PETITIONS, protest and hunger strikes failed so this week hundreds of Indian families used their vote to highlight the coastal erosion and flooding that is swallowing their village.
An estimated 7,000 voters boycotted Tuesday’s local elections, saying there was no point in voting since government never listens nor fulfils its pledges to protect their fast-shrinking corner of southern Kerala.
“We have written petitions, talked to officials, gone on hunger strike and every year the worsening coastal flooding and its impact on our lives is there for everyone to see,” said Thushar Nirmal Sarathy, a resident and lawyer.
“The old sea wall is dilapidated and our stretch of beach has almost disappeared. Last year during the pandemic, the flooding was probably the worst. But nothing has changed.”
Residents in Chellanam say they were driven to boycott the vote after more than 500 days of protest failed to win any help against the worsening erosion and annual bouts of flooding.
Attributing the incursion of the sea to rising sea levels and dredging at nearby Cochin port, residents said they were disillusioned and expected no change, whoever wins.
Poll results will be announced on May 2.
Coastal Kerala is one of the most densely populated areas in India, with fishing villages like Chellanam sandwiched between the Arabian Sea and its twisted network of backwaters, all within a kilometre of the high-tide line.
With a population topping 14,000, Chellanam has at least 1,000 homes that are located precariously close to the sea.
As far back as the 1980s, the government identified the area as “highly susceptible to coastal erosion” and local officials say they are working on a solution.
“There is a plan to resolve this issue,” said Ernakulam district administrative head S Suhas.
“But till the election process is complete and results are declared, no work is permitted and we will restart only next month.”
In the last decade, the west coast of India has seen more cyclones, monsoon depressions and storm surges, all resulting in fluctuating sea levels, said K Ajith Joseph, director of non-profit Nansen Environmental Research Centre (India).
“Climate change, particularly the Indian Ocean warming, is one of the key contributing factors,” Joseph told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Chellanam is … experiencing the impact of this.”
Mary Jugunu, who is 25, remembers growing up just 100 m from the sea and said the only time her family faced coastal flooding was during the tsunami of 2004.
“I lived there for 22 years but now we have moved inland because the flooding was getting worse. We knew the sea would swallow us after a while and since we could afford it, we moved,” the masters student said.
“But many can’t afford to move. Land is expensive and building a new home difficult. Besides, even in our new home we are struggling with water logging during the monsoons. The sea waves are getting stronger and our defences weaker.”
The residents have formed a coastal protection group and are demanding a new breakwater wall and groynes to shield them from the high waves and slow the takeover of their land.
While the government promises solutions, residents said the long wait was eroding their lives, literally.
Voices captured by @happyaano, a news project running in the election campaign, highlight their intense frustration.
“Why should we elect a government that does not care about coastal people…..people in-charge ignore us because they don’t understand the fear of listening to the roaring seas.”