Eight months ago, when an unprecedented monsoon drowned the state of Kerala, Kunjumol Thomas and her husband, a daily-wager, packed up essential belongings and gathered their schoolgoing children to escape to the nearest flood-relief camp in a canoe. Their home, a humble asbestos-roofed one with cardboard walls, stood right in the middle of a paddy field in Kurikkoda colony in Kuttanad, the state’s rice-bowl. For nearly a month, her family spent their days and nights at a school that transformed into a relief camp even as her village remained submerged under water for weeks. If the sight of rapidly rising waters around her home defined her fear then, today Kunjumol’s worries are centred around the lack of clean and safe potable water.
With just ten days left for voting in Kerala, across villages in the state’s primary rice belt, the absence of a permanent infrastructure to supply safe drinking and potable water to households remains a pivotal issue for voters.
Kuttanad has a rare distinguishing feature from other farming hot-spots in the fact that it is one of the few places in the world where crops are sown on land located below the sea level. A fragmented postcard picture of backwaters, rivers, ponds, marshes, waterways and well-irrigated rice fields, the region has attracted wide international attention for its unique style of cultivation and attempts from the local community to conserve their land. But while successive state governments poured out incentives to promote farming and boost incomes of rice farmers, they did little to upgrade critical infrastructure like potable water.
In some areas, the Kerala Water Authority, responsible for supplying potable water across the state, has laid out pipes and public taps, but water comes once or twice a week. In other regions like Champakkulam and Pulinkunnu panchayats, residents haven’t seen a drop of water emerge from the tap for the last several years.
Many, including Kunjumol, pay hefty sums a week to get drinking water through private water tankers. For other purposes including bathing and washing clothes, they use mucky water from the canals and streams that are contaminated with pesticides used in the fields. Despite knowing that the water could expose them to epidemics, they say they have no choice.
This time, residents like Kunjumol and others in her colony have decided to boycott the parliamentary elections on April 23 unless their water demands are met. They are visibly frustrated with their sitting MP, MLA and panchayat officials for not heeding to their demands for several years.
“Give us some water. That’s all we’re asking for. We can bear any other burdens but how do we live without water? We’re families living on daily wages and can’t afford to spend a lot on the tankers. All we’re asking for is a connection to the nearest canal that has clean water,” Kunjumol pleads.
“We borrowed money from others and dug a well. The water stinks so much that we can’t use it,” she says.
The water they currently use for bathing and washing clothes is sourced from a tiny stream whose surface is covered with slime and dirt.
“We’ve become so judicious with water that I have told my kids not to bring their friends home after playing. It hurts us not to give them water, but do we have a choice?” she said.
In the next colony, Ezhukkad, Xavier Perumittath and Dolly have similar stories to tell. Each of their families spend about Rs 375 for 500 litres of tanker water a week. For other purposes, they use the water from a dirty pond nearby.
“The children go to school every day and then to the church. How can we send them wearing the same dress? My husband works in the fields every day. His clothes have to be washed. It’s a real pain to get so much water to wash clothes,” she says.
“So this time, we have collectively decided. Whoever the candidate may be, we will not cast our votes,” Dolly added.
In the neighbouring Kainakary South panchayat, Prakashan has trudged nearly a kilometre from his home to the public tap on the main road on a hot afternoon to carry water. By the time he reaches home, he falls down on the sofa exhausted.
“Kuttanad is a low-lying region and gets flooded very fast. All the rivers drain into Kuttanad. Yet, the availability of potable and drinking water remains our number one issue,” he said.
Candidates in the election have come and gone making promises, but Prakashan hasn’t decided who to vote for. The trauma he suffered in the floods and the problem of drinking water scarcity are fresh in his mind. Whoever solves them will get his vote, he indicates.
Kuttanad is one of the seven Assembly segments in the Mavelikkara parliamentary constituency. Sitting MP Kodikkunnil Suresh of the Congress is locked in a tight fight with CPI nominee Chittayam Gopakumar here.