FEATURE-Boats to ferry votes in India's backwaters.
By Narayanan Madhavan
(c) 1998 Reuters Limited
ALAPPUZHA, India, Feb 19 (Reuters) - A tourist brochure calls it the "Venice of the East". Locals call it Kuttanad -- which loosely translates as "the netherlands".
When the state of Kerala votes in India's general elections on February 28, officials will carry ballot boxes on boats around this unique corner of India as the state's backwaters participate in the world's biggest democratic exercise.
Boat travel is already de rigueur for political activists in the region, where some small islands have just one house each.
"The boat is a part of their daily routine," V.R. Padmanabhan, the chief of the district of Alappuzha, told Reuters of the people of Kuttanad, which lies one metre (three feet) below sea level on the Arabian Sea coast.
"It is considered an extension of their physical body."
About three-quarters of the 100,000 voters in the low-lying region live in villages that can be reached only by boat.
"In certain areas we have to go to small islands in the middle of the backwaters. Women officers are exempted from going there," Padmanabhan said.
There are six polling centres in Kuttanad, which falls in the constituency of Alappuzha
Despite the difficulties of transport, local residents take their right to vote seriously. Alappuzha recorded a 75 percent voter turnout in the last elections in 1996.
Spices from the hilly areas of the state come laden in large boats to the backwaters from where they go to the port city of Cochin, which now has an international pepper exchange.
The green waters, lush paddy fields, coconut tree and swaying fishing boats made of coconut wood have made the landscape a magnet for tourists.
Fishermen and farmers in cotton sarongs work in the lazy afternoon sun as the sound of motorboat engines mixes sleepily with the breeze.
But despite the idyllic setting, the region has plenty of political issues to address in the election, India's second in as many years. Voting in all but two constituencies are spread between February 16 and March 7.
Kerala state authorities have tried to develop Kuttanad as a holiday destination marked by rented houseboats and herbal body massages.
But its citizens say a more pressing priority is clean drinking water, which, despite the excess of water all around, is scarce. Health care facilities are also in short supply.
In fact, government efforts to boost tourism and agriculture have even exacerbated some of the region's problems, many residents say.
Villagers are used to drinking water from upland rivers in the region except during the monsoon season, when sea waters enter the area.
But local villagers say the tourist houseboats pollute their waters with plastic garbage and human excrement.
"As a result we get diarrhoea and itches," said rice farmer Scaria Joseph.
"Houseboats come and anchor at night near our villages. They do all sorts of things and we get diseases," says Puduveedu Sugunanandan. "We can't drink this water any more."
Officials say the use of pesticides to boost paddy crops has contributed to the water contamination. District authorities in Alappuzha send 10 boats carrying 3,000 litres of drinking water daily to the region, but its citizens say the water does not reach everybody.
"Drinking water is a major problem, especially in Kuttanad," admitted C.S. Sujatha, the Alappuzha candidate for the Communist Party of India-Marxist, which rules Kerala state.
The state government was trying to bring clean river water to the region, but needed funds and time, Sujatha said.
"The pumping capacity does not exist. We need a proper system to bring drinking water, whereas people think it is simply a matter of building pipelines," she added.
As for health care, authorities send doctors and mobile clinics to the villages, but regular medical help is not easy to establish.
"Doctors are reluctant to work in Kuttanad," Sujatha said.
The area's uniqueness has been a draw for tourists, but Sujatha said this uniqueness also brought with it peculiar problems which were not easy to solve.
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