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Mossies and water

February 17, 2009

They call Kerala ‘God’s own country’ and it’s easy to see why. Blessed with plentiful and reliable rains, good sun and fertile soils, this strip of a state has a perfect climate. Its neighbours on the other side of the Western Ghats mountain range suffer terrible droughts and conflict over water between those states is often bloody.

But while god may be supplying Keralans with good rains, they are not managing this gift so well. A fatal outbreak of dengue a few kilometres north of where we are is being blamed on insufficient water. Why? People in the district are getting too little piped water and so they are storing what they do have in mosquito breeding containers. Dengue researchers accompanied municipal health workers to households in the effected areas and found the viral vector was present in 75% of mossies tested (5-0% is already unsafe). But many residents associations refused to let the council officers and their scientifically trained cohort into the buildings to inspect their buckets and tanks. First, they said, the council must unblock the drains, clear up the rubbish and remove sewage and waste from the area.

Cutting off their nose to spite their face they might be, but if only infrastructure progress could keep pace with economic development, the whole metamorphosis would be so much less traumatic. Retrofitting infrastructure is costly and time-consuming. But then is the alternative to bulldoze entire areas and start from scratch a la Chinoise? It certainly doesn’t work here in democratic, bureaucratic India, where road construction can be held up decades by negotiations over compulsary land-purchase. But the Indian way is not working, clearly. There are open sewers in New Delhi, the capital, Varkala, where we are now is a pretty cliff top being ruined day by day with litter. A few K down the coast is another touristy beach where 3 years ago hoteliers could charge upwards of Rs. 1000 a night. Now it is so litter strewn that the going rate is Rs. 150.

The state government is going to fog the entire district on Thursday, and has promised to immediately send water tankers to those without drinking water supplies. Nick’s insiting we take antimalaria tablets and sleep under a net, although I’ve hardly been bitten. But i spose better safe than sorry. Our net is pretty ace actually – it’s black, which means you can see in and out and hardly notice it.

It’s a strange place this – midway between the hippy trail and package tour zone. So half the Westerners here are scruffy, stoned kids barely out of school, and then there is the roll-along luggage brigade, including chic Italians asking the cafe owners if they serve “genuine espresso”. Ordinarily, we wouldn’t choose to stay as long as we have, but it’s been good to be rooted to one place for a while and get some writing done. It’s pretty relaxing here. Dolphins swim off the coast and eagles swim above us. Nick’s been trying to capture them but they’re camera shy. There’s a couple of bat-eared puppies scrapping around and a bundle of kittens to play with. The food is great here – seafood for dinner, masala dosa for breakfast. Beer is sold almost everywhere, but as “pop” on the bill and hidden in newspaper, served in ceramic mugs or out of teapots. The hawkers are not too persistent, they parade up and down trying to flog the same 6 unlikely items: drums, stickers, bullet-shaped magnets (which are used in cow guts to collect scrap metal), handpainted cards of various gods, spinning frisbees with LEDs and road maps of Kerala that contain deliberate inaccuracies to foil would-be invaders. That’s it, there’s no other type of merchandise they tramp up and down with. I guess people are buying them or they wouldn’t be selling it.

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