Over 500 people have been killed in natural disasters in Kerala within a span of a year. Exactly 12 months after Kerala witnessed its worst flood in a century in August 2018, where 433 people were killed, the state has been hit by another natural calamity that has claimed more than a hundred lives so far.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who had blamed the extreme rainfall for last year’s devastation has admitted that most of the destruction this year was due to landslides.
The disaster has once again reopened discussions over the rampant exploitation of the Western Ghats by the various quarrying and construction companies for extracting minerals. Although, the state government has ordered suspension of quarrying in certain areas following the floods, experts say that such knee-jerk reactions at the time of a calamity is not a solution to the existing crisis. Policymakers and scientists, who had urged the government to evacuate people from vulnerable areas, emphasised that the state should have acted more proactively when it came to the conservation and protection of the environment.
As per the official data given by the Kerala government on Friday morning, 108 people have been killed due to severe floods and landslides. And according to TV Sajeev, a principal scientist at the Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI), around 45 of the total deaths as of Wednesday were caused due to landslides which had occurred in 31 locations across the districts of Wayanad, Kozhikode, Malappuram, Palakkad and Idukki.
In a matter of less than a week, Wayanad district witnessed 10 landslides, there were 23 minor landslides in Palakkad, 11 landslides in Malappuram and 13 landslides in Idukki.
Quarrying in Ecologically Sensitive Zones
Speaking to TNM, Sajeev says that there are two factors that leads to landslides - triggering factors and the co-operative factors. “The triggering factor in this case is obviously the heavy rainfall and one of the major co-operative factors that lead to the landslides is quarrying,” he states.
In research conducted by Sajeev for the KFRI, it was found that 25 out of the 31 locations which experienced landslides came under the Ecologically Sensitive Zones (ESZ), identified by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) in 2011.
The WGEEP led by ecologist Madhav Gadgil had recommended designating the entire Western Ghats spanning the six states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat as an Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA). It further graded the area into three levels - Regions of highest sensitivity or Ecologically Sensitive Zone 1 (ESZ1), regions of high sensitivity or ESZ2, and the remaining as regions of moderate sensitivity or ESZ3. The Gadgil report, as it is popularly known as, recommended strict regulation on development activities including quarrying, mining and infrastructure projects such as roads, railways lines.
“The present disaster has proved that Madhav Gadgil was right. Our government including the Kerala CM is not bothered about the scientific aspect of the Gadgil report,” says a former senior official of the Geological Survey of India (GSI), who does not wish to be named. He lashed out at the state government alleging it receives monetary benefits from quarry companies for allowing them to quarry more area than what is necessary. “In paper, the lease will be given only for a small area but these companies will go ahead and quarry in more areas causing geological instability which causes landslides,” he alleges.
Kavalappara in Malappuram district, which witnessed one of the biggest landslides where more than 58 people lost their lives, is situated in regions of moderate sensitivity or ESZ 3. A map prepared by the Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI) map shows that 21 quarries operate within a radius of five to 10 km of Kavalappara. Sajeev’s study further says that there are around 803 quarries located near these 25 ESZs, which had witnessed landslides.
In fact, Kavalappara also fell within the Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA) of the High Level Working Group (HLWG). The HLWG led by Planning Commission member and astrophysicist K Kasturirangan was set up by the UPA government after the six states including Kerala rejected the Gadgil report. Then Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy of the Congress had called the Gadgil report impractical to implement, given the restrictions on human activities.
In 2013, the HLWG submitted a watered down version of the Gadgil report, proposing that only 37% or 59,940 sq km of the Western Ghats be classified as Ecologically Sensitive Areas. In Kerala, the Kasturirangan report, as it came to be known, recommended that 123 villages or 13,108 sq km be demarcated as ESA. In these areas, the Kasturirangan report recommended a complete ban on mining, quarrying, sand mining and thermal power projects.
Even by the diluted standard of the Kasturirangan report, 15 out of the 31 locations that witnessed landslides this year were classified as ESAs.
But just like the Gadgil report, the Kasturirangan report also remains only on paper, with states including Kerala refusing to implement its recommendations, demanding a further reduction in the ESA. In 2014, the UPA government had issued a draft notification, whereby 9993.7 sq km in Kerala would be classified as Ecologically Sensitive Area, a reduction of 3114.3 sq km of the Kasturirangan’s report. Meanwhile, five years on and the final notification to declare the ESA of the Western Ghats is yet to be announced by the Union Environment Ministry.
Environmental norms for mining diluted under Pinarayi
But perhaps what’s equally alarming is that since the Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF government came to power in Kerala in 2016, it has severely diluted environmental regulations for mining and quarrying.
In June 2017, it brought in a major amendment to the Kerala Minor Mineral Concession Rules, 2015, as far as permissible limits for quarrying operations were concerned. The new amendment brought in by the Pinarayi government made no distinction between quarrying using explosives and quarrying without using explosives. It further reduced the minimum permissible distance limit from 100 metres to 50 metres from residential buildings, reservoirs, tanks, canals, rivers, bridges, and other public works.
“Quarries are functioning in 50-meter distance from habitats, which are like next door,” says Sridhar Radhakrishnan, an activist, who goes on to observe, “Kerala is land-locked between the rich and resourceful Lakshadweep Sea and the Western Ghats. Even within this small stretch of cultural land are 44 rivers, wetlands and backwaters across the state, and a full length coast, with beaches. Almost all the districts in the state, are being ruthlessly mined for stones and granites, and in many places even for mud and small rocks.”
In February 2018, the state government brought in another amendment to the Kerala Minor Mineral Concession (KMMC) Rules, 2015. This time it scrapped the No Objection Certification (NOC) required from the District Collector for the mining of sand and clay, thereby easing the rules for acquiring licenses.
The relaxation of rules was being done at a time when the state recorded a total of 20,821 illegal cases of mining between 2011-16 as against the 11,059 quarrying permits granted by the state legally.
Dr KG Thara, the former head of the State Disaster Management Authority says that it’s time the state government tightens its quarrying policy. “Most of these granites are extracted to build houses. We first need to ask why and for whom we are building a house for. Is it for someone who really needs a roof above their head or is it for someone’s third or fourth house?” she asks, adding that the government should come up with measures to curtail the number of houses that are constructed by a person.
Thara says that when it comes to environmental issues, one cannot look at it from an investment point of view. “The construction industry is one of the major industries in India. By giving tax reductions for housing loans, the government is facilitating the construction of more homes. This policy should also be tweaked a bit,” she says. The former head of SDMA also adds that the government should be pressured to change the structure of the policies keeping in view the environment.
The Kerala State Disaster Management Authority (KSDMA), meanwhile, states that post the 2018 floods, 1800 houses across the state were identified as being located in vulnerable areas.
Mapping of Kerala’s vulnerable areas, however, began much before the 2018 floods. In 2009, the National Centre for Earth Science Studies (NCESS), came out with a vulnerability map.
“The areas where landslides occurred this time comes in the vulnerability map prepared by NCESS in 2009. Based on the map we have done field-based studies in which also both Kavalappara and Meppadi were covered,” says Dr V Nandakumar, Scientist and Group Head Crustal Processes, NCESS. He, however, admits that the 2009 map had its own limitations including that it was made in a small-scale.
And while NCESS is now in the process of updating its vulnerability map, Dr V Nandakumar is clear on what the government needs to do going forward. “Quarrying has to be regulated. And there should be mega quarry concept of having one quarry for three districts. We can identify the area where quarries can operate,” he suggests. The scientist also says, “People should move to safer places though they can continue cultivation there and the government should put boards in those areas to caution people.”