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Kerala’s growing climate change crisis gets left behind in election, poll rhetoric

The silence on climate change in the current campaign rhetoric in the country is nowhere more deafening than in Kerala, a state that witnessed in 2018 the worst floods in its recent history, followed only by one of the worst spells of heat ever.

Make no mistake: leaders in the fray for the ongoing parliamentary elections have refused to highlight the ever-increasing quirks of climate that have dealt a body blow to agriculture and agri-business in the state. Farmers in districts like Alleppey, Idukki, Malappuram and Wayanad have reported a near wipe-out of crops such as coconut, pepper, areca nut, banana and cocoa in the torrential monsoon rains in August 2018 and subsequent flooding and landslides that left nearly 400 dead, thousands of homes destroyed and countless displaced in the state.

While rival political formations in the state as well as the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) that is eager to make its presence felt in the current elections, continue to milk the Sabarimala temple controversy to debate faith vs gender rights, a more urgent manifesto for survival in the wake of the manifest threat to human life and livelihoods from recurring extreme variations of climate is on no one's agenda.

 Kerala’s growing climate change crisis gets left behind in election, poll rhetoric

Mandiram (sitting) with her husband and son outside her house in Munroe Thuruthu that has sunk three feet as a result of the intensive high tidal surge. Image credit: Kumar M Tiku

For the poorest in Kerala, unusual heat, long dry spells and reduced winter rainfall that followed the landslides and floods of August 2018, have further impacted food security, forcing people to fend for work and survival, further and further away from their traditional habitat.

In Munroe Thurthu – now popularly known as the ‘sinking island’ — on the outskirts of Kollam town, a vast majority of the islanders reported a high level of salinity in their soil. Almost all farmers who lost their complete harvests this year earn so little they belong to the Below Poverty Line (BPL) category.

"Before the inundation, the coconut was in abundance, now as a result of saline intrusion, the trees are all withering away and production is declining by the day. For miles on end on this island, you will see coconut trees with either very small fruit or no fruit at all. The yield has dwindled so much, our very livelihoods are at stake," Mani Mandiram, 52, an islander in Munroe Thurthu tells me.

Excessive salt mining around the island has meant that silt that used to be deposited on the island with every tidal surge is no longer available, causing the soil to turn tepid and unfit for construction. Mandiram's home of 28 years has sunk more than three feet over the years.

An abandoned house on the verge of sinking in Munroe Thuruthu island in Kollam district. image credit: Kumar M Tiku

Seema Ramakrishnan, Secretary of the CVCS Coir Cooperative Society in the Kandrankani ward of Munroe Island that provides livelihoods in coir-retting to some 15 women from the island, says after the Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 2004, water levels have been constantly rising in the island. Major parts of the island are water-logged for six to seven months because of the intensive recurrence of high tidal surges.

For those six months when the island experiences flooding, there is no work for the women as even the workshop is under water. "These women have no other source of income as they mostly belong to BPL households and are the primary providers for their families. Altogether, the women get no more than 120 days of wage employment in a year, earning an average of 3,500 rupees a month. Without this work, their families would starve," Ramakrishnan says.

Over 2500 families inhabit the eight-island cluster that together forms the Munroe Island. The road to Kandrankani was constructed only a year back, and people can now walk to the adjacent islands. Until recently, the islanders would canoe their way to the mainland. In the 1990s, the islanders recall land being at least four feet above its current level. The subsidence here has been gradual but constant.

Saltwater intrusions, inundations, storm surges, and erosion from sea level rise—all issues facing Munroe Thurthu will continue to impel ever larger numbers of people to move. There is strong evidence that climate change has wrecked agriculture on this small island.

Ramakrishnan at the coir retting workshop in Kandrankani n Munroe Island. Image credit: Kumar M Tiku

In Kerala, the 2018 megafloods lashed and ravaged 13 of the State's 14 districts followed in the wake of heavy rainfall, the kind never seen before. The rains washed whole crops away, drowning livestock, severely damaging houses, and causing an outbreak of waterborne diseases. Aid came, but as always questions were raised about the state’s capacities to absorb and efficiently administer massive inflows of cash and in-kind assistance from a multitude of sources. Thousands moved into makeshift camps to avoid being killed by landslides.

Serious impacts of climate change are already in evidence in Kerala and can be projected into the future with certainty. There is now a lot of empirical research that melds climate with fragility. “I have looked at mangrove erosion in the coastal areas, studies ten coastal districts of Kerala and closely studied construction patterns in the state. Kumarakom, the world-famous backwater island with its high-end tourism appeal and top-of-the-line infrastructure, is majorly threatened by sea-level rise," Madhusudan Karunakaran, a science aficionado and a tireless campaigner for conservation in Kerala, observed in a grim tone.

The August 2018 rains in Kerala were followed by a period of unprecedented heat in the state, again never experienced in living memory. Many a farmer lost entire harvests. People then attempted to find alternative income to buy food. They sold things in the informal economy, and borrowed money. Precise estimates for climate-displaced in Kerala are not forthcoming. There is little doubt though that the poorest of the poor are the ones least prepared to adapt and survive the staggering onslaught of climate variability.

A farmer working on coir-retting in Kandrankani ward of Munroe Island. Image credit: Kumar M Tiku

The American Association for the Advancement of Science foresees 50 million mobilizing to escape their environment by 2020. As things stand, Kerala, and several other states of India as well as our neighbours in the sub-continent, including Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, will contribute to those numbers significantly.

The third Western Ghats Manifesto, prepared by the Save Western Ghats Forum, a collective of civil society organizations based in Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Goa, released earlier this month, puts the spotlight on the urgent need to protect the Ghats and the means to achieve it. The Ghats are classified among the 34 global hotspots of biodiversity, flora, fauna, landscape, and ethnicity.

The citizens’ initiative, calling attention to the development vs conservation debate stands in sharp contrast to the collective indifference of the political class to the cataclysmic climate events of 2018 in Kerala that caught global attention.

For a Prime Minister who likes to be seen on the side of those that lead green politics on the global stage, it is bad enough that he should ignore conservation and adaptation as one of the most urgent calls on the domestic political agenda in his muscular campaign rhetoric. Even the Congress Party that is fielding its president from Wayanad, has made no more than a passing reference to climate change in its election manifesto. The opportunity to act in Kerala has been passed, yet again, in favour of stridency and competing non-issues.

The author is a Development Aid communicator and Public Affairs advisor.

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Updated Date: Apr 24, 2019 16:45:14 IST