Kallen Pokkudan

You don't feel the blazing sun here; there's always a cool breeze sweeping across Pazhayangadi river, even at noon. The lush greenery is overwhelmingly soothing. The mud road along the riverside is deserted, and the only sound you hear is the gentle hum of the light wind and the rustle of life in the mangroves. Walk further, you see a board proclaiming the name of the man who fought a long and lonely battle to preserve the mangrove forests in Kerala – Kallen Pokkudan, a name synonymous with mangrove conservation. The sleepy village, Pazhayangadi, nestled in the rich wetlands of north Kerala shot to fame thanks to this crusader. “Mangroves are my life. I will protect them as much as I can.” The grit and resolve of this man is unwavering even at the age of 73. “My health doesn’t permit me to plant saplings any more, so I collect seeds and hand them over to people who are interested,” says Pokkudan, who has been conserving mangroves for more than two decades now. A dalit farm worker, Pokkudan had formal education only till class II. He has planted more than one lakh mangrove saplings himself and now conducts awareness classes in schools and colleges across the state. It all started in his village in 1989, when even environmentalists were ignorant of the alarming rate at which mangrove forests were being destroyed. “Those days, schoolchildren walking alongside the Pazhayangadi river used to lose their umbrellas to the strong winds blowing from Ezhimala side. I started planting mangrove saplings to reduce the intensity of the wind,” says Pokkudan, sparkling waters of the Pazhayangadi reflecting in his eyes. He planted some 300 saplings near the riverbank, and two years later, they grew into thick green foliage spanning a kilometre. But the number of people critical of his initiative grew. “Every morning I would see the saplings plucked and thrown into the river. Grown plants would be destroyed which pained me a lot,” says Pokkudan. Never one to give up, he filed a police complaint with the help of a CPM local committee secretary, who also warned the miscreants and paved the way for a greener future for Pokkudan. It was a local research centre that first spotted Pokkudan who used to carry a bag of seeds wherever he went. “Scientists those days couldn't find another person who planted mangroves. Though my enemy circle was active, this time I got support from environmentalists, who took the matter to Kerala high court which ordered six months imprisonment and Rs 2,000 fine for whoever destroyed 'kandal' plants,” says Pokkudan. ‘Kandal’ is the local term for mangroves. By then, he was known as Kandal Pokkudan, and his efforts started bearing fruit when the then Kerala government allotted Rs 15 lakh to develop mangrove forests in Kannur district. “The area of mangrove forests in Kerala which was 700 sqkm in 1975 had shrunk to just 17sqkm by 1991,” says Pokkudan who had to face stiff opposition from villagers and even from his own family. Some even threatened him with legal consequences as he was planting the mangroves on panchayat land. However, it did not take long for his opponents to acknowledge his efforts. “For people of my (backward) community – pulaya – the mangroves have always been a source of food, fuel, fodder and medicine. There was a type of fish that could be cooked or kept aside for times of famine, and the berries and tubers that could be eaten both raw and cooked. Many of these had medicinal properties. The fish, the birds and the people, all depended on the mangroves,” says Pokkudan. They are also home to several species of birds and marine creatures. Migratory birds also find place in the calm and rich mangrove forests. Addressing the mangrove trees as jawans who safeguard the earth, he says floods in coastal areas can be averted to a great extent by planting mangroves. Pokkudan’s fame soon spread. Once, a Hungarian ornithologist who was in Coimbatore, came to see Pokkudan and his mangroves which by then had spread to other districts. Attila Bankovich, director of the Hungarian Institute of Ornithology, was surprised to see the variety of life in Kannur’s mangroves. Pokkudan proudly displays the newspaper report that quotes Bankovich as saying: “This much biodiversity you cannot see anywhere else in the world. This should never be destroyed.” Several recognitions also came Pokkudan’s way, including the Kerala forest department’s Vanamitra Award in 2006, Bhoomi Mitra Award in 2003, P V Thampy Memorial Endowment Award in 2001. Real recognition, however, is the care my trees get from people, says a proud Pokkudan. “I cannot plant trees any more. I am old. I conduct awareness classes for children. So far I have gone to 200 schools and colleges. Creating awareness in children gives me great satisfaction as it is something our politicians never have time for. I always carry seeds with me wherever I go, and I cooperate with local clubs and government projects,” says a once-loyal Communist who broke away from the party due to caste discrimination within. “My only wish now is that the government takes efforts to preserve the dwindling mangrove forests. They wrongly think developing forests is dead investment, that it fetches no returns,” he rues. “After decades of effort, people now realize the blessings these trees can bring. The mangrove trees in private lands also should be preserved,” he says.

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