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Above: An aerial view of the flood-affected regions in Chengannur, Kerala/Photo: UNI

This could well be the plaintive sentiment of the despairing people of God’s Own Country as they battle the aftermath of the worst floods in a century. The warning signs were all there. Were they ignored? 

~By Papia Samajdar

The death, devastation and distress in God’s Own Country have gripped the nation like no other calamity. Kerala, the once bountiful and beautiful land of 44 rivers, has been devastated by the fury of the rains and the onslaught of surging waters from as many as 35 of its 61 dams. The combined effect of the torrential rainfall and water released from its dams led to one of the worst floods India has seen.

By August 21, the death toll in these floods had risen to 370. A total of 3,274 relief camps had been set up to accommodate and feed some 10,28,000 displaced people. The floods were declared a “calamity of severe nature”. A preliminary estimate by local authorities shows approximately 82,000 km of local roads washed out, 134 bridges destroyed and 45,000 hectares of farmland submerged. An ASSOCHAM report pegs the economic damage as high as Rs 20,000 crore.

But this ecological disaster was just waiting to happen, if one goes by reports of various committees. More than 50 percent of the total land area of Kerala lies in the Western Ghats. These Ghats run for about 1,500 km from the mouth of the Tapti river near the border of Gujarat and Maharashtra to the southern tip of Tamil Nadu. This covers six re­gions—Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, Goa, Maharashtra and the Dang forests in Gujarat. The region is one of the three biodiversity hotspots in India, the other two being the Indo-Myanmar border region and the Eastern Himalayas.

Roughly 30 percent of the Western Ghats is under forests (before 2010) and this has a stabilising effect on the climate and rainfall on the western and eastern sides. It has also played a vital role in carbon sequestration and reduction of global warming. However, the Ghats are under serious threat.

In the last 80 years, there has been a population increase of 1,500 percent in the region of Idukki, Wayanad and the eastern parts of the northern districts of Kerala. This led to large-scale felling of trees to make space for plantations, tou­rism resorts and other related industries. Kerala, in fact, is home to 2.8 percent of India’s population and contri­butes almost 4 percent to India’s GDP. The main drivers of its economy are construction (13.4 percent) and real estate (15.3 percent). Agricultural activities contribute 12.7 percent.

Cry, the Beloved Country!

Seeing the delicate ecosystem in the Western Ghats, Jairam Ramesh, the then Union environment minister, set up the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel under Professor Madhav Gadgil in 2010. This was done after people associated with the Save the Western Ghats project pointed out threats to the region due to excessive mining, construction, hydro-power and real estate. The panel was tasked with assessment of the region in terms of ecology and biodiversity and to make recommendations to conserve and rejuvenate the region. It was asked to study the impact of population pressures, development activities and climate change on the Ghats. It submitted its report in 2011 to the ministry and the findings were indeed grave.

The Gadgil panel found that:

  • Environmental Impact Assessment of various developmental projects in the region was weak, especially for biodiversity and socio-economic issues.
  • Some of the impact of existing industries constituted depletion and pollution of groundwater, siltation of water bodies, increased frequency of floods, loss of fertile agricultural land and deforestation.
  • Power transmission lines, transportation systems and infrastructure had a significant impact on the region’s environment.

The panel divided 142 talukas in the Western Ghats into three categories—Ecologically Sensitive Zones (ESZ) I, II and III—and recommended that the entire region covering 1.37 lakh hectares be declared an Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA) and accorded different degrees of protection.

ESZ-I restricted almost all developmental activities, such as mining, thermal power plants, and so on. The Report recommended that “no new dams based on large-scale storage be permitted in this  sensitive zone. Since both the Athirappilly of Kerala and Gundia of Karnataka hydel project sites fall in ESZ-I, these projects should not be accorded environmental clearance”.

The Gadgil Committee report specified that the existing system of governance of the environment should be changed. It asked for bottom-to-top approach (right from gram sabhas) rather than a top-to-bottom one. It also asked for decentralisation and more powers to local authorities. It recommended constitution of a Western Ghats Ecology Authority as a statutory authority under the Ministry of Envi­ron­ment and Forests, with powers un­der Section 3 of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.

The UPA government, however, decided against making the re­port public. “A misinformation campaign was started by vested interests,” Professor Gadgil had reportedly said then. In 2012, under pressure from industries and the mining lobby, the government decided to set up another committee to look into the recommendation of the Gadgil Committee. This was headed by Dr K Kasturirangan and it submitted its report in April 2013.

The Kasturirangan report reduced the ecologically sensitive area to 60,000 hectares, a stupendous 43 percent decrease from that recommended by the Gadgil report. “The Committee excluded the area already under private control from the protective regime to avoid unnecessary conflict,” said Sunita Narain, head of the Centre for Science and Environ­ment and a member of the Kasturirangan Committee.

