ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Real Estate and Agricultural Wetlands in Kerala

The "rice culture" of Kerala is fast vanishing due to the increasing diversion of the land for non-agricultural purposes. The real estate sector is gradually swallowing up the rice cultivating low-lying wetlands. This paper attempts to examine the growth of real estate business and consequent destruction of the wetland ecosystems in the state.

In an agriculture-based economy with paddy as the prime crop the rice-growing wetlands of the state were significant.

armers began diverting the waterlogged rice fields to crops such as coconut or arecanut. They also started growing other more profitable crops like rubber. Land is habitually kept fallow for years since cultivation is not profitable and as a result, priority is given to cash crops such as rubber, coffee, tea, coconut, arecanut, and nutmeg

At present, rubber plantations

There are many factors responsible for this rapid change from the “rice culture” of the state: shortage of labour, increased labour charges, and hikes in the cost of input are the major ones.

( ). However, about people in the state directly depend on rice cultivation (

). The state economy in recent years is subsidised by the non-resident Indian (NRI) remittances that amount to more than Rs 20,000 crore per annum.

Keeping a wetland fallow for a while, as a prelude to diverting it for other uses, is a common trend Kerala, especially near highways, roads, or commercial ventures. It is common to consider wetlands as wastelands that provide much greater service if drained and reclaimed, a belief that is grossly ignorant of the valuable ecosystem services wetlands provide. Filling up wetlands and paddy growing areas and converting them into built-up areas has become a practice since the late 1980s because of increased cash flow and economic development due to NRI remittances. The real estate business has thus become a big venture in the state. The lack of justifiable returns and incentives from rice cultivation, high population density, a consumerist way of life, easy access to finance and demand for land for building have paved the way to a booming real estate sector.

.

The larger inflow of foreign money is an important factor supporting the high priced growth of the sector.

The state

offer any other avenue for profitable investment. The policymakers too do not have any vision towards channelling these easy funds for the betterment of the state.

Of the 14 districts of Kerala,

Several other factors attract companies in real estate and the construction business to Thrissur which is the cultural capital of the state and is located close to Cochin, the commercial capital of Kerala.

It also ruins uplands including hills and hillocks by destroying the soil and rubbles for levelling the low-lying lands. This massive leve lling is likely to have serious ecological implications in terms of flooding, scarcity of drinking water, vector borne epidemics and unwelcome repercussions on livelihood of the lower income groups of the society. It is estimated that such habitat conversion accounts for $250 billion per year in human enterprises (Balmford et al 2002). It is unfortunate that in the most literate state of India, not much attention is given to environmental implications of such actions and no serious scientific investigations .

The Kole wetlands extend to about 18,602 ha in Malappuram and Thrissur district. It is an important rice-growing area

and one of the major ecologically important freshwater wetlands of the state. In Thrissur district, these wetlands are distributed in Mukundapuram, Chavakkad, and Thrissur taluka, lying between Chalakkudy river in the south and Bharathapuzha river in the north. The floodwater from Keechery and Karuvannur rivers flows to this land before draining into the Arabian Sea. The wetlands are believed to be formerly lagoons formed due to the recession of the sea.

Being very productive for rice and at par or more than Kuttanad and Palakkad, cultivation in the Kole wetlands was known to have started back in the 18th century. However, proper records on cultivation in Thrissur (Kole) lands date back to 1916 only. The saucer shaped wetland area is surrounded by elevated fringes of land. These fringes are more or less dry and terraced for coconut plantation. Earlier, rice was cultivated in the Kole wetland by making temporary earthen “bunds” or embankments, from December to May. In due course of time the government and farmer cooperative societies built permanent concrete embankments surrounding the wetlands, an important step to improve the cultivation.

December/January-March/April

September/ October-January/February April-August

It is unfortunate that there is practically no check on diverting lands for environmentally and socio-economically risky and speculative uses. Currently the single most important threat to the Kole wetlands is the real estate ventures that are devouring the area though the real estate business is not confined to the Kole wetland. The fast, urban sprawl has already consumed many of the smaller wetlands close to the city of Thrissur giving way to huge constructions. The urban sprawl now encompasses areas like Ayanthole, Pookunnam and Puzhakkal villages, located in the city premises

Filling the wetlands will also disturb the hydrologic regime of the wetland. The conversion of waterlogged wetland to dry land will create everlasting problems to both surface and groundwater including hurdles in drainage, flood control, replenishing ground water and furthering salt water intrusion. The altered drainage pattern of the landscape interfere with water recharge sites, water flow channels and disturbs the hydrostatic pressure balance between marine salt water and the subterranean fresh water aquifers. The wetlands function like sponges imbibing and storing storm water and runoff water, thus helping in maintaining the groundwater level of an area. For a growing city like Thrissur water availability is a serious matter. In rural Kerala an individual household depends to a great extent on artesian wells for day-to-day water requirements, on which the diversion of low-lying lands are likely to have serious negative implications, including the fall in water table and reduced water quality. Changes in the land use will also cause microclimatic problems in the area such as changes in temperature converting the areas into several “heat islands”.

The booming real estate is also likely to cause socio-economic repercussions f

The diversion of agrarian land for construction has serious ecological implications.

with holdings ranging from

0.2 to 0.7 ha .

Chattopadhyay, S and M Chattopadhyay (1997): “Sustainable Land Management in Kerala, India-A Bio-Physical Approach”, proceedings of Geo-Information for Sustainable Land Mana gement (SLM), K J Beek, K D Bie and P Driessen (ed.), Enschede, ITC Journal, 1977-3/4, pp 165-74.

Costanza, R, R d’Arge, R de Groots, S Farber, M Grasso, B Hannon, K Limburg, S Naeem, R V O Neill, J Paruelo, R G Raskin, P Sutton and M V den Belt (1997): “The Value of the World’s Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital”, Nature, 387, pp 253-60.

George, P S and S Chattopadhyay (2001): “Population and Land Use in Kerala, Growing Populations, Changing Landscapes: Studies from India, China, and the United States”, The National Academy of Sciences (Washington DC: National Academies Press).

Final Paper

Nair, A S K and G Sankar (2002): “Wetlands of Kerala” in Wetland Conservation and Management in Kerala, proceedings of the theme topic of 14th Kerala Science Congress, pp 27-36.

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