“I will not let the road come through my village until I die,” declared Nambradath Janaki of Keezhattoor village in Kerala’s Kannur district on Thursday. The day before, the 68-year-old farmer had threatened to immolate herself with two other villagers during a protest against a road set to come up here. The three villagers had drenched themselves in diesel and held up cigarette lighters in their hands as a team from the National Highways Authority of India had arrived with a large police posse to survey the land.

The situation is a particularly difficult one for the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) as Kannur is one of its strongholds in Kerala and the people of the village its supporters. In fact, the party had previously opposed the road, saying it would lead to loss of livelihood and property and damage the environment, before it eventually came around. Its leaders in the area had even led the first protests that broke out in August 2016, backing the villagers’ claims that the proposed road would destroy 250 acres of paddy fields, leave many people homeless and jobless, destroy wetlands, lower the water table and eventually make the village unliveable. However, the leaders had backed out after the party had admonished them for being anti-development.

In September 2017, the villagers had formed a collective called Vayalkkilikal, which means birds of the paddy field, to take their fight forward. The Left party had expelled 11 of its members for associating with the agitation. Senior leaders had come to Keezhattoor to warn residents not to go against the government’s development agenda.

The stand-off continued till it flared up on Wednesday. Around 50 protestors were arrested. Even as they were being led into police vehicles, a group of people – reportedly Communist Party of India (Marxist) workers from neighbouring villages – burned down the temporary wooden tent they had set up and dumped the debris in a nearby stream. A police officer at nearby Taliparamba police station said cases had been registered against 12 party workers.

The protestors' tent up in flames in Keezhattoor on Wednesday. (Photo: Special Arrangement)

On Thursday, the villagers remained defiant. “We will go for legal remedies,” said Suresh Keezhattoor, the leader of the agitation and a former member of the ruling party. “We will re-erect the protest tent and resume the agitation on March 25.”

Janaki, who had gone on a seven-day hunger strike in September, added, “Our fight will continue.”

Nambradath Janaki, who had threatened to immolate herself at Wednesday's protest, works in her paddy field. (Credit: TA Ameerudheen)

‘Development our main agenda’

Leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) say people have to make sacrifices for the sake of development. James Mathew, the party MLA from Taliparamba constituency, said the road was imperative to reducing fatalities from accidents on narrow roads. “Kerala loses around 4,000 lives every year in road accidents,” he said. “So should it be a priority of the government to widen the road?”

Mathew also claimed that those against the project were “backed by vested interests to defame the Left Democratic Front government”.

He said the National Highways Authority of India had decided on the road alignment and the “CPI(M) has nothing to do with the decision making”. However, the party will “ensure good compensation for those who would lose land”, he added.

Bringing up the expulsion of 11 party members, he said, “We will ensure development at any cost.”

Mathew’s remarks are an extension of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s repeated assertions since taking office in 2016 that “development is the main agenda” of his government. In June, he had stated that there was “no scope for protests” under his rule. “We will provide financial compensation to those affected by projects,” he had said. “We will rehabilitate those who lose their land. But there is no scope for protests. If protests continue, we have no option but to go ahead with development works. Development is our main agenda.”

A Vayalkkilikal member holds a bottle of diesel in Keezhattoor on Wednesday. (Photo: Special Arrangement)

The BJP factor

But as it cracks down on the Keezhattoor protest, the government also has to contend with the plans of its political rivals, mainly the Bharatiya Janata Party, to capitalise on the situation.

The Vayalkkilikal had on September 10 launched a hunger strike, which it had ended on September 28 after the minister for public works met the protestors and promised to defer the notification for the road. The meeting had taken place after BJP leaders had met the protestors and offered to support their agitation.

The offer of support had come four days before BJP president Amit Shah launched a state-wide roadshow, the Jan Raksha Yatra, in Kannur on October 3, signalling the party’s ambition to make inroads into the Left stronghold.

Vayalkkilikal resumed its agitation when the National Highways Authority of India issued a notification for land acquisition in January this year.

Protestors in Keezhattoor.

Alternative route

Surrounded by hills on three sides, the Keezhattoor valley stores abundant water during the monsoon. The soil is ideal for paddy cultivation, which in turn prevents depletion of the water table. In the peak summers, tankers draw water from the ponds and wells of Keezhattoor to supply drought-hit places nearby.

Building a road on such fertile land would bring the drought to Keezhattoor, say residents.

The Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishad, a Left-leaning people’s science movement, agrees and has asked the authorities to look for a different route for the road so that the wetlands and paddy fields can be saved.

According to a study conducted by it, 29.1 hectares of land would have to be acquired for the bypass out of which 21 hectares would either be paddy fields or wetlands. Around 30 houses and four commercial establishments would also have to be demolished for the project. “Since the width of the paddy fields in this area is narrow, bypass construction would completely destroy paddy cultivation in the village,” it noted.

Estimating that 6,48,000 cubic metres of earth would be required to reclaim the low-lying paddy fields, the study sought an ecological impact study to check if the construction would require the demolition of the hills. To avoid such a negative ecological impact, it suggested developing the existing highway.

Manoharan, one of Vayalkkilikal’s leaders, also demanded an ecological impact study. “The planned road has 45-metre width and 5.7-km length,” he said. “The width of paddy fields in Keezhattoor is just 100 metres. This means the road would sound the death knell for paddy cultivation in Keezhattoor. It is against the Kerala Paddy Land and Wetland Conservation Act.”

Pointing out that Vayalkkilikal was not against road development, Manoharan added, “It should not be at the cost of [the] environment. We had suggested alternative alignments with minimum environmental impact.”

Keezhattoor's soil is ideal for paddy cultivation. (Photo: Special Arrangement)

Inspired by the Long March

For now, the stalemate between the Left government and its supporters in Keezhattoor continues.

Suresh Keezhattoor, who was among the three who threatened to immolate themselves at Wednesday’s protest, compared the agitation to the Long March by farmers in Maharashtra this month. Some 35,000 farmers had marched on foot from Nashik to Mumbai demanding loan waivers, better crop prices and rights to forest land.

“We have been demanding our right to live for the last one-and-a-half years, but our pleas fell on deaf ears,” Suresh Keezhattoor said. “But we would like to emulate the farmers of Maharashtra. We will budge only after saving our village.”

Vayalkkilikal leader Suresh Keezhattoor stands at the protest spot. (Credit: TA Ameerudheen)