A massive landslide 12 days ago in Malin in Pune district destroyed the entire village of 'Malin', killing 182 people, mostly tribal, who were buried alive. The excavation efforts took more than eight days to extract all the bodies from under the mud. As usual the RSS swayamsevaks helped government machinery in the rescue mission and cremated the bodies of victims which had decomposed.
What led to the tragedy?
From the first day, the people in the vicinity, who are mostly tribals, are blaming the government projects in the area for the tragedy. But, the Maharashtra government has denied the allegations, without any survey or examinations. Tribals’ say that the 'Padkai' project on the mountains is responsible for the tragedy. They say that the soil on the mountain got loosened up due to Padkai project and heavy tree cutting in the area which following heavy rainfall created perfect circumstances for the tragedy.
Government officers and ruling leaders including the Assembly speaker Dilip Valase Patil on the other hand denied the charges arguing that the tribal area of the district has benefited largely due to the Padkai project. They argue that because of the project the tribal people don’t need to go to the big cities for employment now.
What is Padkai project?
Padkai is a unique project which was proposed in 1980s to increase the groundwater levels of the area, which has very fertile soil. The plan was to dig drills in the soil including the mountains and hills to enable the rain water to get absorbed in the ground and to gradually increase the groundwater level.
The groundwater level in this area in 1980s had sunk below 300 feet.
The government agencies worked to achieve the goal and they were successful. In few years the groundwater levels in the area rose to 80 feet and in few villages it has got raised to about 50 feet.
At many places, in the implementation of Padkai Project, the hill tops are being flattened and the trees are being cut to create land for cultivation. This disastrous scheme is being implemented under MNREGA.
The higher water levels allow the farmers in the areas of Ambegaon and Junnar talukas to produce crops twice a year. Earlier they could only manage Rabi crops during monsoon. Now, they are able to produce in Kharif season also. The main product of the area is rice. But many farmers produce vegetables too, which are being supplied to big cities and even to five star hotels. The tribal belt seems significantly benefitted from the Padkai project which has helped in irrigation through the bore wells.
Objections of Environmentalists
Environmentalists and villagers say that the Padkai project is being implemented by defying the nature. At many places on the mountains and hills, the contractors not only dig drills which are unnecessary and too close, they even blast the rocks to create better seepage of the rain water into the grounds. This has resulted in the loosening of the rocks and the upper soil on many hills and mountains. The timber and land mafias which include some multi-nationals also have their share in massive deforestation of the region which was once densely covered by forests.
The high level Madhav Gadgil committee appointed to study the Western Ghats situation by the then central Government after the repeated calls by the environmental scientists and analysts, was prevented to Centre forests owned by the central forest department, by a multinational company which is trying to establish a wind power project in Ambegaon Taluka mountains which were once covered by thick forests.
The incident was reported on social media by activist Dr Vishwambhar Chaudhari, a member of the committee. He says that the land owned by the central forests department are being used by multinational company and the trees are being indiscriminately cut. The company is said to have erected housing colony on the forest land clearing the trees in last many years, and has not raised a single wind power turbine!
Even Madhav Gadgil himself has also said to have expressed his unhappiness over the environmentally disastrous ways of project implementation and of bypassing the laws in eco-sensitive zones of the Western Ghats.
—Rajesh Prabhu Salgaonkar from Mumbai