Common people, uncommon zeal
HIS real name is Pokkan, quite an earthly name for an untouchable pulaya (a downtrodden caste group of agricultural labourers and fisherfolk) born in the 1930s in Kerala. When he was born, his umbilical cord was like a blown-up balloon, or the bloated, elongated, seeds of the common mangrove tree. Out of affection, his kith and kin called him Pokkudan. He is now known as Kallen Pokkudan.
All his life, Pokkudan has lived close to the wetlands and, for over a decade, he has been collecting, preserving and planting the seeds of the ‘mad mangrove’ tree (long-fruited, stilted mangrove know as rhizophora mucronata). The association between the man and the tree is so close that Pokkudan says, "Sometimes, I feel I’m another mad mangrove tree." His name is now synonymous with mangrove conservation in Kerala.
When Pokkudan started
planting mangrove seedlings in 1989, at the age of 52, he was all alone.
Environmentalists had not begun to pay attention to the destruction of
mangrove forests, the rainforests of the coastal ecosystem. The Coastal
Regulation Zone Act had not come into force. Researchers had not begun
to make a beeline to the pockets of wetlands in Kannur district in north
Kerala, where Pokkudan lived. In just four decades, the extent of
mangrove forests in the state had dropped from over 700 sq. km to a
paltry 17 sq. km. Yet, Kannur still possessed nearly 45 per cent of the
remaining wetlands in the state.
After leaving the party, for almost a year, Pokkudan did nothing. He saw the monsoon storms drench little children as they walked to schools on narrow mud paths in the wetlands. The lashing winds often took away their umbrellas. The storm waves often destroyed the embankments in the paddy fields. Pokkudan knew from his experience in the wetlands that mangrove trees were the best buffers against winds and waves. When he was young, he had seen mangrove seedlings being planted along the chemeen kettu (mud-bunds that protect the traditional shrimp fields) in the kyppadu (brackish water wetlands where wet paddy and fish are cultivated).
But, over the years, the wetlands had turned into garbage dumps of the towns and villages. They had lost much of the capacity to perform their myriad ecological functions such as nutrient cycling, water exchange between the surface and the atmosphere, flood control, ground water recharge, salt dissipation, absorption and dilution of pollutants and creation of microclimatic niches that supported a variety of life forms. For one who had his roots in the wetlands, these calamitous changes were painful personal experiences too.
For Pokkudan and the other pulayas, the mangrove forests had always been a perennial source of food, fuel, fodder and medicine. "In the earlier days, we hardly got a mouthful of rice, but there were many kinds of food in the wetlands," says Pokkudan. Like fish that could be cooked or kept apart for the days of famine or the berries and tubers that could be eaten raw or cooked. Many of these had medicinal properties. Apart from hundreds of varieties of fish, there were several of types of migratory birds in the mangroves. "The fish, the birds and the human beings depended on the mangroves." Pokkudan considers the mangroves as the "security guards of the earth". The floods in Orissa would not have killed so many, had there been mangroves to absorb floodwaters and put barriers against storms, he claims.
Collecting the seeds of the mangrove trees was a strenuous job. He had to squeeze himself through the thick breathing roots that dropped down from the trees. The swamps where the mangrove trees delivered the seeds (the rhizophora is viviparous) were choked with municipal, household, hospital and hotel wastes. Pokkudan heard people call him a mad pot.
Initially, the mangroves Pokkudan planted didn’t come up well because he had planted them far too deep in the lagoon and he didn’t know the techniques well. Next year, he planted another 300 seedlings closer to land. When they grew, people realised the beauty in creating mangrove forests. The media, the researchers, the environmentalists and the forest officials began to take note of Pokkudan’s achievements.
With Pokkudan’s help, the Department of Forests set up a mangrove nursery of around 30,000 seedlings. Several arts and sports clubs began to organise campaigns to convince the public about the need to preserve mangrove forests. Nevertheless, nearly 10,000 mangrove trees, including many that Pokkudan had planted, were cut down in the name of development. But in several areas of the district, people began to put up collective resistance against the destruction of wetlands. Local self-government institutions (LSGIs) began to book cases for destruction of mangroves. For the first time, mangrove conservation schemes found a place in the annual programme of a few LSGIs.