Karkidakam in Kerala

The Ecologist
The spectacle of climate breakdown in South India.

We need for more in-depth and local studies on the various impacts of climate breakdown across the state. We need an urgent comprehensive preparedness plan for the projected impacts of the changes in the state.

Karkidakam - normally from mid-July to mid-August - is that month of the Malayalam calendar of Kerala when it rains incessantly.

The old women of the upper caste Hindu households will often be found reading Kilippatu in this month, the dominant Malayalam version of the Ramayana. They call Karkidakam the month of Ramayana.

Kanji is the typical rice soup of Kerala. But there is special rice soup in Karkidakam called Karkidaka Kanji which is the staple food during this rainy month.

Hunger

Ayurveda has special treatments in this month for the bodies that are tired from working the whole year, to rejuvenate the body and mind.

These images of Karkidakam are also part of the collective Savarna Malayali nostalgia.

However, this month is a very difficult time for the labourers who have to step out of their homes and go out to work.

Hence, for the majority Karkidakam means poverty and misery if they don’t find jobs or are unable to leave to get to work due to the heavy rain.

For the fishermen, sea will be prohibited by the annual trawling ban regulations; this is the month of scarcity and hunger for them. These communities call this month Kalla Karkidakam - a rogue season.

Tropical

This is also the month when the hill stations will witness shades of clouds with a spectacular monsoon view, waterfalls will flow like silver linings on the green mountains.

Rivers will overflow, and often farmers will be found with fishing nets or a fish trap in the paddy fields, cannals and ponds. This is the month Kerala will be greener than any other time of the year. However, Kerala has started to witness unprecedented ecological changes in the past decades.

Kerala’s ecology, climate and seasonal patterns have drastically changed over the last decades - and this is visible in all walks of life. 

Karkidakam has become the month where the temperate is more than 30 degree Celsius. It was mostly between 25 to 32-degrees Celsius during the day time in 2020. This varies from region to region and district to district. The month of August 2019 also recorded the highest rainfall in the state since 1951, when records by the Indian Metrological Department began.

It has become hot and humid during Karkidakam when it is not raining. Kerala is a tropical, humid, state and there were months in Kerala that were not very hot and humid. Karkidakam was one of them.

The south west monsoon beginning from the month of June in Kerala continues until late August or even early September. Then north east monsoon arrives with comparatively less rain. By early December it gets slightly colder across the state, with temperature drops in Wayanadu and Idukki, the hill districts.

Labourers

Munnar, one of the favourite hill stations in the Idukki district, recorded the lowest temperature ever at -3 degrees Celsius in January 2020. The morning dew had turned into frost and it looked like snow had clad the hills of Munnar in photographs.

Most houses, even in the villages, now have air conditioning for the hotter months. Air conditioners have become a household essential in Kerala. It’s difficult to survive without them during the non-monsoon months, when the temperature shoots up to 40-42 degrees.

This is especially true in the Palakkad district, where the highest temperature in the planes of India were recorded in February 2020, and also in Kottayam district, which recorded 38.5 degrees Celsius - the highest temperature in India during the month of February 2020.

The work schedules of the labourers who have to work in direct sunlight has changed for the summer months. They have to start work very early in the morning and finish before noon. Some then have to return to work after the sun has set.

In the month of February 2020 there was an unusual rise in temperatures - two or three degrees Celsius above normal. The State Disaster Management Authority warned pregnant women, the elderly and children to stay indoors and avoid exposure to direct sunlight. Every summer in the last few years people have died in Kerala due to sunburn and sun-stroke.

Drought

Historically, Keralites have not suffered from water scarcity and draught. This was something that happened only in distant Rajasthan, in northern India, or in the deserts of the Middle East. 

However, today most parts of the state experience water scarcity during the Summer months, lasting from mid-February until June when monsoon arrives.

Rivers, ponds and wells run dry in the Summer months - there is no water left. Then, local collectives, political parties, community organizations and voluntary groups supply water in the many districts that face water scarcity. Some are forced to buy water.

