Disillusioned with the communists, he planted 100,000 mangrove saplings to protect Kerala’s wetlands.
K A Shaji
When he was born in a Kerala village in the early 1930s as an untouchable Pulaya, a caste of agricultural labourers and fisherfolk, his parents named him Pokkan. His umbilical cord was like a blown-up balloon, or as the metaphor now goes, the bloated seed of the common mangrove tree. His nickname became Pokkudan, which refers to infants with such umbilical cords. Later, he would become Kallen Pokkudan. It’s a name now synonymous with mangrove conservation. The man, who failed to complete elementary education due to extreme poverty and caste discrimination, has so far planted over 1,00,000 mangrove saplings in the wetlands of his region. As many as 22 species of mangroves that grow over a man’s height welcome you to his village in Kannur.
Pokkudan started planting mangrove seedlings late in life, in 1989 when he was 52. Till a year before, he had been an ardent communist, a member of the Karshaka Thozhilali Sangham (the agricultural labourers’ union of CPM). He says the association strained when he raised his voice against caste discrimination in the CPM. For almost a year, Pokkudan observed the land. He saw the monsoon winds unleash their fury in the wetlands and storm waves destroying embankments in paddy fields. When he was young, he had seen mangrove seedlings being planted along the chemeen kettu (mud-bunds that protect the traditional shrimp fields) in the kyppadu (brackish water wetlands where wet paddy and fish are cultivated). Over the years, land reclamation, garbage dumps and deforestation started threatening the existence of such forests. He started planting saplings. All by himself, at first.
After Pokkudan became the guardian angel of Kannur’s mangroves, the department of forests set up a nursery under him with around 30,000 seedlings. Several arts and sports clubs began to organise campaigns about the need to preserve mangrove forests. Nevertheless, nearly 10,000 mangrove trees, including many that Pokkudan had planted, were cut down in the name of development. In its place sprung up modern hyper markets and private hospitals. But in several areas of the district, people began to oppose such destruction of wetlands. Local self-government institutions (LSGIs) began to book cases for mangrove destruction.
“Mangroves do many things: they buffer erosion, enhance bio-diversity, minimise high tide and even tsunami impact,” he says. Environmentalists say that over four decades mangrove forests in Kerala have dropped from 700 sq km to 17 sq km. But of the remaining wetlands, Kannur has 45 per cent. Largely thanks to Pokkudan.