A 96-year-old's long fight to protect the Tamil Nadu river at the heart of row over Coke and Pepsi

Sandhya Ravishankar

“Have you read Nayinar Kulasekaran thatha’s [grandfather’s] book?”

This reporter invariably came across the question when meeting farmers or lawyers in the Tirunelveli and Tuticorin districts of Tamil Nadu. “You must go meet him,” said advocate DA Prabhakar.

It was December and the Madras High Court had just issued an interim order to the state administration to stop the supply of water from the Thamirabarani river to factories manufacturing Coca Cola and Pepsi in the these districts. Prabhakaran had filed a petition before the court, contending that supply of water to these factories was depriving residents of the river’s water. On March 2, however, the High Court stayed the order and dismissed the petition, contending that beverage giants’ factories used up just a small part of the water allotted to industries.

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Visiting ‘thatha’

The Thamirabarani flows through Tirunelveli and Tuticorin, irrigating its crops and feedings its citizens. If the river is the region’s lifeline, nonagenarian Kulasekaran, or thatha as he is called, is its foremost protector. For decades, he has been leading agitations against the diversion of river water for industrial use even as ponds and tanks run dry.

No one had a phone number for thatha, but farmers in Srivaikundam and Kurumbur in Tuticorin district said he lives “pakkam than.” The Nattathi village where he lives is close by, they insisted.

“Go to Nattathi,” said farmer Kandha Siva Subbu of Srivaikundam. “He will definitely be at home. “Just go there and ask for Nayinar Kulasekaran. Everyone knows him in these parts. But before that, read his book.”

Subbu grinned and handed over a dusty copy of Kulasekaran’s 2010 Tamil book titled Thamirabarani Nadhiyum Vivasaayigalin Urimaiyum (Thamirabarani river and the rights of the farmer). “You will know everything you need to know about the Thamirabarani,” he said. “It [the book] is the Bible for us farmers.”

As promised, everyone in Nattathi village knew thatha’s house. The 96-year-old was sitting upright, although precariously, on his flimsy cot inside his tiny home.

He smiled, almost as if he had been expecting to be interviewed by a stranger from Chennai. “En peyar Nattathi S Nayinar Kulasekaran,” he began. “Naan mudhalla sollidaren, apparam neenga kaelvi kelunga.” My name is Nattathi S Nayinar Kulasekaran. I will say what I have to first and then you ask me questions, he said with a grin.

Kulasekaran is like an encyclopaedia on the Thamirabarani river, its tributaries, its origins in the Podhigai Hills and its 120 kilometre route through Tirunelveli and Tuticorin districts, where it irrigates 80,000 acres of paddy, banana and coconut. He explained the crop-growing seasons unique to the area – the Mun (pre) Kar between April and June, the Kar crop between June and September and the Pisaanam crop between October and March.

“The Thamirabarani is the mother, the lifeline for us all,” he said, wheezing heavily. “The problems began 30 years ago and it is not all about the state government or companies.”

Kulasekaran said the problem first began when farmers switched from cultivating paddy to banana, a cash crop that yields more money but also requires more water to grow. Moreover, in 1975, the state government started supplying 20 million gallons of water per day to companies in industrial areas in Tuticorin to encourage companies to set up factories here.

These changes took a toll on the river’s water supply and Kulasekaran said no cultivation happens during the summer cropping season. “The Kar crop is gone,” he said. “Now the ‘Mun Kar’ too is slowly fading away. We are cultivating only one crop now.”

Kulasekaran claimed to know the exact number of lakes, tanks and ponds fed by the Thamirabarani – he covered the length and breadth of these two districts on foot for more than 50 years, rallying farmers together, leading agitations and demanding their rights over the water. They were organised under the banner of the Thamirabarani River Water Front, an outfit he founded.

However, Kulasekaran said that Coca Cola and Pepsi were a small part of the problem. The water their units receive is a part of the daily allocation of 9.75 lakh litre to the State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu or SIPCOT’s industrial zone in Tirunalveli. “Mann kudhiraiyai nambi aatril iranguna maadhiri,” he said with a grin, citing a Tamil proverb, that roughly translates to – if you trust a horse made of mud will help you cross the river, the mud horse will eventually dissolve. Kulasekaran said that the government is ostensibly encouraging industrial growth to create jobs, but is, in the process, ruining existing livelihoods.

Freedom fighter and river protector

Kulasekaran has led a bit of a bohemian life. “I am not a farmer and to date I do not have any land in my name,” he said proudly.

Born in Nattathi during British rule, Kulasekaran said he studied up to Class 8 and then plunged headlong into the freedom struggle. One of the times when Mahatma Gandhi was jailed (he does not remember the year), a young Kulasekaran led a students’ march in Nattathi. He was also a part of the Indian National Congress.

In 1945, he left the Congress to join Jayprakash Narayan’s Socialist movement. Two years went by and then dissatisfied, he switched again to Communist Party of India (Marxist). Kulasekaran main income came from delivering newspapers. “I would take my bicycle at 4 am and cycle all the way to the train station [9 km away] and wait for the first train to come,” he said. “There would be 17 copies of Dinamalar [a Tamil daily] and two copies of The Hindu. I would cycle back again and drop them off at the subscribers’ homes.”

His hard work in expanding the distribution network of Dinamalar in the area ensured a close friendship between Kulasekaran and the founder of the daily, TV Ramasubbaiyer. It is this friendship that sustains Kulasekaran even today, more than three decades after Ramasubbaiyer’s death. A monthly pension of Rs 1,000 is kept aside in the Dinamalar office for Kulasekaran on the instructions of his late friend.

After 13 years in the CPI (M), it was time for Kulasekaran to come back into the Congress fold, this time under the stewardship of K Kamaraj, who led the party from 1964-’67 and whom Kulasekaran claims he was close to. In the 1977 Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, Kulasekaran was the Congress candidate from Srivaikuntam. But the MGR wave would engulf him. This was the year when film-star-turned politician MG Ramachandran’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam took the reins of the state, with MGR as chief minister. Kulasekaran also lost the Srivaikuntam seat to an AIADMK candidate. “There was so much ‘mogham’ [mesmerism] for MGR,” he laughed.

Kulasekaran looks fondly at the picture of his late wife Vellaiammal hanging on the wall over his bed. “After she died, I said enough – no more politics,” he recalled. “She was a wonderful lady. Every time I told her I am going for a protest or joining another party, whatever it was – she would simply smile and say – ‘poyittu vaanga’ [come back soon],” he reminisced. Now Kulasekaran cannot go out anywhere. “I am an old man,” he laughed. “Now I am a bit forgetful too.”

But when it comes to his beloved Thamirabarani, the 96-year-old mind’s is as sharp as ever. Kulasekaran feels that the industries using Thamirabarani water are only part of the problem. Canals, lakes and tanks have not been desilted in decades, some even in a century. “This has reduced the water holding capacity of these tanks and water bodies,” he explained.

Kulasekaran is not opposed to industry, but he does not want the factories to take water from the river and said they should use seawater instead. “Let a desalination plant be set up and let them use the water from that. Let them leave the river alone.”