From the SilverLine rail project to a green airport for Sabarimala pilgrims, the Kerala government has been pushing many controversial infrastructure projects in vulnerable regions of Western Ghats, without assessing the human and environmental costs.

An earthmover dredging mineral sand along a coastal region at Thottappally in Alapuzha district of Kerala.KAShaji/SplArrangement
news Environment Thursday, October 21, 2021 - 15:13

“Rainfall is the natural trigger, but the severity of the outcome is entirely man-made,” eminent environmentalist Madhav Gadgil had highlighted in the report by Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), which he had headed and submitted to the Indian government in 2011. The Gadgil report had then recommended preserving the frail Western Ghats, which traverse through states such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra. However, the recommendations remain unimplemented, even while massive landslides and flash floods have turned into an annual phenomenon in Kerala over the past four years.

Many survivors have found this the new normal, so much so that some have already started looking for resilient and mitigating measures. For instance, in Alappuzha’s Kuttanad, several residents have started constructing houses on substantial concrete pillars to survive the massive flow of floodwater.

The state government, however, seems to have learnt no lesson from these annual floods and landslides since 2018, which is still regarded as the flood of the century. One could argue that extreme weather events propelled by global climate change might have triggered these episodes of natural disasters. However, climate experts believe that unscientific and indiscriminate human interventions in the ecologically sensitive areas of Kerala are equally critical factors that have aggravated the tragedies, claiming scores of lives since the 2018 floods. This year’s landslides and rain-related events since mid-October have claimed 42 lives so far in Kerala.

Unfortunately, discussions on human interference come up only when calamities strike. On its part, the state's political leadership across the spectrum had conveniently neglected early warnings of the unfolding disasters. The state has remained indifferent even when the rain calendar changed altogether in recent years. Kerala has even ignored the advice of environmentalist Madhav Gadgil and various studies that suggested an alternative development path for the state, which could help address climate change effectively, apart from protecting life and livelihood.

What is even more worrying is that the state government has been pushing many controversial infrastructure projects in vulnerable locations without assessing the human and environmental costs.

Projects that spell environmental disasters

Here are some examples of controversial activities and infrastructure projects in Kerala’s pipeline that pose a threat to the ecologically fragile Western Ghats.

1) Manimala and Erumeli, two villages in the Kottayam district of Kerala, were inundated in neck-deep water for three days on October 15, 2021. These villages constitute the proposed new greenfield airport, which is being promoted as something beneficial to the annual pilgrims to Sabarimala, the abode of forest god Ayyappa. Despite expert committee reports (the Gadgil and Kasturirangan reports), the Kerala government has pushed the airport project in this ecologically fragile portion of the Western Ghats.

2) This year's tragedies unfolded a few months after the Kerala cabinet accorded the green light to the SilverLine rail project, a multi-crore semi high-speed rail corridor between Kasaragod and Thiruvananthapuram. This project, if it materialises, would be a substantial hydrological disaster with enormous ecological and social costs. This rail corridor alone requires 1,383 hectares of land, including large tracts of wetlands, forest areas, backwater regions, residential areas with a high density of population, rice fields, and existing building spaces. Its construction involves large-scale reclamation of wetlands, lakes, low-lying areas and floodplains, which will prevent the flow of floodwater and adversely affect its easy discharge.

3) Similarly, earlier this month, the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) decided not to go ahead with the controversial Athirapally hydroelectric power project on the Chalakkudy river basin in Thrissur district, citing the lack of consensus over its implementation. The residents in the forest areas said they feared inundation if such a construction were to take place. However, the state government soon claimed that the project would not be abandoned just yet and it would do its best to ensure its implementation. Earlier this week, Chalakudy, the river on which the dam is proposed, witnessed water levels rising, and subsequent flooding in four villages and other adjoining areas. In 2019-2020, the government also lifted a lengthy blanket ban on granite quarrying.

4) Disregarding the concerns raised by conservationists for many years, the government is also pushing a 1251-kilometre-long hill highway that will traverse through some of the highly vulnerable regions of the Western Ghats. It will pass through 13 of the 14 districts of the state. The road will start from Nandarappadavu in Kasaragod district and end at Parassala in Thiruvananthapuram. Although the Rs 3,500 crore project was proposed in 2017, the work was stalled several times. It is expected to begin soon, despite the damages sustained by the Western Ghats in the latest round of natural calamities.

5) Another extensive infrastructure now under active consideration of the state government is the proposed coastal highway, which would run across a length of 656 kilometres. Though the devastating cyclones and floods have relentlessly battered the coastal regions, the state government is firm on constructing the road that will begin from Poovar in Thiruvananthapuram district and end at Kunjathoor in Kasaragod.

