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Kerala floods: Environmentalists blame destruction of eco-sensitive zones, want controversial amendment to wetland Act scrapped

Over fifty tourists were rescued by the Indian Army from a posh resort in Kerala's Munnar. The tourists, including 24 foreigners from the United States, Russia, Singapore and West Asia, were stranded after landslides blocked the roads leading up to the resort after incessant rain lashed Kerala. The army fought an uphill battle to rescue the tourists, but things could have been far worse: many tourists could have been killed had the boulders fallen on the Plum Judy resort. Such an incident would have dealt a huge blow to Kerala's tourism industry, the main driver of the state economy.

Representational image. AFP.

Representational image. AFP.

The resort was closed twice after boulders from the nearest hill fell near it during the last monsoon. However, the resort owners obtained special orders from the court and opened it up again. The resort is located at Pallivasal village, an area which has been classified as ‘high hazard’ and ‘very high hazard’ by the State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA). Many such resorts are functioning in the ‘high hazard’ areas at Munnar, a tourist hotspot in the Western Ghats. Sreeram Venkitaraman, a young IAS officer, tried to identify such vulnerable buildings and demolish them after he was posted as sub-collector of Devikulam. However, the state government shunted him out when his bulldozers moved towards the big fish.

A majority of the 34 people who lost their lives after incessant rain were killed by landslides. Noted environmentalist John Peruvanthanam said the areas that suffered maximum damage in the past 10 days were those classified as ecologically-sensitive zones (ESZs) by Western Ghats Expert Ecology Panel (WGEEP). Idukki and Wayanad bore the maximum brunt of the monsoon fury. A majority of the 123 villages classified by ESZs in Kerala by the Kasthurirangan Commission fall under these districts. The environmentalist said the people in these areas are paying the price for the WGEEP recommendations not being implemented by the state.

Both the original Gadgil Committee and the subsequent Kasthurirangan Commission recommended restrictions on construction activities in the ESZs. However, illegal resorts started mushrooming in tourist spots in Idukki and Wayanad when the state government showed signs of bowing to pressure from the resort lobby and settler farmers led by Catholic bishops and priests.

Curiously, government organisations also defied the restrictions and set up tourist facilitation centres in ESZs. According to a report in The Times of Indiathe Kerala Tourism Development (KTDC) has been constructing buildings and cottages at Kuravan Mala, just 80 metres from Idukki dam. This flouts rules which state that any construction within 100 metres of the dam must be approved by the Dam Safety Authority.

The report pointed out that the area is prone to landslides and construction activity and an increased flow of tourists would make it more vulnerable to natural disasters. Peruvanthanam questioned how the government could act against illegal resorts when its own bodies are flouting rules.

The government has also been soft in dealing with illegal quarries, sand mining and check dams, which are the other major factors behind the alarming increase in landslides. The Gadgil Committee identified 2,700 quarries across the crest line of Kerala's Western Ghats. Of these, 1,700 quarries which mostly crush stone into sand, are functioning illegally.

Though check dams are built on seasonal rivers to prevent wastage of rain water flowing into the sea and to provide fresh water bodies for local use and strengthen the ecosystem, private groups are constructing them indiscriminately in estates and tourism spots. Such a check dam atop a hill at Karinchola allegedly led to a landslide in June in which seven people were killed.

The high court ordered demolition of a check dam illegally built by ruling front MLA P Anwar in Malappuram district as part of a water theme park following protests triggered by the Karinchola disaster. While the Kozhikode district administration launched a survey to identify illegal check dams, the Kerala River Management Fund decided not to permit construction of further check dams.

No one knows how many of Kerala's check dams are illegal. However, environmental activists claim there are lots of check dams across most of Kerala's 44 rivers, which not only disrupt free flow of rivers but also bring in more silt and sand, thus affecting the water flow upstream. They can prove fatal when the need arises to discharge water from reservoirs.

Scientists say indiscriminate construction in ESZs is the major reason for recurring landslides in the Western Ghats. In recent years, landslides have been occurring in Kerala frequently during the monsoon. More than 300 people lost their lives in around 90 major landslides between 1961 and June 2018. According to the plan prepared by the Kerala Disaster Management Authority (KSDMA), 14.4 percent of the state’s area is susceptible to landslides which not only claim lives but also destroy homes and agricultural land. Most of the landslide-prone areas are in the Western Ghats.

“This can be checked if the WGEEP recommendations are implemented in their true spirit. If authorities realise this and act accordingly, Kerala can be saved from further disaster,” said Dr S Abhilash S, assistant professor of Atmospheric Studies at the Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT). He added that human intervention shrunk floodplains across Kerala, thus affecting the absorption of rain water. He said the recent amendment to the Kerala Paddy Land and Wetland Act permitting reclamation of paddy fields and wetlands for public interest projects may compound the problem.

A convention of environmentalists and wetland conservation activists held at Thrissur on Sunday demanded scrapping of the controversial amendment. The speakers pointed out that the amendment would encourage large-scale paddy field reclamation and cause floods and groundwater depletion. Professor Kusum Joseph, one of the organisers of the convention, said big business started planning reclamation of vast stretches of paddy fields in their possession in the name of public interest and are citing Section 10 of the amendment allowing infrastructure development projects.

The convention urged the Kerala government to repeal the amendment in view of the huge destruction wreaked by the Southwest Monsoon.


Updated Date: Aug 12, 2018 17:30 PM

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