The central government declared Kerala a draught affected state, along with Tamil Nadu, Andra Pradesh and Karnataka in 2017. The drought years are likely to increase in the state, according to the predictions of the State Draught Monitoring Cell of the Kerala State Disaster Management Authority.

This should also be looked at in the context of historically erratic and decreasing rain fall over India, and particularly in the state of Kerala, along with the mismanagement of the available water sources and lack of systematic water conservation plans.

Recover

Another significant change is the annual floods. Floods in Kerala were once a thing of the past. Vellapokkathil (In the flood) is a famous short story by the well know Malayalam writer Thakazhi Shivashakara Pillai about the flood during 1924 which devastated Kerala.

After that, nobody in Kerala had any experience of what a flood looks like.

However, 2018 was the year that everything changed. Kerala witnessed one of the biggest floods ever in its history. A major part of the state was under water for a few days. Around 500 people died, many went missing. The economy of the state was devastated, with an estimated loss of more than $3.8 million.

Kerala, however, managed the flood in its own unique ways while help and support flowed from all corners of the world. It still took many months for the state to recover.

The flood in 2018 was seen as a rare event that was expected to occur once in every 100 years. However, the flooding came again in 2019 - during the same month of the year. This time 120 people died.

Crops

Lessons had been learned from the experience of a flood the previous year and as a result the damage was relatively less.

In 2020 we suffered a major landslide in Idukki due to the heavy rain, and 42 people died.

It was generally accepted that the causes of the flood were anthropogenic, or human caused. These included the building of dams and barrages, hydropower projects, unsustainable mining, deforestation, catchment degradation and encroachments in the riverbeds. And of course climate breakdown.

But despite this, the warnings about the probability of further ecological catastrophes such as the floods in Kerala are being ignored, with little or no attention being paid.

These changes in the state have also impacted agricultural productivity. Agriculture is vulnerable to the slightest changes in temperatures, hence crops like rice, coconut, coffee, pepper and cardamom are visibly showing the negative impacts of these changes.

Agriculture

Wayanad district was known for its cooler climate where coffee, pepper and other spices grow in surplus. However, the coffee and pepper farmers today complain about rising temperatures, erratic rain fall, the erosion of forest cover and less productivity. 

Cardamom farmers in Idukki have also started to feel the heat of climate breakdown.

They complain about the increased capsule rot in cardamom plants in the district. There are also peculiar regional vulnerabilities within the state. Kuttanad is a region that is 2.2 meters below the sea level. It is known as the rice bowl of the state. But it has been in crisis because of the flood and the sinking of the land.

Kuttanad is known for the globally important agriculture heritage system where they practice farming based on flood control and salinity management systems. Farming in Kuttanad is based on an agricultural calendar which is now changing. The farmers are preparing to update their implanting and swaying on to these changing calendars.

Impacts

Chellnam, a coastal village between the Arabian Sea and the backwaters near Kochi in Ernakulum district, is another case. Chellanam is highly susceptible to coastal erosion and every year the sea takes over people's homes. During more recent years as much as half the village is under water due to coastal erosion. The lives of the fisher folks are now more vulnerable.

These changes are not only happening in Kerala. Similar problems are being experienced around the world, and in most part of India. However, it is more visible and felt in Kerala and similar vulnerable and fragile ecological regions in the country.

When Kerala bids farewell to the hot and humid month of Karkidakam it will welcome the next month of the Malayalam calendar, Chingam. But the changed Malayalam calendar gives us a glimpse of how climate breakdown will transform life for the coming generations in Kerala. Karkidakam, along with its rain, will also be a month of heat and humidity now.

We need for more in-depth and local studies on the various impacts of climate breakdown across the state. We need an urgent comprehensive preparedness plan for the projected impacts of the changes in the state. What emerges from Kerala will be true elsewhere in time. 

This Author

Ajmal Khan is an associate at the Department of Environmental Studies at Ashoka University, Sonipat.

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