One is not sure if Jairam Ramesh first heard of this IBA (Important Bird Area) in Kerala when AB Vajpayee penned his Kumarakom musings gazing at the Vembanad waters, or when Rahul Gandhis new year vacation with his girlfriend at the lakeside hit headlines. That Ramesh has been impressed into realising the urgent need to preserve this site is obvious by the way in which he pledged to negotiate for a $20-million World Bank grant at UNDP to clean up the lake that gives livelihood to 16 lakh people. Besides working on the R90-crore grant, I am sanctioning R10 crore immediately for restoration and regeneration of the lake, starting with desilting, sewage treatment and pollution control, Ramesh said on a recent visit.
Now that Kerala is no longer run by CPI(M) , the Union environment minister must have assumed that the state would be quick to climb aboard the cleaning act with him. Given the new CM Oommen Chandys marathon man style, even the scribes thought he would push the project with force. But even a fortnight later, the needle has not moved. This reporter was told that the CM was busy with his 100-day plan and that he would get back to a review of the Vembanad project soon.
The masterplan for pollution control in our backwaters should be a capital priority, especially for the sake of the states tourism industry. And continuous follow-up of its implementation is also a must, says EM Najeeb, president, Confederation of Tourism Industries, Kerala. The R17,348-crore Kerala tourism industry leans heavily on the MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibition) segment hosted on lake houseboats. But the spread of the hyacinth is affecting boating. Effluents from motorboats, coir retting, agro-chemical residues and municipal sewage are eating away at the lake ecosystem.
What if the masterplan decides to assess tourism carrying capacity and restrict boats on the lake Even in that case, it would be good for tourism. It would be a quality hallmark, says Venu Vasudevan, principal secretary, tourism, Kerala.
But it is doubtful if the state is going all out to echo the Centres enthusiasm in cleaning up Keralas largest brackish water lake. Jumbo long-term projects like lake cleaning are not part of Chandys 100-day plan. Simple, quick-impact gestures are the priority. Urged to optimism, the media remains haunted by nightmares of how the R320-crore Pampa Action Plan funds were allowed to lapse, due to poor prioritisation.
True, the last of the snake birds, living near Chandys own constituency, is unlikely to complain. The blue-wing teal, that stopped visiting Pathiramanal island, is no voter either. But if the Kerala government values its 92 lakh annual tourists and 38.6 million tourism jobs, it cannot afford to hem and haw for too long. Unless Chandy puts the Vembanad lake cleaning masterplan on a fast track, Kerala may soon lose its Paul McCartney-grade tourists.