Kerala · Rivers

Ozhukanam Puzhakal: UNTO HER WE SHALL RETURN…

Guest Blog by Dr Manju Vasudevan

Two artists are engrossed in some meaningful graffiti work at a public bus stand, on an otherwise laid back, colourless Sunday morning. A closer look and their strokes in fact seem to be urging the passerby to pay attention to rivers and water resources. There seems to be a message to all the drawings.  It is not often that one comes across a sight like this in small town Chalakudy in Kerala. The artists have teamed up with the Chalakudy River Protection Forum under the umbrella of a State-wide campaign titled ‘Ozhukanam Puzhakal’ or ‘The Rivers Must Flow’.

Graffiti as part of the Ozhukanam Puzhakal campaign, at a bus stand, Chalakudy town (Photos by: Veena, Shafeeq, Rajneesh P, Zabna)
Graffiti as part of the Ozhukanam Puzhakal campaign, at a bus stand, Chalakudy town (Photos by: Veena, Shafeeq, Rajneesh P, Zabna)
Graffiti as part of the Ozhukanam Puzhakal campaign, at a bus stand, Chalakudy town (Photos by: Veena, Shafeeq, Rajneesh P, Zabna)

While artists Ganesh Anchal and Vishnu are in charge of bringing art with a message to a public sphere through Graffiti, a whole lot of people and groups across Kerala are putting their hearts together to mould the campaign.

So what is the campaign all about? Dr. Latha Anantha is a name familiar to those of us who have either been associated with the Indian water sector, or those who have worked with her at grassroots level as part of the Athirappilly dam movement. A naturalist to the core, she had dedicated her entire life for the cause of environment, especially for flowing rivers and for conservation of Western Ghats. Chalakudy River had a special place in her life and work. Founder of River Research Centre and part of the Chalakudypuzha Samrakshana Samithi (Chalakudy River Protection Council), she was part of many collectives including South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People (SANDRP), Forum for Policy Dialogue on Water Conflicts in India, International Rivers Network, etc.  As part of Dr. Latha’s first death anniversary in November 2018, ‘Friends of Latha’ – a virtual group of her comrades across the country, held a National Workshop on the “Learnings from Kerala Floods for River Rejuvenation and Management and Water Related Disasters in the Context of Climate Change” on the 15th and 16th of November 2018. Following this, on 22nd Jan, a State-wide campaign was launched with the support of several NGO partners and grassroots groups. The campaign would last 2 months long, to culminate on 22nd March, coinciding with International Water Day.

It was only apt that Kerala’s dear poet Prof Madhusoodanan Nair inaugurated the campaign in the Meenachil River Basin. He shared fond reminiscences of his childhood bond with Neyyar river in south Kerala. He lamented on the fact that today we have no direct relation with the river and that is probably why mineral water bottles are all we know about freshwater. The Meenachil Nadee Samrakshana Samithi’s work in the region has made inroads into grassroots as well as influenced policy level change in the government’s approach to wetland and river management. In appreciation of their efforts, they were awarded the Bhagirath Prayas Samman in 2017 at India Rivers Day in Delhi.

Graffiti artist at work in Chalakudy town. The Highways Division has given clearance for using the flyovers in major towns for spreading awareness through Graffiti 0319
Graffiti artist at work in Chalakudy town. The Highways Division has given clearance for using the flyovers in major towns for spreading awareness through Graffiti March 2019

The President of Meenachil River Protection Council Dr S Ramachandran presided over the inaugural session. SP Ravi from CPSS outlined the origin and purpose of the campaign, its approach in the next few weeks, and what it hopes to achieve. A poster exhibition was conducted by the team from River Research Centre, Thrissur, and students participated in an enthusiastic River Parliament mock session in the afternoon.

Later in the week, an exhibition of posters, paintings and books was held for 3 days at the Chalakudy Town Hall, and it gave a chance for River Research Centre and Chalakudypuzha Samrakshana Samithi to engage with students and public. The event was inaugurated by Former State Forest Minister and now MP Sri Binoy Vishwam and environmentalists like Dr Jayam Pankajaksham and Prof Kusumam Joseph, and Panchayat representatives were present at the Opening ceremony.  In Mr Vishwam’s words, “To flow is the inherent right of a River, and the floods demonstrated what havoc can be wrought when her flow is disrupted through human interference”.

An engraving of Dr Latha’s book titled “From the forest to the Sea” is set in the campus of Moozhikulam Shala on the banks of the Chalakudy River. A music and poetry gathering was held here in mid March 0319
An engraving of Dr Latha’s book titled “From the forest to the Sea” is set in the campus of Moozhikulam Shala on the banks of the Chalakudy River. A music and poetry gathering was held here in mid March 2019

The focus of the educational posters was on how flow is important for a river, how human pressures cause obstacles to the flow and so on. On display were the sand art and clay models created by children from Chalakudy’s schools as part of the post-flood creative exercise carried out in September 2018.

