My documentary film, ‘The Story of River Nila, its People and its Environmental Destruction’ took me on a three month travel across the Bharathapuzha basin. A survey of Bharathapuzha is interesting and important for two reasons.
First, because it is a river that has both material and cultural importance in the life of Kerala. It is the longest among the rivers that flow through Kerala (250 km) and has the largest basin (6186 sq km). The river is the lifeline of the many cities and villages of the state. People in close to two hundred panchayats and 12 municipalities depend on the river for their supply of water. The river is deeply connected to the history and culture of Kerala. The history of civilisation by Bharathapuzha is as old as that of the first settlers of Kerala. The myths and lores surrounding the river are inexhaustible. The banks of the river are dotted with serene and mystical temples, some of whose history goes back a few centuries. Many of these temples continue to play a vital ritual role in the lives of Malayalis. Bharathapuzha is also called Nila, a term more endearing, referring more to the emotion it elicits and the culture it fosters.
The second reason and one that is more urgent and pressing is that the river is dying. Due to various natural causes and human interventions, many of which have taken place in the last three decades, the ecology of the river and its surrounding environment is under threat. Fourteen of the animal species that live in or around the river are close to extinction. Changes in precipitation, land use, sand mining, deforestation, among other factors, have severely degraded the condition of the river and are accelerating its death. This has been a topic of discussion both in the academic and the non-academic spheres of Kerala. The issues faced by the river are highlighted in mass media, yet investigations and interventions towards its conservation do not seem to be adequate.
During this project, which has been my most extensive yet, I travelled along the river Bharthapuzha that runs through the length of Kerala, documenting the environmental condition of the river, and the lives and occupations of people who live by it.
In this process, I interacted and engaged with many people who have been closely related to the river, through personal histories, and some of them, through conservation efforts. In this process, I learnt of how environmental conservation is inextricably linked to social justice. And in a deeply hierarchical society like Kerala, conservation and caste cannot be addressed separately. These are complex questions, which I perceive, and have attempted to understand. However, how does one address the difficult relationships between society, economy and environment in our conservation efforts. What are the communications, services, products and systems that we can design to make address questions of social and environmental justice as one.
I aimed to understand how the changes in society, economy and culture of riverside populations in the past three decades may have contributed to the degradation of the river while trying to find for myself what would it mean to do research using film as a research tool.