Swathed in mist, the hills of Wayanad were once pristine and unspoilt, covered by evergreen forests and lime-green paddy fields. Today, as the grey mist parts, concrete and steel mushroom where dense foliage once stood. The bustling tourism in Wayanad has given rise to rampant construction as resorts, lodges and holiday homes have come up in Kerala’s hill district.
In the wake of natural disasters like Uttarakhand in 2013, the landslides in Pune in 2014 and the devastating earthquake in Nepal in 2015, Keshvendra Kumar, Wayanad District Collector imposed restrictions on the construction of high-rises in the hill district in June last year. The Collector, who also serves as the Chairperson of the District Disaster Management Authority (DDMA) noted,
“…high rise buildings are posing threat to environmental sustainability of Wayanad district. It is a cause of environmental degradation. Presence of high rise buildings in a high altitude landscape can cause landslides and earthquakes. The threat is serious and devastating as it will cause destruction of human life, flora and fauna along with the collapse of surrounding landscape, in case of a landslide or earthquake.”
Issuing an order under the Disaster Management Act, the then District Collector Keshvendra Kumar restricted the height of buildings in municipality areas to 15 metres (maximum of five floors), the environmentally sensitive Lakkidi area of Vythiri to 8 metres (two floors) and other areas in the district to 10 metres (three floors).
The order raised the heckles of builders and political parties, who demanded a rollback. Months later, in November 2015, the UDF-led Kerala government passed an order lifting the restrictions, while two businessmen, who were constructing buildings at Lakidi town in Wayanad approached the High Court seeking a rollback of the curbs placed on builders.
Last week, the Kerala High Court stayed the order issued by the previous UDF government, after an NGO, Wayanad Prakrithi Samrakshana Samithi (WPSS) approached the court challenging the GO. In its petition, WPSS stated, “No power is conferred under the DM Act to the state government to nullify or keep in abeyance the proceedings initiated under the act."
An earlier single bench of the High Court, however, allowed the two businessmen to complete their on-going constructions. Significantly, the same bench also upheld the rights of the DDMA to frame and implement its own policy on high-rise restrictions.
Speaking to The News Minute, WPSS President N Badusha says this case has to be looked at from a larger perspective, especially in the context of the Disaster Management Act.
“Every DDMA can decide on certain regulations and rules in every district to protect the land from disasters. They can decide on the rules depending on the environmental and natural features of the area. If it is a hilly district they should take all precautions of landslides, earthquake and all other disasters that hills are prone to,” Badusha says.
Badusha also points to how several politicians including ministers were unhappy over the DDMA’s decision and were helpless owing to the body’s statutory powers.
As per the National Disaster Management Act 2005, every state and every district in the state should have a Disaster Management Authority. While it is headed by the Chief Minister in the state, the DDMA is headed by District Collector. The Act also highlights that the decisions taken by the Disaster Management Authority cannot be overruled by the state government.
“This is a department that has to be refurbished. It has a lot of powers to protect environment. Hills, forest, coastal areas etc... their immediate action is necessary. Wayanad is the first state in Kerala where high-rises have been restricted, while Idukki, Pathanamthitta, Munnar and many more places require this restriction,” Badusha said.
Former Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan had in May 2007 launched a demolition drive in Munnar against large-scale encroachments, razing to the ground several resorts and multi-storeyed buildings. Like Wayanad, Munnar’s tourism had resulted in unhindered construction in the hill station, posing a threat to the ecologically fragile land. But in 2014, the Kerala High Court ordered that the state government return the land to the ‘encroachers’ and also directed the state to provide compensation for acting in undue haste.
Badusha alleges that the state has not yet utilised the possibilities of the Disaster Management Act.
As per the Act the DDMA should identify the vulnerable areas of each district and take all measures to prevent the disasters. They even have the right to stop construction which has not met the standard measures for the prevention of disasters.
Environmental activist and advocate Charles George says that there is a wrong perception that the Disaster Management Authority’s role is to manage disasters after it occurs.
“They also have the responsibility to check disasters. They have the authority to make rules to protect the environment. But very rarely does the DMA get involved to check natural disasters by restricting constructions,” he explains.
However, the Kerala State Disaster Management Authority (KSDMA) is cautious over the authority of DDMAs despite noting that they are statutory bodies.
“DDMAs can decide on such restrictions and rules, they have the right. But we should make sure that they don’t emerge as a parallel government that new rules are enforced on anything and everything. Then what is the need of government?” Dr. Sekhar L. Kuriakose, Member, KSDMA and Head (Scientist), State Emergency Operation Centre told The News Minute.
Another officer from KSDMA, who sought anonymity, says that Wayanad should be taken as a model and the district collector has shown the way.
“It was an appreciable move, other DDMAs can also follow it and it would bring good changes. The High Court’s decision was also significant. Other districts in state are also in need of such an urgent move,” he suggests.