A word or two more needs to be said about the sand art and clay art that was on display. After the August 2018 floods that hit Kerala, the Schools for River program of the River Research Centre with the help of 8 artists from across India, organized 20 workshops for children on soil art, installations from nature, drawing, clay pottery, natural colour making and drawing, sessions on dance movement therapy and theatre workshops.  While the workshops were aimed at addressing the emotional trauma each participant may have undergone during the flood, a great part of the emphasis was on experiential knowledge – what can be taken away from the natural calamities. It was a personal as well as collective encounter of possibilities in Nature. For instance, children were shown how to make clay from the alluvial soil deposited after the floods, to help them appreciate that nature can bring beautiful things even with a disaster.

Posters on technical aspects of River Ecology on display at the Exhibition at Chalakudy Town Hall (Photos by: Veena, Shafeeq, Rajneesh P, Zabna)

Clay models made by children during the FLOOD art workshop series on display at the Chalakudy exhibition

Sand art, also from the FLOOD art sessions on display at the National Workshop in Thrissur (Photos by: Veena, Shafeeq, Rajneesh P, Zabna)

Talking of creative expressions, a painting competition titled ‘Jalarekhakal’ was organized by Tree Walk as part of the Campaign – for Upper Primary and High School children at Venganoor Model Higher Secondary School, Trivandrum. Over 100 children from various schools around Vellayani Lake participated. Tree Walk, as Friends of Latha, hoped to spread the message #Save_Vellayani_Lake to children and to the larger society, some of whom are crusading for the revival of rivers, lakes and water bodies.

In Trivandrum again, the Neerthadakam group and Vellayani Lake Clean Up organized “JANAKEEYA SHUCHEEKARANAM” at Vavamoola, to mark the World Wetlands Day (2nd February). There were coracles and barrows and a stream of enthusiastic cleaners in the lake. There was a cultural evening where bicycles were distributed to two students by the Indus Cycling Embassy (ICE).  Silent Wheels provided cycles at a discounted rate at Vavamoola.

Students participate at a thematic painting exhibition in Trivandrum (Photos by: Veena, Shafeeq, Rajneesh P, Zabna)

After the clean up of Vellayani lake in the outskirts of Trivandrum.

A series of other events and meetings have dotted the month of February so far – the  Wetland Seminar at the Forestry College, Kerala Agricultural University (2nd Feb), the Convention on the theme of protecting Kabini and its tributaries (16th), a gathering along Iruvanji puzha – a tributary of Chaliyar river (20th). River Walks were held in two places – Annanad along Chalakudy river, and Kuttikanam along Azhutha puzha.  Marian College Kuttikanam has also scheduled a clean-up and public awareness against waste dumping at the origin of Azhutha.

The Campaign partnered in outreach and field component of a Kole Lands Fish Survey near Thrissur, on 1st February. The survey recorded 82 freshwater fish species (Photos by: Veena, Shafeeq, Rajneesh P, Zabna)

The campaign agenda has been synced in with the regular ecosystem monitoring activities of the Schools for River. Schools that have participated so far include – Sr George High School Pariyaram, Koratty Panchayat LP School, Govt Boys High School Chalakudy and VR Puram High School.

Perhaps the most heart- warming of all the events covered under the Campaign so far would be the Music Gathering organized on the full moon night of 19th February. The sand banks of Arangali in the lower catchment of the Chalakudy river are well known in the region, for this is where, a few years ago, the local community had built consciousness in the village and stood guard against illegal sand mining. There could have been no better spot to celebrate the river and its free flow. The strength of the show is that all the musicians have volunteered to perform for they are drawn by the theme of the campaign. There was a Sitar recital, a Mridangam and Violin recital, followed by popular songs in Malayalam and Hindi. Some of us found ourselves humming the Native American chant, a favourite of Latha chechi, long after the musicians had dispersed: “We all come from the forest, unto her we shall return, Like a drop of rain, flowing to the ocean”

Poster announcing the music gathering coming up on 19th Feb (Photos by: Veena, Shafeeq, Rajneesh P, Zabna)

This weekend (23rd Feb) the Thommankutthu waterfalls in Idukki district will see a gathering of children and adults for a painting workshop and a river walk. The Social Forestry Division of the Kerala Forest Department will partner at this event. In the weeks to come, there will be poster and photo exhibitions in colleges of Palakkad, Ernakulam, Idukki and Trivandrum districts, there will be a summer boat ride along Chalakudy river.

The campaign theme is thought provoking as we enter summer, and it seeks answers for some fundamental questions of survival and sustenance. The flooding rivers have now shrunk thin and we are faced with the malady of drought. How long can we boast of our rivers and our water resources without taking responsibility? At a personal level, who amidst us is not connected to the rivers around us at a deeper, umbilical level?

The legacy of Latha chechi lives on as ‘Friends of Latha’ and other partners join hands across the State and echo her conviction that rivers must flow free – yes, Ozhukanam puzhakal!

(The author, Dr Manju Vasudevan (, is with River Research Centre, Kerala)

21st February 2019

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