Sixty-five-year old Achamma’s day begins with a wade through the saline water that fills her bedroom and kitchen.
She spends the initial hours of the day draining the water that has permeated her three-room house. The walls are perpetually damp with paint peeling off. The few furniture she has are kept on makeshift platforms of logs and bricks. The toilette is clogged. The courtyard is covered with sludge. As the day wears off, water seeps into rooms again, forming puddles. A depressing stench fills the air.
Achamma and her husband Rajan are stuck at Munroe Thuruthu, an idyllic island near Kollam where an inexplicable curse of Mother Nature is scuppering the lives of its 10,000-odd inhabitants. Over the past decade, a palpable change has come about in the island’s ecosystem, for reasons that are yet to be figured out. An overflow of saline water persists for almost 8 months of a year in the island. That has damaged paddy fields, coconut lagoons and aqua farms, denying the islanders their main source of income. Hundreds of houses have settled in the saturated earth. A part of the island is perpetually slushy. About 200 families have fled over the past 4-5 years as conditions have become uninhabitable. Some islets have already sunk.
"We can’t sell this house and move out because there are no takers for properties in the island. Nor do we want to be a burden on our children," says Achamma, whose nine children have left the island to live elsewhere. "We just want to live a normal life, like the way we used to live here."
Munroe Thuruthu, named after Colonel John Munro of erstwhile Travencore state, is located at the conflux of Ashtamudi Lake and the Kallada River. In the past, the island used to get fresh water from the Kallada River for almost 7 months, says Binu K., the president of the Munroe Thuruthu Panchayat. The fresh water level in the island began to deplete after the construction of the Kallada dam about three decades ago, according to Binu. With dwindling levels of fresh water, saline water from the lake began to submerge the cluster of islands, wreaking havoc on its ecosystem. Conditions have worsened in recent years, and experts are blaming global warming and the aftereffects of the 2004 Tsunami.
A walk around Munroe Thuruthu’s affected areas reveals the grim picture: Many houses have sunk, the earth devouring their foundation. A number of them are abandoned. School children wade through muddy waters with their sandals in hand. To reach the houses, you have to carefully tip-toe on coconut trunk bridges. Sandbags are lined up on courtyards. Drinking water is scarce: several islanders wait for their turn to fill buckets at a tap that is ironically surrounded by water.
"What is happening at Munroe Thuruthu is a very serious problem," said Dr. Udayakumar J., a geologist at TKM Engineering College, Kollam, who is part of an expert team from the college that has started a study into the phenomenon affecting the island. "If people are forced to abandon their houses built with their hard earned money, that’s enough to underscore the gravity of the situation."
According to K.N. Balagopal, a lawmaker in the upper house of Indian parliament, global warming that causes sea level to rise may have led to the current plight of Munroe Thuruthu. Balagopal, who has sought Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s intervention to save the delta island, said the government needs to consider resettlement packages for the affected people.
"We need to figure out some near-term solutions so that people can survive in the island," Balagopal said. "Like construction of houses that won’t settle, or some farming methods conducive to the current conditions. It’s not going to cost tons of money for the government."
The panchayat is perpetually cash-strapped, Binu says. It earns about 200,000 rupees a year but spends at least 5 million rupees on salaries alone. With no new houses or businesses coming up, the scope to raise money through taxes is minimal. Despite its old world charm and quaint surroundings, tourism is yet to pick up. The shortfall in revenue is funded by the state administration.
"There were some 100 hectares of paddy fields in the island," Binu says. "Now there is nothing. We need to find a solution to this problem, or more people will leave the island."