for Villages and panchayats across India to take care of the surroundings
                              Reply
                              1. R
                                rameshnk
                                May 8, 2017 at 10:01 am
                                Very Good Iniitiative. Should be given due prominenece and publicity. New slike these should receive the same media space as news of corruption, scam, rape etc etc.
                                Reply
                                1. A
                                  Anad
                                  May 8, 2017 at 9:28 am
                                  Great move by the local panchyat and people who took the initiative to restore the river.It clearly show with a determined social movement involving local people, beneficiaries and commitment public representatives , we can achieve self sufficiency and manage our resources.People need to take ownership and responsibility instead of waiting for govt to take initiative .Similarly if local people can take cleaning drive of local ponds, public tanks, wells , rivers and rivulets in their locality ,emove the silts , sludges and weeds so that all the neighbourhood will be bene ed.If voluntary organizations can take up the intiative then we do not wait for any govt to take decision
                                  Reply
                                  1. D
                                    Desi
                                    May 8, 2017 at 8:57 am
                                    Brings a smile to the face. My congratulations to the people of Budhanur. May be some day I will visit to see it for myself.
                                    Reply
                                    1. A
                                      autonomous
                                      May 8, 2017 at 8:41 am
                                      Other states should learn from kerala instead of just protesting for water they first need to preserve their own water channels properly.Centr should combine all indian rivers.
                                      Reply
                                      1. C
                                        Curious onlooker
                                        May 8, 2017 at 8:21 am
                                        It was clear cut laziness and indifference of the Kerala State governments to have let this happen to a living flowing river. The governments simply paid no attention to preserve the only resource Kerala could boast of. The same ill fate happened the Aruvikkkara water reservoir that supplied water to Trivandrum city needs. through official neglect until weeds , vegetation and other pollutants started chocking its flow.
                                        Reply
                                        1. J
                                          Jyothi menon
                                          May 8, 2017 at 8:10 am
                                          Well done! Where there is a will there is a way
                                          Reply
                                          1. H
                                            Harminder Singh
                                            May 8, 2017 at 7:52 am
                                            We all are responsible for our surrounding environment and to enhance its sustainability which only benefits us eventually so instead of depending on these bickebickering Netas we all if United can achieve in a short span what these self centred creatures read Netas can't in a decade
                                            Reply
                                            1. S
                                              Saurabh Bhattacharyya
                                              May 8, 2017 at 6:53 am
                                              This kind of initiative needs to be replicated through out the country to protect environment .
                                              Reply
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