6) Another project in the pipeline for the Kerala government is the proposed tunnel road between Wayanad and Kozhikode, which is the third-largest in the country. However, this project would also spell an environmental disaster if implemented. Environmentalists pointed out that the project could threaten the biodiversity of the Western Ghats region and the elephant corridors.

Activities threatening environment

In April 2020, the state government allegedly gave permission to a private company to quarry and transport sand from the Pamba river, which is surrounded by the Western Ghats on the east. However, it was stopped a month after the work started in June 2020, due to strong public protests. Sand is integral to the river ecosystem, critical for the continuous flow of water and for the sustenance of aquatic life. If there is massive accumulation, rivers have their own instinctive ways of adapting to the development. However, in this instance, the Kerala government claimed that it decided to remove it because of the over-depositing of sand and as part of the disaster management efforts following the 2018 floods.

In central and coastal regions of Kerala, reclamation of wetland regions, conversion of rice fields and alteration of flood plains are the most widely visible reasons for flooding. Many areas remain waterlogged for several weeks when it rains. A prominent example is the Cochin International Airport, which was constructed years ago by reclaiming low-lying paddy fields.

A few months after the airport had bagged the prestigious environmental award, 'Champion of Earth Prize 2018,' conferred by the United Nations, for its operations based on solar power, the panels installed on reclaimed wetlands and former paddy fields were submerged in rainwater. The airport is still facing continuous flood threats. It is located just 400 metres from the mighty Periyar, the longest river in the state with an enormous discharge potential. It is not unusual for runways to get flooded and for airports to remain closed during heavy rains. But what happens at the Cochin airport is an example of a river attempting to recapture its floodplains.

According to environmentalist Sreedhar Radhakrishnan, the hilly regions of Kerala are witnessing extreme weather events because of the higher economic activities in the region, including rock quarrying, construction of new buildings and roads and destruction of natural forests. The state has 5,924 active stone quarries and crushers, but only 750 have the mandatory official permission from the Mining and Geology Department. As per rules, those functioning without permission are illegal quarries.

Even as per the statistics of the state government, Kerala had witnessed 115 large-scale landslides between 1983 and 2015. Seventy-eight of them occurred in areas where stone quarries were functioning within a one-kilometre radius. Typically, quarries are developed by removing the soil at the surface level. Such a process would affect the natural absorption of water into the soil, causing mudslides and landslides. In August 2020, the Kerala Assembly's panel on environmental affairs had suggested a comprehensive mining policy that strictly adheres to guidelines issued by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) and the Supreme Court. In the place of the existing practice of issuing quarry operation licenses to individuals, quarries must be brought under strict government control, the panel said. However, the government is yet to reveal its decision on the proposal.

In July 2015, the state exempted four villages in Kottayam district —  Poonjar Thekkekara, Theekoy, Koottickal and Melukavu —  from ecologically sensitive areas (ESAs), as classified by the Kasturirangan committee on the Western Ghats. These villages, which witnessed indiscriminate human interference in the last four years, had witnessed extreme floods and landslides in the latest weather events.

Soon after the 2018 floods, the state government announced a Rebuild Kerala Initiative, which included eco-friendly building strategies, giving more room for rivers, learning to live with floods etc. However, nothing significant has happened in that direction so far.

In Vizhinjam, south of capital city Thiruvananthapuram, construction of the Rs 7,525 crore deepwater multipurpose seaport project, has been consequentially impacting the marine ecology and livelihood of the fishermen. The Vizhinjam International Seaport Limited (VISL), which is fully owned by the Kerala government, signed the contract with Adani Vizhinjam Port Private Limited to carry out the project. Indiscriminate mining of mineral sands from the Kollam and Alappuzha coasts is another issue that endangers the state's environmental balance.

Regulate indiscriminate activities

In the face of recurring instances of climate-related environmental disasters, experts say that indiscriminate construction works, deforestation and excessive quarrying in the Western Ghats region must be regulated immediately as they would further damage the stability of the already fragile hilly regions.

It is high time that Kerala acts on its long-awaited but promised comprehensive land use policy to avoid further fragmentation of its environmentally sensitive regions. Also, it has to adopt a climate-resilient construction style apart from a profound rethinking of the feasibility of infrastructure projects that come with high environmental and social costs. It needs to protect its wetlands, hills, lakes, rivers and backwaters for managing future climate events. The emphasis must be on the environment, water conservation, climate resilience, sustainable agriculture and judicious use of resources.

KA Shaji is a Thiruvananthapuram-based journalist who writes on human rights, environment, livelihood, caste and marginalised communities.

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