Tom Hazuka:

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Our boat trip from Kochi inland to the Periyar River headwaters was emblematic of India as a whole: abundant natural beauty, tainted by human greed and corruption.  Our guide, Geo Jose, explained that the backwaters near Kochi are officially a protected area, yet high-rise apartments continue to be built on illegal landfills.  The government is at best incompetent, and at worst complicit in the process.

Geo told us the picturesque Chinese nets capture nowhere near as many fish as they used to, a fact that became grimmer as our boat motored closer to the heart of darkness.  The reference might seem hyperbolic, but I don’t think so.  Though we were traveling through staggeringly lovely country, our goal was a massive complex of some 242 factories that bring numerous low-paying jobs to the area, but at a dreadful human and environmental cost.  Not only have the fish numbers been drastically reduced, those that remain are likely unsafe to eat.

A local environmental activist detailed the myriad health problems of residents caused by the factories’ pollution of land, air and water.  As he talked, in the smoggy distance we saw waterfront factories belching thick smoke.  Even from the boat we could smell it.  The activist described the Catch-22 (or is Kafka a better comparison?) situation whereby the government owns the factories, yet the government is in charge of enforcing pollution laws the government put into place.  Folks who complain receive the same mindless response that Americans get when they decry “right to work” laws: What do you have against jobs?

The Kerala backwaters are among the most lovely places on earth, and I feel incredibly privileged to have seen them.  Unfortunately, though, despite Kerala’s accurate depiction of itself as “God’s Own Country,” it is also, as my wife Christine sadly puts it, “Man’s Own Mess.”