Kerala floods and their far-reaching impact: Nature offers small reminders when its limits are crossed by man
While it's true that Kerala has received unprecedented rainfall this year causing water levels to rise abnormally and dams to overflow, many are blaming the floods on man-made mistakes which have destroyed the ecological balance.
Who is to be blamed for Kerala floods?
While it's true that Kerala has received unprecedented rainfall this year causing water levels to rise abnormally and dams to overflow, many are blaming the floods on man-made mistakes which have destroyed the ecological balance. The bipolar state has no one but itself to blame for creating a disaster of this scale which also presents a perfect case study for other states in the country not to repeat the same mistakes.
Let’s admit it. All along, Kerala knew the environmental hazards it is facing but refused to acknowledge them. For at least a century, Kerala has been a witness to natural disasters but only from a distance and the presumption was that they are forever immune to natural disasters. They built homes encroaching river banks and destroyed paddy fields. Till recently, “beautiful river view villas and resorts” was their favourite marketing pitch to lure the wealthy in the state, which obviously will now change to “flood-free villas” post the catastrophic rains. Inquiries for property seeking flood free areas have already begun, say local real estate dealers.
The writing was on the wall. In May this year, the state’s cabinet had cleared a white paper on environmental hazards that warned serious damage to the state’s eco-system. The paper said that 80 percent of the wells are polluted. It cited severe damage to paddy fields in the state on account of encroachment with the total area of fields coming down from 7.53 lakh hectare in 1965 to just 1.9 lakh hectare in 2014-15. Deforestation and illegal constructions have impacted river flow. Sand mining, illegal quarrying and dumping solid waste in rivers by industries and pilgrim centres adds to the woes.
Kerala has 44 rivers and most of these are encroached by people who go for illegal constructions with the blessings of local politicians and bureaucrats on a heavy scale. Local politicians were rarely sensitive to environmental damage and usually resort to vote-bank politics. Major protests, across party lines, erupted in Kerala since 2011 after a report by Madhav Gadgil that year that predicted this sort of calamity. The protesters of 2011 will now be repenting their mistakes in the aftermath of the flood that has taken over 400 lives and has likely caused irreversible damage to the state’s ecological system.
The panel, known as Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), had cited serious damage to the state’s environmental balance on account of rapid deforestation since 1970s, illegal quarrying and mining and other illegal constructions in eco-sensitive areas. A PTI report quoted Professor V S Vijayan, a former chairman of the State Biodiversity Board, who was also a member of the Gadgil committee, who said that the report suggested checks on quarrying, discouraging cultivation of yearly crops on hill slopes and planting fruit-bearing tress there and restriction on construction in the area.
But Gadgil was portrayed as villain and his recommendations were ignored. The fate of another report by another panel that was set up subsequently under Kasturirangan committee was not very different. In fact, this panel was set up with an implicit idea to tone down the proposals on strict environmental regime suggested by the Gadgil panel. But even this report was met with severe objection. Even farmers in Kozhikode, who suffered the most in recent floods, protested against the panel's recommendations arguing that they are designed to evict them from their farm lands on Western Ghats.
There were three major points farmers raised: the proposal that some 123 villages were ecologically fragile and warrants protection from encroachers, inclusion of rubber, tea, coffee, pepper, cashew, cardamom, arecanut and coconut in the list of commercial crops that should not be cultivated in ecologically-sensitive areas of Western Ghats and restriction on usage of certain chemicals and fertilizers for cultivation in these areas. Had the state taken sufficient action at that point to reverse the rapid destruction of environment, Western Ghats would have been strong enough to prevent at least part of the recent tragedy the state witnessed.
Also, Kerala has been losing its forest cover rapidly over years. As this report in The Times of India points out, though the National Forest Survey, 2017 showed Kerala has grown its forest cover by 1043 sq km, much of it is plantations and conservation activities. The report cited decline in forest cover in certain districts that included Wayanad, Idukki, Alappuzha and Kollam. Remember, these were the worst-hit during the floods.
Gadgil and Kasturirangan committees should have acted as an eye opener for the state to initiate an urgent course correction. But, Keralites failed to see the writing on the wall. Nature has yet again proved that it can offer small reminders when limits are crossed.
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