In Idukki, Viju met Bhaskaran, who felt that ‘something really bad was going to happen’, days before the floods in Kerala would begin its destructive journey in 2018. In Chalakudy, he met Girija Karimbayan who knew the unwritten rules of the forest: if you break a teak branch, you not only destroy its leaves but the flowers and seeds that would perhaps grow into a thousand trees in the mountains. In Palakkad, Viju spoke to Choriyan Moopan, as his wife Rami sang an old folk song:
Trees depend on mud,
Branches depend on trees,
Leaves depend on branches,
Buds depend on leaves,
Flowers depend on f buds,
Fruits depend on flowers,
Animals depend on fruits,
Human beings depend on all.
Viju B, author of many beautifully-written columns on the Malayalam Media page of Kerala’s Times of India, had taken a few months leave to travel from Kerala to Coorg, Goa and Maharashtra -- places touched, hurt and havocked by the floods last year, to write his book: Flood and Fury.
Like he does for his newspaper stories, Viju takes care to invite the reader into his story with a charming introduction – in this case, a song in every chapter. He does not dive into facts and figures and an explanation of what went wrong but takes you through a little history, some culture and a few sensitivities of every flood-affected place. And then he tells you of the mistakes made.
“To get the readers’ attention is the biggest challenge writers are facing these days, especially if the subject is not exciting as a crime thriller. In fact, every chapter of my book starts with a tribal or folk song and attempts to lead the reader unknowingly into the story and by the time he reaches the drier, data part in the chapter, he would be forced to continue reading as his interest would be have been kindled. Almost each chapter begins on a positive note, a celebration of life or for that matter with an expectation of a propitious event, rather than just talk about a sob-victim story,” Viju writes in an email interview.
The idea is of course to engage people, to begin a discussion of what can be corrected to avoid a recurrence. Viju realised that the mainstream media was only talking of two reasons for the cause of floods: the immense rainfall and the delay in opening the shutters of dams. Blames were thrown back and forth: the government blaming the MET department, the opposition blaming the government. Viju felt we were missing the bigger picture. “The ecological destruction of Western Ghats region and the impact of climate that is occurring here. I also felt that though we have brilliant academic research oriented reports on Western Ghats region, the human narrative was missing in these reports and I felt I need to bridge this gap.”
He prefers to call the Western Ghats by its original name Sahayadri, meaning benevolent mountains, and not the British given ‘artless’ name. “The book speaks of multiple narratives that is weaved through the lives of numerous characters living in Sahyadri’s bosom, who pursue their aspirations, many a time cocooned in their prejudices, insecurities, faith and greed, while a very few protect her lifelines (rivers and forests) for posterity,” he writes.
Climate change and recurrence of flood
Viju refers in his book, to dates as late as June 2019, days before Kerala saw another wrath of the rains. Flood and Fury has in that way become prophetic, for Viju had predicted that Wayanad – one of the worst affected this year – would face the brunt of climate change. “Several studies conducted by various research agencies in the last decade showed that Wayanad is at tipping point, which can be mitigated only through protection of the remaining forest cover. The data with Indian Meteorological Department showed that the density of rainfall in Wayanad was shown a decreasing trend in the four-year period between 2013 and 2017,” he notes.
Another detailed study, done over 28 years, by researchers Danesh Kumar and Pavan Srinath, showed that the number of days receiving very high or very low rainfall was increasing. And there were fewer days receiving moderate rainfall. Climate change. More symptoms followed: minimum temperatures rose, weak rains in the early phase of monsoon, frequent days of heavy rainfall. And in turn, climate change would increase the strength and frequency of these extreme weather conditions like drought or flood. Viju reckons that’s what happened in Nilambur and Wayanad this year – the districts hit by landslides.
For those still finding it hard to believe climate change is real, Viju points out the Kerala State Action Plan on Climate Change report. Between 1984 and 2009, maximum temperature of the high ranges in Kerala has increased by 1.46 degree Celsius. The Indian Network for Climate Change Assessment too pointed this out: “reduced rainfall, increased atmospheric temperature and flooding due to sea-level rise are climate-change scenarios for the Western Ghats and Kerala in the next twenty years.”
Viju says it is time we realised that “climate change has become a reality and like cancer it is going eat the resources of the earth away.”
He tells you how to slow it down: “Only through preserving the forests and rivers that provide sustenance to life. It is only by stopping quarrying and mining at the sources where rivers originate. It is shocking that 50% of the quarries in Kerala today are operating in the areas demarcated by the Western Ghats Experts Ecology Panel’s Ecologically Sensitive Zones 1 and 2 region.”
Quarrying and mining
Only days after the second occurrence of flood and landslides, the government lifted the ban on quarrying and mining, identified as one of the major causes of both. Viju was hoping that after last year’s floods, the government would come up with a quarry and landslide audit. “Instead we have opened up the quarries again. The quarries are now allowed to function 50 meters away from residential areas. If any politicians of Kerala say quarries and mines do not create any ecological problem, they should be taken for a study tour to Goa.”
