Water Woes

How farmers in North Kerala are using an age-old water system to beat the drought

Suranga is a horizontal tunnel-like well excavated in a hillside.

Even as Kerala reels under severe drought, Gangadhar Rao never misses a day to irrigate thousands of areca nut trees, coconut trees and pepper plants on his 30 acres of farmland.

Rao is a farmer from Bedadka Panchayath in Kerala’s northernmost district of Kasaragod and depends on Suranga for all his water needs — irrigation and domestic — round the year.

Suranga is commonly found in the hilly regions of North Kerala and South Karnataka. It is estimated that Kasaragod district alone has over 5,000 Suranga.

Suranga in Kannada means tunnel. It is known as Thurangam, Thorapu and Mala in Malayalam.

Rao’s farmland has more than 30 Suranga, but a majority of them are dysfunctional. “We excavate new Suranga when water discharge from the old one goes down. Now I depend on just two Suranga,” says Rao.

“Crops in my land never faced the vagaries of summer thanks to Suranga that release copious amounts of water even at the peak of summer.”

A Suranga is constructed by the horizontal excavation of laterite hills until a good amount of water is struck. Water seeps out of the rock and flows out of the tunnel like a narrow stream. It is collected in a reservoir made of mud, known as Madhaka, just outside the Suranga. The water flows into the reservoir round the clock, and it doesn’t need electricity to pump.

A normal tunnel well is 500 cm to 700 cm wide and two metres high. The length varies between 200 and 300 metres. Longer wells contain many vertical shafts to ensure atmospheric pressure inside.

Digging a Suranga is a tedious task, combining traditional knowledge and the skills of a labourer.­ Of late, Kasaragod is facing a dearth of labourers with the technical knowledge to undertake the challenging job. The reluctance of youngsters to take it up as a profession has only worsened the situation. It is left to veterans such as Chaliyan Kunhambu to keep the tradition of Suranga excavation alive.

At 65 years, Kunhambu shows the energy and enthusiasm of a young man. He enjoys working from dawn to dusk, cutting the hard rocks with his pickaxe and never-say-die attitude.

He has dug more than 1,000 Suranga in different parts of Kasaragod and Southern Karnataka. Put together the length of all Suranga excavated by him and the total distance may exceed 45 km.

“Summer is the busiest season for me,” he says. “Because people begin to worry about water scarcity when summer sets in.”

Kunhambu has dug several of the Suranga on Rao’s farmland. So he visits the place occasionally to inspect the water flow. “Listening to the sound of flowing water in a Suranga makes me happy,” he remarks.

Chaliyan Kunhambu works inside a Suranga. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen.
Chaliyan Kunhambu works inside a Suranga. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen.

Last month, he took this correspondent to Rao’s farmland to show how a Suranga works.

Kunhambu slipped into a labourer’s attire and stepped into the tunnel with a pickaxe and a couple of lit candles. I held on to his hand.

After wading through for a few minutes, we reached the water source. “I dug this Suranga all alone,” he tells me, while shaving the laterite rock gently.

Kunhambu says Suranga provides the purest water because of the natural filtration process. “Trust me, it is pure and you can drink it anytime,” he says.

Ancient lifeline

Suranga is said to be similar to Qanat or Karez that existed in Mesopotamia and Babylon around 700 BC. Qanat is a deep well with a series of vertical access shafts that provides a reliable supply of water for human settlements and irrigation in hot, arid and semi-arid climates.

Suranga has many advantages compared to open well and borewell. It is easier as well as cheaper to dig in hilly regions such as Kasaragod. Kunhambu estimates the cost at Rs 1 lakh for a 60-metre long Suranga. “It is very low compared to the money needed to dig an open well or a borewell,” he says.

Suranga offers no less than a lifeline in a place where water scarcity is becoming more common. But because this old method of water extraction is poorly publicised outside the region, Shree Padre, a farm journalist and editor of Kannada magazine Adike Patrike, believes the Suranga is dying. “When I say it is dying, I mean further extension is diminishing.”

