Kerala has readied a 2447.66 crore costing roadmap to save what is known as its 'rice bowl', the Kuttanad region.

Kuttanad is an important geography for the state’s political economy. It is a huge area of reclaimed land along the countryside of backwater-rich three districts spread across central Kerala— Alappuzha, Kottayam and Pathanamthitta. It is one of the rarest places in the world to have a wealth of paddy fields grown below-sea-level, earning it the 'rice-bowl' monicker. It is also a fragile wetland of international ecological importance, one of the 26 wetlands earmarked for protection under the Ramsar convention (1982), an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands to which India is a signatory.

The region, however, has been plagued with declining farm productivity, ecological destruction, poor water resource management systems, sanitation issues including lack of enough toilets or water treatment plants, among other things, all of which have been elevated by the back-to-back monsoon floods Kerala has been witnessing for the last two years.

The new roadmap, prepared by Kerala State Planning Board (KSPB) and submitted to the government on Friday, provisionally earmarks Rs.1,589.16 crore for water resources development, Rs. 252 crore for agriculture, Rs. 230 crore for fisheries and Rs. 291 crore for drinking water supply. Mint has reviewed the full report.

Better management of rivers, canals

For nearly a century, Kuttanad’s main problems has been two: the monsoon floods would make impossible a second crop of paddy during the year, and a subsequent intrusion of salt-water post the monsoon floods would threaten even the first crop of the next year. Several studies have been done in the region to resolve this— dating back to 1937, when the government bought two Italian engineers to investigate the matter and find solutions. Later in 1958, a major spillway channel to the Arabian Sea was cut open at Thottappally, 20 km south of Alappuzha, to drain flood water into the sea.

Another landmark moment came at the peak of agrarian distress in 2006-07, when the center and the state agreed to execute a masterplan for the region by M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), popularly known as “Kuttanad Package". The MSSRF plan came at a cost of 1839.75 crore, out of which 1518 crore was earmarked for the several water resource projects. Although the masterplan was received with huge enthusiasm from the public, giving a face-lift for then Left government in power, the implementation has been patchy. For instance, according to official estimates, till March 2019, out of 1518 crore only 693.28 crore was spent, to which the central government, supposedly the main sponser, had disbursed only 177.03 crore.

One of the key highlights of the new report from KSPB is an endorsement of the post-flood study in Kuttanad by the team of Dutch scholars for better management of river waters by a proper canal system. The report calls for a redevelopment of the hierarchical structure of canals in the region, that will carry the water to the sea in Kuttanad, in the form of a primary, secondary and tertiary canals.

“Better managing water in Kuttanad has to begin from a scientifically designed river basin policy. The KSPB has, over the past three years, been advocating the location of all projects of the Department of Water Resources based on specific river basin policies. The floods of August 2018 have demonstrated the urgency of moving towards such a policy framework from the existing haphazard and adhoc system of planning and implementing “schemes" under different departments," the report said.

The primary system would begin from the lower reaches of five rivers – Pamba, Achankovil, Manimala, Meenachil and Muvattupuzha— at about 40 m above Mean Sea Level (MSL), till they fall into the ecologically crucial Vembanad Lake, through their main riverbeds and canals. The secondary system would link the primary to the tertiary systems, which would refer to the small and very small canals immediately adjacent to the vast swathe of farmlands.

The new roadmap also calls for an Rs. 15 crore integrated rice park in Alappuzha, a rare such initiative if it happens, replacement of old systems for dewatering farmlands at 200 crore, fish sanctuaries along with participative model of conservation in Vembanad Ecosystem at 100 crore, renewal of existing water distribution system for providing clean and safe water at 290 crore and enhancement of the capacity of water treatment plants at Rs. 290cr.

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