While global climate change has triggered heavy rainfall in Kerala, environmentalists say man-made activities have worsened its aftermath.
“If we look at the places where the landslides have happened in this rainy season, it’s all in ecologically sensitive areas where greedy men were involved in construction activities have flouted all norms,” V Madhusoodhnan IAS (retd), who has written a detailed book on Kerala’s environmental history, told The News Minute.
“And if we look at cities in the state that have been totally flooded, we can see that either these cities were built or have been expanded on levelled farmlands, blocking the normal waterways,” he added.
Madhusoodhnan, who is also the founder director general of the World Institute of Sustainable Energy headquartered in Pune, said that experts should give serious thought after the rains subside to whether we should continue this model of development at the risk of damaging the environment.
“Resorts are built on hilltops and skyscrapers are built on the banks of rivers and lakes. Most of the time, norms to protect the environment are violated. Take the current flooding in Kalady, the buildings which are inundated with flood waters were built on farmlands. So, why should we be surprised to see and hear that flood waters have caused damage? We are the people behind this aftermath,” Madhusoodhnan added.
Worst since 1924
Kerala is experiencing its worst floods in a century, more precisely since 1924. Currently, people in the state fear a repeat of what was known as ‘the Great Flood of 99’. This is a reference to Malayalam Era 1099 which corresponds to 1924 in the Gregorian calendar.
Records reveal that a total of 3,368 mm rainfall was received during three continuous weeks and most parts of the state were submerged then. The Periyar river had submerged Thrissur, Ernakulam, Idukki, Kottayam and Alappuzha. This monsoon it hasn’t poured as much as 1924. However, currently, Thrissur, Ernakulam, Idukki, Kottayam and Alappuzha are submerged like they were in 1924.
According to the meteorological department, the cumulative rainfall in Kerala the from southwest monsoon between this June 1 and August 15 was 2,087.67 mm, a departure of nearly 30% from the normal 1,606.05 mm rainfall.
And for the first time in its history, Asia’s largest arch dam, the Idukki dam, had to open all its five shutters because of the incessant rain, and at one point 800,000 litres of water per second poured out of the dam, inundating places downstream.
With a couple of weeks of active monsoon still left to go, people fear that the 1924 record might be breached.
Meanwhile, according to data from the Kerala government, 256 people have been killed and lakhs displaced since the monsoons set in on May 29. According to the Kerala State Disaster Management (KSDMA) data sheet, between August 8 and 16, 75 people have died due to rain-related accidents.
“In the eight days, the loss estimated is around Rs 11.82 crore and the crop loss is estimated at around Rs 55.18 crore,” the data sheet reveals.
T Gangadharan, state president of the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad, said that if buildings are constructed on land where water must drain, this is bound to happen.
“I agree that there is a climate change factor behind the heavy rains. But the worsened aftermath is only because of us. We have a skewed development policy. In the name of that development, we had hurt nature. We constructed buildings and blocked waterways illogically. We thought that there will be no backlash. But this rain has taught us a big lesson,” Gangadharan said.
“We ignored the importance of wetlands. We ignored the sensitivity of ecologically fragile land. And in cities, we built buildings on levelled farmlands. Now, where will the water drain? So, floods are not surprising,” he added.
Last week, talking to the media, environmental scientist Madhav Gadgil had said that the floods that hit Kerala were to be expected.
He asserted that if the Gadgil Committee Report for the protection of the Western Ghats had been implemented, the natural disasters could have been tackled easily.
“The situation in Kerala is really worrying. Such heavy rains are hitting the state. But this is a man-made disaster in the monsoon. It happens not only because of the rains but due to the unviable use of land and soil. We had given detailed guidelines. It was recommended that we protect the natural resources with the approval of local self-governing bodies. But nothing was realised,” Gadgil was quoted by the media as saying.
The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), also known as the Gadgil Commission after its chairman Madhav Gadgil, was an environmental research commission appointed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests of India.
The commission submitted its report to the Government of India on August 31, 2011. The expert panel approached the project through a set of tasks, such as compilation of readily available information about Western Ghats, development of geo-spatial database based on environmental sensitivity, and consultation with government bodies and civil society groups.
However, people in Kerala, especially certain Christian organisations, strongly protested the implementation of the report since most of the farmers in the hilly regions are Christians, especially in Wayanad.
During the 20th century, a very large number of Christians had migrated from southern Kerala and acquired land in Wayanad and other areas with abundant forest and waste land, in what is known as the Malabar Migration.
The Gagdil Committee report was criticised for being excessively environment-friendly and not in tune with the ground realities.
Time for retrospection
Commenting on the impact of the rains and ensuing damage, advocate Susheela Bhatt, former government pleader, said it was time for us to reflect.
“I fought for preserving mother nature when I was overseeing Munnar officially. But nobody took it seriously. After seeing this rain havoc, I think it’s high time to be retrospective,” she said.
Following the heavy rains and landslides, Munnar is cut off from other areas.
Just last month, the government had disbanded the Munnar Special Tribunal, set up in 2011 by the then chief minister VS Achuthanandan to settle the controversial land disputes and encroachments in Munnar.
Talking to TNM then, the former government pleader had said that disbanding the tribunal would give land grabbers a free run.
Socialist Unity Centre of India leader M Shajir Khan said that the havoc was caused only because we ignored the Gadgil and a watered-down Kasturirangan report.
“We allowed encroachments. We allowed deforestation. We allowed excessive quarrying. We kneeled and crawled in front of the land grabbing mafia. And eventually, we are suffering now. They built resorts on ecologically fragile land. They mined tonnes of rocks from ecologically fragile lands. They built skyscrapers on wetlands. And now the entire state is sinking. We are paying the price for our ineffectiveness in stopping the greedy land grabbers,” Shajir said.
“People-inclusive nature protection is not happening here. The public must utilise their democratic rights,” he added.
Amendments and uncontrolled quarrying
Meanwhile, Dr M Kamarudeen, a biodiversity management expert, said that this government has given a free run to quarry lobbies for construction on wetlands.
“Recently, the government had amended the Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act, 2008, diluting its original intention. As per the new version, if anybody wants to build a house on a paddy land, then there are a lot of hiccups. But if it is a corporate project, then there are no issues,” Kamarudeen said.
“The amendment is encouraging large-scale land reclamation, causing environmental degradation and groundwater depletion. Though the bill states that paddy fields and wetlands will be reclaimed only for ‘projects that benefit the public’, it does not provide a clear definition of such a project,” he said, adding that such amendments have worsened the situation in the state following the rains.
“According to a study, Kerala has about 6,000 quarries. The use of explosives to blast rock in quarries causes rapid landscape changes leading to landsides. Quarrying and construction should not be allowed in landslide-prone areas. Not only the Western Ghats, but also the estuarine mangroves should be preserved to minimise natural calamities,” the expert added.
As of writing this report, about 33 state dams continue to be open for the second consecutive day and more than 2 lakh people are reportedly in relief camps. And the death toll rose to 86.
Jason Nicholls, a senior meteorologist and international forecasting manager at AccuWeather, tweeted that the depression will bring heavy rains to Maharashtra including Mumbai, south Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and south-east Rajasthan through Friday.
“Heavy rains in coastal Karnataka and Kerala finally ease this weekend. Another low will spread rain, some heavy, westward across North and Central India next week,” his tweet added.