He believes that people have lost faith in traditional water resources with the advent of mechanical means of water extraction. “The excavation is labour-intensive and needs a lot of time. If you don’t strike water within a fixed time, the budget will inflate.”

Suranga, however, is highly sustainable, Padre says. “But we have to preserve it for future generations.”

Govindankutty, hydrogeologist and assistant professor at Government College in Chittur, Palakkad, can’t extoll the virtues of Suranga enough. “We can conserve a lot of water by reviving this age-old traditional water system. It is very important at a time when we face huge water scarcity.”

Kuttamperoor river in Alappuzha was recently cleaned. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen.
Kuttamperoor river in Alappuzha was recently cleaned. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen.

Cleaning up their act

Elsewhere in Kerala, the severe drought has made the people realise the need to conserve water bodies.

Budhanoor Grama Panchayat in Alappuzha district recently cleaned a 5-km stretch of Kuttamperoor river, a tributary of Pampa and Achankovil rivers. Water weeds and waste dumped into the waterway for over a decade were cleared out. “The river was blocked with plastic bottles, containers, and food waste. The panchayat spent Rs 72 lakh on the project,” the panchayat’s president Viswambhara Panicker tells Scroll.in.

The cleaning drive had a huge impact. “Water surged in the open wells in the vicinity. It gave us huge relief from drought. The panchayat has been distributing water through tanker lorries for the last two months in the area,” Panicker adds.

Anpodu Kochi, a non-profit organisation based in Kochi, has decided to clean 100 water bodies in Ernakulam district over 50 days. The innovative programme titled Ente Kulam Ernakulam (My Pond Ernakulam) was officially launched on March 23.

“The cleaning effort is to fight the severe drought and drinking water shortage in the district,” the organisation said in a Facebook post.

A pond in Ernakulam cleaned by Anpodu Kochi. Image credit: Facebook
A pond in Ernakulam cleaned by Anpodu Kochi. Image credit: Facebook

The revived ponds are being handed over to the public and reviews will be conducted once every two months to ensure proper maintenance.

Even political parties have joined the fight against drought. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), which leads the state’s Left Democratic Front government, has launched an ambitious plan to clean and conserve 1,500 water bodies across the state. CPI(M) State Secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan has said a social movement on the lines of the literacy drive and the people’s planning initiative is needed to protect drinking water sources. “All Keralites should join the mass movement,” he has appealed.

This is the third part in a series on Kerala’s drought crisis. The first two parts can be read here and here.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Behind the garb of wealth and success, white collar criminals are hiding in plain sight

Understanding the forces that motivate leaders to become fraudsters.

Most con artists are very easy to like; the ones that belong to the corporate society, even more so. The Jordan Belforts of the world are confident, sharp and can smooth-talk their way into convincing people to bend at their will. For years, Harshad Mehta, a practiced con-artist, employed all-of-the-above to earn the sobriquet “big bull” on Dalaal Street. In 1992, the stockbroker used the pump and dump technique, explained later, to falsely inflate the Sensex from 1,194 points to 4,467. It was only after the scam that journalist Sucheta Dalal, acting on a tip-off, broke the story exposing how he fraudulently dipped into the banking system to finance a boom that manipulated the stock market.

Play

In her book ‘The confidence game’, Maria Konnikova observes that con artists are expert storytellers - “When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true.” Harshad Mehta’s story was an endearing rags-to-riches tale in which an insurance agent turned stockbroker flourished based on his skill and knowledge of the market. For years, he gave hope to marketmen that they too could one day live in a 15,000 sq.ft. posh apartment with a swimming pool in upmarket Worli.

One such marketman was Ketan Parekh who took over Dalaal Street after the arrest of Harshad Mehta. Ketan Parekh kept a low profile and broke character only to celebrate milestones such as reaching Rs. 100 crore in net worth, for which he threw a lavish bash with a star-studded guest-list to show off his wealth and connections. Ketan Parekh, a trainee in Harshad Mehta’s company, used the same infamous pump-and-dump scheme to make his riches. In that, he first used false bank documents to buy high stakes in shares that would inflate the stock prices of certain companies. The rise in stock prices lured in other institutional investors, further increasing the price of the stock. Once the price was high, Ketan dumped these stocks making huge profits and causing the stock market to take a tumble since it was propped up on misleading share prices. Ketan Parekh was later implicated in the 2001 securities scam and is serving a 14-years SEBI ban. The tactics employed by Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh were similar, in that they found a loophole in the system and took advantage of it to accumulate an obscene amount of wealth.

