Written by Deborah Thambi
On Thursday afternoon, a group of 33 women in the coastal village of Chellanam in Kerala walked to the beach and performed ‘jalsamadhi’ or a symbolic dip in the sea as part of their nearly year-long agitation for a sturdy sea-wall and groynes to protect the coast and their homes.
Amid the raging sea-waters, the women, under the banner of the ‘Chellanam Janakeeya Vedi’, or Chellanam People’s Front, held placards and took a pledge to continue agitating till their demands were fulfilled. They shouted slogans against the ruling CPI(M)-led government and the local panchayat, accusing them of remaining a mute spectator even as their homes crumbled in repeated incursions.
On account of the rough sea conditions, a large police contingent was on standby with life jackets and safety ropes to prevent untoward incidents.
Thursday marked the 333rd-day of their protest in Chellanam, a village sandwiched between the Arabian Sea and the Vembanad backwaters on the outer reaches of the city of Kochi. The villagers had launched the protest on October 28 last year and have been maintaining the momentum despite the Covid-19 pandemic through hunger strikes. Every monsoon, homes on the village coast where the sea-wall is absent get inundated by raging sea-water with residents forced to relocate to relief camps or homes of their relatives and friends.
“For the past 10 years, our house has gotten flooded during high tide due to the absence of a sea-wall. And every time, we are forced to relocate to someone else’s house,” said Philomina, 55, one of the protesters.
Mariyamma Kurishingal, chairperson of the women’s unit of the Front, added, “We are tired of petitioning government officials. We have sent petitions to the district collector, opposition leader and the chief minister. But nothing has come of it.”
“The village’s residents are largely fish workers. Their livelihood is connected to the sea and there is no way they can leave the coast,” she added.
The protesters have suggested that the authorities deposit the sand dredged from the Cochin Port and the Vembanad backwaters on the Chellanam coast to construct a sand-bypass in order to strengthen the sea-wall and groynes. They alleged that even though bags filled with sand were placed in some areas to stop incursions, they have proved to be useless during high-tide and storm-surges.
Tushar Nirmal, a lawyer in the Kerala High Court, claimed that the government has so far failed to even conduct scientific studies on the vulnerability of the coast which could in turn hint at possible course-corrections needed in places like Chellanam.
The ongoing protest of the villagers also assumes significance in the wake of the local body polls, scheduled to take place in October. Enraged by the government’s apathy on the situation on the coast, a group calling itself ‘Chellanam 20-20’ and comprising the village’s residents are preparing to prop up candidates, mostly women, in each of the 21 wards. At present, the village panchayat is ruled by the CPM-led LDF.
“Right now, all works under the panchayat are riddled with corruption, especially with contracts being awarded for road-related projects. So, if we gain power in the panchayat, we will make urgent changes. As for the sea-wall and groynes, we will agitate to get it done with the backing of the new panchayat council in which we will have members too,” said Biju, convenor of the Chellanam 20-20 group.
At the same time, the Chellanam People’s Front made it clear that it does not want to dabble in politics or contest elections. It stressed its agitation is non-political and only aimed at strengthening the coast.
(Deborah Thambi is an intern with indianexpress.com)
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