The paddy fields in Keezhattur, where a bypass is planned, is situated just seven metres above the sea level. There is no farmland so close to sea level. Kuttanad and the Netherlands are the only places where farming activities are carried out below the sea level.
The paddy land acts as a water reservoir for Thaliparamba municipality and Pattuvam panchayat. Once the bypass is constructed across the paddy land, the area will witness serious environmental issues.
According to the current alignment, the bypass cutting through the fields is 5.5-km long and 45-m wide and the built-up area is 60m. To construct the bypass, 11.5 acres of paddy fields need to be reclaimed at 22m height, which will be done by razing three hills in the area. A construction company has already acquired these hills in Kuppam and Chudala.
Officials of the NHAI say pipes will be placed in the area to facilitate the flow of water. But the flow of water is not the issue here. The water should percolate to the ground to replenish groundwater level. During the rainy season, the paddy land in question turns into a waterbody for six months.
Once the bypass is constructed the whole 250 acres of paddy land will become uncultivable, leading to serious ecological problems such as shortage of water in the near future. At present, we cannot predict the extent of ecological damage the project would cause as no environment impact assessment has been done.
The bypass is part of the Mangalapuram – Kochi national highway. For a (road) project which is above 100 km, environment impact assessment (EIA) and environment clearance (EC) from the ministry of environment, forest and climate change are mandatory. Besides, a public hearing should also be conducted. To bypass all these norms, NHAI carries out projects by splitting up the big project into smaller projects.
Thaliparamba bypass is one among such projects and length of the bypass is only 25km.
According to planning commission reports, six lakh hectares of paddy land was reclaimed in four decades till 2008. With the Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act coming into place in 2008, the reclamation came down drastically. Around 2.15 lakh hectares of paddy land was cultivable in 2008. Now the cultivable area is 1.85 lakh hectares. But many misuse the Act and currently, there is no facility to monitor it. The government should take steps to stop people from misusing the Act.
(Harish Vasudevan is a lawyer and environmental activist. As told to TC Sreemol)