Residents of Chellanam allege apathy on the part of the authorities concerned in not completing the work on sea wall before the onset of monsoon

Babu Kaliparambil lives too close to the sea for comfort. Throughout the week, evening hours bring in their share of anxiety as the sea washes in through the gaps left in the crumpling sea wall that once promised some safety for the Maruvakkadu coast in Chellanam panchayat.

The situation is such that the house of the ex-Naval personnel looks like the one straight out of the New Testament parable exhorting everyone not to build their houses on sand. But a lack of grit is not Babu’s problem. He puts up a brave face when he says it might take another year for the authorities to realise that hundreds of families in Chellanam panchayat, like his, live in constant fear of the sea barging into their homes during high tide.

Chellanam residents are so used to complaining over the last decade about the sea erosion problem that most often they forget about the their most pressing problems in their lives. Sea wall building was looked upon as a panacea for the sea erosion problem for more than a decade. However, the work has now been stalled for nearly a decade, largely due to the non-availability of specific size granite boulders.

Then a series of short-term measures, mostly comprising sand bag walls being erected on the upper stretches of the more vulnerable areas ahead of the rains, have been taken up without much result. However, the arrival of cyclone Ockhi in November 2017 opened a new chapter in the lives of the people.

The cyclonic storm killed two people in the Chellanam Bazaar area. It changed people’s perception about the danger posed by unbridled sea erosion, says Father John Kandathiprambil, rector of the Velankanni Matha Pilgrim Centre, Maruvakkadu. The pilgrim centre and the little chapel sit very close to the sea. As a pastor for his folk, the priest has been at the forefront of the fight to get the authorities get cracking on building protection structures for the Chellanam shores.

However, his efforts have seen little success so far because, he alleges, there is apathy and neglect on the part of the department concerned.

Work incomplete

V. Jinson of Paschima Kochi Theera Samrakshana Samiti says it is not for lack of protest and public action that little has been done. There is official apathy and sheer neglect of the people’s demand. The case in point, and the one now the cause of great heartburn among Chellanam residents is the failure of the authorities to fulfil a promise to complete the erection of geotextile tubes filled with sand before the onset of the rains this season.

The geotextile tubes were meant to replace the traditional seawalls built out of solid granite rock boulders, which is in short supply. The idea of geotextile tubes was adopted after the Ockhi cyclone as a quick and sure measure to help protect the shores. The works for the erection of the geotextile tubes was awarded in January this year and they were to be completed by April, well ahead of the rains.

Geotextile tubes were to erected along the most vulnerable stretches in the Chellanam panchayat — Cheriyakadavu, Companyppadi, Bazaar, Vachakkal beach and Velankanni North. The idea was to establish the sand bag structures over a coastal stretch of 1,200 metres at a cost of ₹8.65 crore and the works were awarded in September 2018 with the completion date extended to April 2019.

However, it soon came to pass that the contractor selected by the Department of Irrigation for the work did not have the equipment or the expertise to carry out the work. The pump that was deployed to dredge sand from the sea to fill the geotextile tubes sank off the North Velankanni coast. Not a single tube was erected though two of the tubes were partially filled with sand when the sand pump sank into the sea forcing the residents to once again come out in public protest against the authorities.

Short-term measure

The Department of Irrigation concedes that the contractor did not have the expertise to erect the sand-filled geotextile tubes and that the contract has been cancelled. The work will be retendered and awarded by September 15 this year, said a senior official adding that all shore-protection works are halted between May 15 and September 15 every year.

The sand-filling work had begun on on February 2 but not a single tube was filled to capacity. The official said that it had now been decided to resort to a short-term measure — to erect normal sand-filled bags along the vulnerable stretches in Velankanni North and Bazaar. However, this work too has been stopped now because of a lack of availability of sand.

The Chellanam residents have blamed the panchayat authorities for stalling the works. Jinson and members of the Paschima Kochi Theera Samrakshana Samiti alleged that the panchayat was not supplying sand available to it citing technical reasons.

However, panchayat vice president K.D. Prasad counters the claim. He said that a certain quantity of sand left over after cyclone Ockhi was auctioned off under the aegis of the district administration, Revenue and other departments. The panchayat had no claim over the sand. Besides, he said, he did not want to comment on an issue that was also under the consideration of the court.

Fr Kandathiparambil is sceptical about the seriousness of the steps now being taken up and the intentions of the authorities. With severe sea erosion threatening the shores with the monsoon set in, the priest said that Valankanni North and Bazaar areas would sustain most damages even though normal sand bags are being planned along these stretches. It has been decided that normal sand bags would be placed along a 200-metre stretch in the Bazaar area and 150-metre stretch in North Velankanni.

Long-term plan

Caught between the slow progress of work and the rainy season now at hand, Chellanam residents are fighting to stay afloat. P.P. Michael, a panchayat member and one whose residential house faces serious sea erosion threat, is more forthright in his opinion. He said his house was a little more than 50 metres away from the shore. Stopgap measures will not suffice; there is still the tendency on the part of the authorities to react to specific situations at hand instead of introducing long-term measures, he said.

What is needed now is a long-term plan that will include scientifically planned breakwaters as well as resumption of the works on seawalls in the traditional manner. Residents like him have pointed to proposals in the past to build breakwaters to help the establishment of the long-pending Chellanam fishing harbour. However, the proposals have not been taken up for serious study. This may be the time to revive the proposals.

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