Editor’s Note: Chellanam in Ernakulam district is the worst erosion-hit seashore region in Kerala. This five-part text & video story series explores the issue in depth. Here is the first part.
Fifteen-year-old Edgar Sebastien sounded furious while describing the hardships he faced during Cyclone Tauktae in May this year.
“Huge waves breached the sea wall and inundated our house. We were forced to seek refuge at our uncle’s place. I have been witnessing how the sea is devouring our coast since my childhood,” he said.
Edgar continued: “Those in power do not value our lives. They are not bothered about our future. People here have lost hope.”
What Edgar, who prefers to go by his first name, described as the tip of the hardships faced by more than 15,000 people living in the 17.5km coastal stretch in Chellanam gram panchayat and three divisions – 23, 24 & 26 – in Kochi Corporation.
Chellanam, An Overview
Chellanam lies 18km south of the Cochin Port on a sliver of land with the Arabian Sea to the west and Vembanad Lake to the east. It has an area of 812 hectares and its population density is 1838 persons per square kilometre.
This is more than double the population density of Kerala (860 persons per square kilometre) and almost five times higher than the national average (382 persons per square kilometre).
According to the 2011 census, Chellanam has 3446 households. Fishing is the main occupation of the residents here. People also earn a living by working as masons, carpenters and domestic helps.
The Kerala government had identified the stretch as erosion-prone in 1978 following which it had built a giant sea wall. But lack of maintenance caused its destruction. The wall has either crumbled or reduced height in many places. It no longer protects the coast.
Sea walls are constructed using huge boulders mined from the hills. In Chellanam where the sea is very close to the coast, waves bombard the rocks regularly resulting in rock displacement and corrosion. Only periodic maintenance, such as the replacement of damaged rocks, could ensure that the structure would remain intact.
Fifty-eight-year-old V T Sebastien has seen the construction and destruction of the sea wall.
“Chellanam got its first sea wall during 1967-68. Its height was increased during the five year period between 1978 and 1983 using giant boulders. The huge wall raised our hopes too. We thought the structure would protect Chellanam forever,” he said.
But the hopes dashed, said Sebastien, when the sea wall began to crumble after 20 years.
“The wall needs periodic maintenance to withstand the huge waves. Unfortunately, the irrigation department, which is entrusted to build and maintain the structure, did not do anything. Thus the sea wall crumbled. Big boulders have been reduced to small stones and have been washed ashore,” he said.
Sebastien now leads an agitation demanding government action to save Chellanam. He is the patron of Chellanam-Kochi Janakeeya Vedi (People’s Platform), which is organising the protests.
Many years ago, the distance from the coast to the sea was more than three kilometres in Chellanam. Large swathes of sandy beach separated the sea and the villages.
Over a period of time, the sea started advancing to the villages. The coast began to erode due to the removal of sand and sediments from the shoreline. Erosion destroyed a few churches and have been rebuilt several times.
This was well documented by the church authorities.
Our Lady of Health at Saude (Saude comes under Kochi Corporation) was first built in the 9th century. It was rebuilt three times in the past.
Vicar Fr Antonyto Paul says the church now lies 3.5 kilometres east of its original location. “Saude had a vast beach when the church was first built. But sea erosion changed the geography of the place. People live in fear these days,” he said.
St Michael’s Church at Manassery (also under Kochi Corporation) too has a similar history. The church has been rebuilt five times so far. It lies more than three kilometres from its original location.
Chellanam becomes unlivable during the southwest monsoon months between June and August. Waves will breach the damaged sea wall, bombard the houses and inundate the entire village. This will force people to resort to protests.
Ministers and people’s representatives will pacify them by announcing big projects to minimise the impact of sea erosion. This has been a routine for many years.
This year too was no exception. The government recently announced a project worth Rs 344.2 crore to protect the coast with tetrapods (concrete structures).
“Politicians will play many tricks to pacify us. We have been seeing this for many years. Nothing will happen here. The government wants to drive us away from Chellanam,” said 56-year-old fisher Johnson.
But the youngsters appear to be a little more optimistic and they are trying to bring the issue to the nation’s attention.
Edgar, who was mentioned at the beginning of this story, took the lead in this initiative. On April 19, 2020, he wrote a letter to the President of India Ramnath Kovind highlighting the travails of the Chellanam residents.
The President acknowledged the letter and forwarded it to Kerala’s chief secretary for the state government’s perusal.
“Nothing has happened even a year after the President’s intervention. What can we expect now?” Edgar asked.
(To be continued)
Part - 2 (Text & Video): Hit Hard by Coastal Erosion, Chellanam Residents Say Enough is Enough