Among the worst hit are coracle riders, people involved in massage jobs, women preparing fresh water fish, hotels and lodges and road side vendors. Most of them belong to the Siviyar Naiker (fishermen) community. Unable to manage their households anymore, a few families made a representation to the government seeking financial help until water starts flowing in the river and revives tourism. A few have temporarily moved to Bengaluru, Chennai and Coimbatore in search of alternative jobs.
Earlier, a few hundred tourists would throng the falls even during the off season and their number would swell to a few thousands during the weekends. Tourism season starts from March to October and is at its peak from April to June. On an average, 20,000 people would visit the falls daily. Most of them belonged to Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Kerala. Foreign tourists, including those from north India, would also visit Hogenakkal. They would throng the place to enjoy a coracle ride, indulge in oil massage on the banks of the river and tickle their taste buds with the famous fish curries and fish fry. Now, their number has drastically reduced to 100 or 150, even during weekends, due to unavailability of water.
“Tourists would flock the place even during floods when the falls would be officially closed just to enjoy nature’s beauty. But now they come to see how dry this place is,” M. Rajesh (65), a local resident, claimed, adding, that the water level has never gone down to this extent and this is the worst summer they have witnessed in over six decades.
Masseurs, cooks, hotels too feel the heat
While coracle riders have been affected over the last two months, business has gone dry for people in massage parlours as well. “Water is very important for us as customers should have adequate amount of it for a bath after an oil massage. We are finding it difficult to get even a single customer now,” said M. Eswaran, president of Abdul Kalam Massage Workers Welfare Association.
There are over 400 government licensed masseurs, including 60 women, at Hogenakkal. Each person would offer service to over 10 people a day based on the flow of tourists, but they are sitting idle now. There are over 400 women in the eatery business. Take for example, Padma Pachaiyappan (36), who is considered a connoisseur of the various fish found in the region. “Most of the women are sisters or wives of the fishermen and coracle riders. We have not had business since the drought,” Padma Pachaiyappan said. The 250 roadside shops and 36 lodges at Hogenakkal have also gone out of business. D. Sahadevan, the manager of a prominent lodge with 40 rooms, said that they are struggling to get even two rooms booked despite fixing rates at par with off season fares.
No more coracle rides?
Coracle rides have become synonymous with Hogenakkal. Its history dates back to the mid-1950s when three riders set out on a new venture. “My father A. Madhavan was one among them. In those days, only VIPs, film stars and government officials came here for coracle rides,” said M. Kempuraj (52), president of the coracle riders association.
Former Chief Ministers M.G. Ramachandran and J. Jayalalithaa gave a boost to Hogenakkal tourism during their heydays as actors. It was after their shooting for ‘Adimai Penn’ in 1969 that the place gained popularity. Now there are 416 licensed coracle riders. Half of them take turns on alternative days to report for work.
Basically, the ride is taken out in three routes based on the water flow. “When it is less than 8,000 cusecs it starts from Mamarathukadavu. When it is between 8,000 and 20,000 cusecs, we ride from Oothamalai and when the flow is between 20,000 cusecs and 60,000 cusecs, we ride on the still waters at Kothikal,” Kempuraj told DTNext. Normally, the ride lasts 80 to 90 minutes and a tourist is charged Rs 150 for it. Four people can ride a coracle at a time.
“But the rider who takes tourists on his boat does not get the full amount. The collection for the day is equally divided among coracle riders on duty,” he said. In all, each coracle rider earns anywhere between Rs 200 and Rs 300 a day. During weekends and peak season, they even make Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,000 a day. However, the riders now claim that they get a chance to ride only once in seven to 10 days and their earning has been reduced to less than Rs 100 a day.