This Committee recommended stringent checks on hydro-power projects, in­cluding cumulative impact assessment of such projects and ensuring minimum water flow in the rivers in the lean season. It, however, recommended a ban on construction projects of over 20,000 sq m, but excluded those already undergoing the process of approval. The Committee also recommended that the centre provide incentives to states to promote sustainable development and maintain forest cover and encourage the setting up of a high-level committee to monitor the implementation of these recommendations.

In 2014, the then ruling UPA government issued a draft notification asking six states to demarcate the ESA, clarifying it was a voluntary and non-binding exercise. The Kasturirangan Committee had recommended 13,108 sq km in 123 villages in Idukki district and 12 out of 14 districts in Kerala be protected as the ESA. In 2015, the Kerala government decided to demarcate the ESA in the state. It told the central government that only forest land protected by the forest depart­ment would be demarcated as ESA.

According to a former Kerala Biodiversity Board chairperson and a member of the Gadgil Committee, VS Vijayan: “The state was trying to regularise the illegal forest encroachment.” Environmental activists point out that there were large-scale encroachments by influential settlers who enjoy the backing of political parties and the Church.

As the western side of the Western Ghats is granite-rich, rampant illegal quarrying has been taking place here. Though there is no government data on the total number of quarries, resear­chers put the total number at 5,924 spread over 7,157.6 hectares. “Most of the quarries are illegal,” Gadgil had said.

According to a study by the Indian Institute of Science, Kerala lost 9,06,440 hectares of forest land bet­ween 1973 and 2016, nearly half of its forest land. This increased incidents of landslides, especially during the monsoon. To add to this, the natural drainage system of the state was reduced by unmindful construction. The wetlands of Kerala, which acted as natural aquifers, were shrinking, increasing the impact of floods.

The Kerala floods should be an eye-opener for the central and state governments which often cater to the demands of industries. Disaster-preparedness, risk mitigation and emergency planning need to be in sync with the rising number of extreme weather occurrences. Appropriate use of technology and data interpretation should be used to take preventive decisions to avoid large-scale destruction and loss. People should be made aware of the risks and dangers of unmindful development at the cost of environmental destruction. We have seen this in Chennai, Mumbai and in Srinagar. “People’s pressure can ensure that the government takes measures leading to favorable environment. Along with people’s pressure, science and data should be used honestly and properly,” remarked Gadgil.

Such rampant destruction, along with extreme weather phenomenon, is a recipe for disaster. Kerala, the Konkan, Goa and coastal Karnataka usually account for 40-46 percent of the country’s rainfall during the monsoon. Kerala received 1,606 mm of rainfall by mid-August 2017. This year, it received 2,191.11 mm rainfall, half of which was concentrated between August 8 and August 16. This accounts for 250 percent more rain in the stipulated period, causing water levels in the 61 dams to rise dangerously.

In addition to the Gadgil and Kasturirangan reports, there have been other warnings of impending disaster in Kerala. According to the Rashtriya Barh Ayog, an estimated 8.70 lakh hectares of the total area of 38.90 lakh hectares in Kerala is prone to floods. And in May 2006, the Central Water Commission (CWC) had prepared Guidelines for Development and Implementation of Emergency Action Plans for Dams and circulated it to state governments for action. In 2011, the National Committee on Dam Safety of the central government notified several state governments to prepare emergency action plans for each of their large dams.

Even central agencies have been guilty of not doing enough and that includes the CWC. It is responsible for flood forecasting and issuing alerts and warnings based on the data collected by them. The first forecasting station was established in 1958 at the old Delhi bridge to monitor the Yamuna. The CWC, however, has not established a single flood forecasting station in 15 states and Union Territories, including Kerala. Of the 184 flood forecasting stations, Kerala has none in spite of it being ranked the seventh most flood-prone state in the country.

Even the Indian Meteorological Department had predicted the likelihood of extreme rain in Ke­rala. And sure enough, Kerala received 30 percent more rain in August, while the district of Idukki received 70 percent excess rain, causing its dam sluice gates to be opened after 26 years.

Then there is the issue of dam management for which Kerala has been criticised. Dr Amita Singh, chairperson, Special Centre for Disaster Management, JNU, reportedly said: “This flood was not caused merely by excess rain. The first function of dams is storage. The right thing to do with any storage system is to have a proper input and output, prediction and management.” Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People told India Legal: “Dams can help control floods. However, if not managed properly, they can lead to devastation.”

However, 57 percent of the dams in Kerala are operated by the Kerala State Electricity Board and the rest by the irrigation department. For both the departments, the purpose of dams is electricity and irrigation. Flood control is not the main purpose.

The lack of planning can also be seen in the Five Year Plans. During the Eleventh one over 2007-12, Kerala had proposed four Flood Management Programmers at an estimated cost of Rs 279.74 crore to the centre. The centre disbursed two installments totalling Rs 118.90 crore over the Eleventh and Twelfth Plans. However, CAG auditors noted that they did not find any specific proposal for flood management in these programmes.

In short, this calamity was natural and man-made and vital lessons should be learnt from it for future generations.

—The writer is a communications consultant

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