Play

Call it greed, addiction or smarts, the 1992 and 2001 Securities Scams, for the first time, revealed the magnitude of white collar crimes in India. To fill the gaps exposed through these scams, the Securities Laws Act 1995 widened SEBI’s jurisdiction and allowed it to regulate depositories, FIIs, venture capital funds and credit-rating agencies. SEBI further received greater autonomy to penalise capital market violations with a fine of Rs 10 lakhs.

Despite an empowered regulatory body, the next white-collar crime struck India’s capital market with a massive blow. In a confession letter, Ramalinga Raju, ex-chairman of Satyam Computers convicted of criminal conspiracy and financial fraud, disclosed that Satyam’s balance sheets were cooked up to show an excess of revenues amounting to Rs. 7,000 crore. This accounting fraud allowed the chairman to keep the share prices of the company high. The deception, once revealed to unsuspecting board members and shareholders, made the company’s stock prices crash, with the investors losing as much as Rs. 14,000 crores. The crash of India’s fourth largest software services company is often likened to the bankruptcy of Enron - both companies achieved dizzying heights but collapsed to the ground taking their shareholders with them. Ramalinga Raju wrote in his letter “it was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten”, implying that even after the realisation of consequences of the crime, it was impossible for him to rectify it.

It is theorised that white-collar crimes like these are highly rationalised. The motivation for the crime can be linked to the strain theory developed by Robert K Merton who stated that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals (the importance of money, social status etc.). Not having the means to achieve those goals leads individuals to commit crimes.

Take the case of the executive who spent nine years in McKinsey as managing director and thereafter on the corporate and non-profit boards of Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, American Airlines, and Harvard Business School. Rajat Gupta was a figure of success. Furthermore, his commitment to philanthropy added an additional layer of credibility to his image. He created the American India Foundation which brought in millions of dollars in philanthropic contributions from NRIs to development programs across the country. Rajat Gupta’s descent started during the investigation on Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri-Lankan hedge fund manager accused of insider trading. Convicted for leaking confidential information about Warren Buffet’s sizeable investment plans for Goldman Sachs to Raj Rajaratnam, Rajat Gupta was found guilty of conspiracy and three counts of securities fraud. Safe to say, Mr. Gupta’s philanthropic work did not sway the jury.

Play

The people discussed above have one thing in common - each one of them was well respected and celebrated for their industry prowess and social standing, but got sucked down a path of non-violent crime. The question remains - Why are individuals at successful positions willing to risk it all? The book Why They Do It: Inside the mind of the White-Collar Criminal based on a research by Eugene Soltes reveals a startling insight. Soltes spoke to fifty white collar criminals to understand their motivations behind the crimes. Like most of us, Soltes expected the workings of a calculated and greedy mind behind the crimes, something that could separate them from regular people. However, the results were surprisingly unnerving. According to the research, most of the executives who committed crimes made decisions the way we all do–on the basis of their intuitions and gut feelings. They often didn’t realise the consequences of their action and got caught in the flow of making more money.

Play

The arena of white collar crimes is full of commanding players with large and complex personalities. Billions, starring Damien Lewis and Paul Giamatti, captures the undercurrents of Wall Street and delivers a high-octane ‘ruthless attorney vs wealthy kingpin’ drama. The show looks at the fine line between success and fraud in the stock market. Bobby Axelrod, the hedge fund kingpin, skilfully walks on this fine line like a tightrope walker, making it difficult for Chuck Rhoades, a US attorney, to build a case against him.

If financial drama is your thing, then block your weekend for Billions. You can catch it on Hotstar Premium, a platform that offers a wide collection of popular and Emmy-winning shows such as Game of Thrones, Modern Family and This Is Us, in addition to live sports coverage, and movies. To subscribe, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.