The Vembanad Lake in Alleppey, once praised by Lord Curzon as the “Venice of the East”, is a Ramsar Wetland and a Birdlife Important Bird Area. But those tags have not stopped greedy and exploitative tour operators from turning it into a sickening playground of hooligans and a dumping ground for trash. Here’s a horror story that will turn Stephen King’s stomach.
The tag of ‘Venice of the East’ has stuck to Alleppey (or Alappuzha) since Lord Curzon was struck dumb by its natural beauty. From what used to be a bustling Kerala small town, Alleppey has turned into one of the hottest tourist spots in India. In the last few years it has become a must-visit destination for those who cannot afford a ticket to Venice. Every year, more and more of my friends from all over the country have whispered in my ears that I am a disgrace to Malayalis for, despite being from Kerala I have never spent a day in Alleppey on a house boat. So, when my brother planned a trip with our respective wives, I happily complied, more to wipe off that blot on my record. Little did I know what lay in store.
The sight that greeted me as I stepped out of our car at the Alleppey jetty was a portent of the disheartening sights to come. What I thought to be healthy tourism was actually well past obesity, to the point of bursting at the seams. Countless cars were parked all along the parking lot. A few yards ahead, we saw house-boats lined up as far as the shores stretched on either side. Our hosts guided us into one and, as I deigned to unsling my shoulder bag, our boat navigator Naveen informed us that this was not our boat. He then took us to the back of the boat, from where we climbed into another one, and from that into another. Looking out of the third boat, we finally realized that there were many rows of house boats moored along the shore, and behind us were at least two more layers.
As we waited for the boat to lift anchor, the stench of decaying organic matter assaulted my sinuses. Peering outside, I noticed all kinds of activities from the boats around: Someone dumped a basket of banana peels into the water, someone else emptied the water at the bottom of a pressure cooker in which rice had been cooked, and, in general, plastic bottles and trash floated in the lake. The water itself looked as it was in an advanced stage of decay. As the anchors lifted, I noticed that the anchor of the boat right next to ours was covered with plastic covers — I could picture the lake bed lined with all kinds of trash. Thankfully, the boats began to move, along with a hundred others, letting us breathe fresh air rather than all that rotting stuff.
Vembanad Lake is the longest lake in India, and the largest in Kerala, but one look around would make you realize the extent of exploitation. There isn’t a spot of horizon that isn’t sprinkled with houseboats. Naveen told us that every day at least two new boats were inaugurated and there were already 5,000 houseboats in these parts. All are powered by bus engines, which run on diesel. As the boats moored for the evening near a bund, we stepped out for a walk. From other boats around us we heard noisy tourists, mostly bachelor groups, shouting and diving into the water in alcohol-fuelled ecstasy. Peaceful evenings in the Venice of the East? Unlikely. Even the delicious food cooked by our hosts couldn’t brighten me up. Another thought struck me: All the boats were equipped with toilets, and I didn’t see any place where their contents could be dumped — other than the lake.
The worst part was yet to come. The following morning, as the boats approached the jetty they converged at an intersection into a sickening traffic jam. When I inquired about instances of collisions, Naveen assured me that it was commonplace and that there were cases of some boats being impaled on the bows of others. Beer bottles littering the landscape bobbed on the water, smiling and waving at us in welcome as we approached the jetty.
Despite enjoying the lovely breeze, sumptuous food, quality family time and birding lifers, the first memory of the trip that springs to mind is, sadly, the grossness of the whole affair. Kerala Tourism needs to start getting worried. If the littering and the overcrowding carries on at this rate, Kerala’s largest lake will doubtless become the stinkiest dumping hole in history.
Not ironically, Vembanad Lake was declared a Ramsar Site, a wetland of international importance, in November 2002 as well as an Important Bird Area by Birdlife International. Despite such decorations, there are no apparent official protection measures or conservation efforts. It doesn’t take much to get started. In Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary, for instance, I have seen measures enforced by the Kerala Forest Department, with observable benefits. Taking a leaf from that book, the Tourism Department can begin with a few baby steps:
1) Enforce a strict ban on the consumption of liquor and alcoholic beverages inside the boats. People get so drunk that they have no sense remaining even to realize what they are dumping in the water. I have seen entire paper plates, with chicken bones neatly piled up, floating on the lake along with empty alcohol bottles.
2) Check every bag and ensure that tourists surrender every item of plastic. These should not be permitted aboard the boats.
3) Check the number of new boats being launched. Not only does overcrowding cause disruption to the natural ecosystem of the lake, the amount of fuel burned pollutes the water.
4) Employ local people to patrol the waters in smaller boats and collect non-biodegradable refuse from the water.
Organizations like the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) are involved in conducting studies about the life forms in the lake as well as in clean-up drives, but unless the inflow is controlled they would be fighting a losing battle. Without paying heed to the need for the lake’s sustainable maintenance, Kerala Tourism is gutting the goose that lays the golden eggs.
If you have read this far, may I have your trust that if you are going to Alappuzha, you won’t toss that packet of chips or that beer bottle overboard? Okay, do better than that. Lend your support to a cause — let’s save Vembanad Lake in Alleppey before it’s too late. Pledge your support!
Text and photographs by Sandeep Somasekharan