Goa, also covered in the book, is one of the places whose destruction shocked him the most. “To see that the government of Goa allowed an area of 700 square kilometers, which is more than the island city of Mumbai to be mined, destroying hundreds of hectares of forest and streams that originated from Western Ghats. What is even more shocking is around 89 percent of the ore was exported to China and 9 percent went to Japan.”
He saw in Bicholum taluk, known as the mining belt of Goa, unemployed farmers everywhere, as their paddy fields were destroyed by slush from the mine pits. There was a huge scarcity of drinking water and the wells had gone dry. “Youngsters, who were earlier tipper lorry drivers for mining firms, now remain unemployed as they developed no other skill sets.”
It happens – it keeps happening – because of the huge money involved, Viju says. “An average mine/ quarry owner makes Rs 800- 2000 crore, and many quarry owners never stop quarrying and always exceed the permitted area. Now if you bribe the local panchayat / grama sabha even with a few lakhs of rupees they will remain silent and then once the quarrying begins it is like a monster. Then even if the panchayat wants to stop it, it will not be possible.”
Kerala today has an average of six quarries in every panchayat and it is high time we do an audit of quarries, Viju adds. “The CAG report said the number of quarries that came up in the period of 2011- 2016 increased by five times, and there was also a five- fold increase in number of illegal cases registered.”
There is politics in Viju’s book. But it is not the blame game you see on television debates. The aim of the book was not to find faults but to fix it. “I feel there is deep–rooted politics in my book, but I was clear from the very beginning it will not stand out and would be said through the stories of the most marginalised communities living in Western Ghats region,” he says.
In the Kuttanad chapter, you can glimpse the evolution of the peasant movement and how it has not made much of a difference to the Kuttanad farmer even now. In the Wayanad chapter Viju narrates the relatively unknown slave trade of tribals in Wayanad that flourished till 1975, even after the communist party came into power. “The politics I speak is undoubtedly about sustainable green politics, uplifting the lives of the most backward communities in the state. We know how struggles like Muthaga and Chengara agitation for the landless people never reached anywhere. It is not enough just to provide lands, but we need to find sustainable means of livelihood, especially when climate change is going to impact the coastal community and the tribal community, who would be in the first line of impact.”
Gadgil / Kasturirangan reports
At several places in the book, Viju refers to the Western Ghats Expert Ecology Panel submitted by environmentalist Madhav Gadgil. When it was submitted to the Government of India in 2011, Viju had been planning another book, on the ecological devastation in Western Ghats. But the report has given him hope and he dropped the idea. “Unfortunately, the WGEEP report was rejected by all the six state governments through which the 1,600 kilometer long mountain ranges passed and we lost a golden opportunity to protect this region’s precious resources,” he laments.
It is after that the environment ministry asked a panel led by former ISRO chairman K Kasturirangan to undertake a resurvey and submit another report. This second report reduced the area to be protected (from the Gadgil report) by identifying only 37 per cent of the Western Ghats as ESZ.
Viju finds the second report that categorized the Western Ghats into two (in place of three categories in the Gadgil report) less effective. “The only common point that both the Gadgil and the Kasturirangan reports had was a ban on mining, quarrying and sand mining, as also thermal power plants and red category of industries in ESAs. Interestingly, the Gadgil report had allowed mining in ESZ-3 with strict social audit. If you compare both reports, Gadgil ‘s WGEEP report is far more scientific, rooted to ecology and micro-habitats of the region.”
There’s a lot to be done. After last year’s flood, apart from the construction of homes for those who have lost it and providing compensation to survivors, the government has not come up with a comprehensive plan, Viju says. “They still have not set up a flood monitoring or weather forecasting system even after a year. The government has not thought of cleaning up the silt in the dams, nor of regenerating our denuded rivers. They have not conducted a precise landslide audit till date.”
It is not just the government, the people could help too. “We need to create a huge awareness about Western Ghats and envisage a mass movement like the literacy movement. The need of the hour is ecological literacy, as our lives are at stake. We should begin this awareness campaign at all schools and colleges. Currently, our children, and even elders, are aware about Himalayas and the Ganga, but we do not know have a clue about our own local rivers and mountains and this ignorance has been exploited by vested interests.”
He adds: “In the era of social media, the people should come together on a common platform and push for a green initiative. We need to have a strong green lobby, like the one we have in Europe so that we can bring in a paradigm shift in the developmental model from coinages like ‘’Rebuild Kerala’’ to “Regenerate Kerala.” We need to move out from the exploitative, commercial model that the Britishers taught us, which we bettered for our own selfish gains, to a more sustainable model so that these 150 million years old eco-system, that is the Western Ghats, which sustains the lives of 25 million people, remains protected.”