Devastating floods in Kerala resulted from the devastation management failure, encroachment by the Church and deliberate neglect of the policy safeguards in the Western Ghats
Kerala has witnessed one of the worst rain-induced floods our country has ever seen. Most of the state was submerged in water causing damage and destruction to human lives, infrastructure, houses and much more. It is true that the amount of rainfall Kerala received is unprecedented this year, but according to environmentalists, the scale of the disaster could have been minimised greatly if a few steps had been taken earlier. It is becoming evident to all of us that we cannot treat Mother Nature badly without expecting her wrath.
The scale of the damage caused by the floods could have been significantly reduced if these reports were taken seriously and implemented. It is going to be a long, arduous journey for the government as well as the citizens of Kerala to build everything from scratch
All over the world, environmental disasters are becoming more common than we ever imagined. We are perfectly aware of the consequences our actions will bring about, yet we continue on this path of destroying the same environment which is the reason for life itself.
Kerala floods brought forth the Madhav Gadgil report which was published as early as 2011. The Gadgil panel had suggested measures for the preservation of the natural environment of the ecologically fragile Western Ghats region. The report had recommended that the entire Western Ghats, spread over six states, including Kerala, be declared environmentally sensitive. The report had assigned three levels of ecological sensitivity to regions within the Ghats. The committee had strongly recommended a ban on specific new industrial and mining activities in the area and called for strict regulation of many other “developmental” works in consultation with local communities and gram panchayats.
Rejected even before debate!
The Gadgil report met with resistance from the governments of all six stakeholder states. After that, the Environment Ministry appointed another panel, headed by space scientist K Kasturirangan, to analyse the Gadgil committee report in a “holistic and multidisciplinary” fashion, while considering the objections raised by the state governments and responses received from others. The Kasturirangan committee, which submitted its report in 2013, severely diluted the recommendations of the Gadgil panel, suggesting that only one third of the Western Ghats needed to be identified as ecologically sensitive.
Certain sections of the Church actively opposed both reports.
An article published in the Thiruvananthapuram edition of TOI dated January 20, 2013 says, “An editorial in a magazine published by the Syro-Malabar Church has come down heavily on certain reputed environmental organisations in the country, claiming that there is an “international conspiracy” to implement the Madhav Gadgil chaired Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) report. In the editorial in Laity Voice, titled ‘International conspiracy behind Madhav Gadgil report’, the magazine’s Chief Editor V C Sebastian claims that organisations like the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), Salim Ali Foundation and Ashoka Trust for Research Organisation (ATREE) had received global funds to implement the WGEEP report. The editorial is based on a probe conducted by a laity commission appointed by the church to study the issue.” Environmental activist and BNHS board member Sumaira Abdulali had said, “The government of India had appointed Dr Madhav Gadgil to prepare a report, and he came out with a comprehensive report to conserve the Western Ghats and the livelihood of the local communities living there. I cannot understand how the USA is involved in it. Even before there is a proper debate on the report, there have been moves from many quarters to reject it outright.”
Arm Twisting by Church
During the same time, a diocesan circular warned of steadfast resistance against implementing suggestions of the K Kasturirangan panel on the Western Ghats. The church felt that implementation of this report will endanger the lives of the farmers and families who made a living out of their small farmlands on the slopes of the mountains ranges. It went on to warn the parties supporting the proposals that they would be given a fitting reply in the next election. Insinuating the Kerala Congress (M), third most significant constituent of the ruling front which is backed by the Church, the pastoral letter indicated that the elected representatives of political parties that promised to support the farmers’ cause should give up their positions in the Government and join the agitation against the Gadgil—Kasturirangan reports.
The pastoral letter also expressed concerns at the delay in the distribution of pattas (title deeds) for the “small pieces” of lands held by settler families in the higher mountain ranges and warned that the farmers would be forced to agitate vigorously if the title deeds were not distributed at the earliest. Reports from Idukki, where the Church and farmers fear that thousands of small farmers would have to be evicted or forced to stop cultivation if the proposals of the Madhav Gadgil or Kasturirangan committee are implemented, claim that the pastoral letter is a clear indication to intensify agitations over the issue. Today, Idukki is one of the districts that has been most affected by floods and hundreds from the region have lost their lives.
In November 2012, web news portal Madhyamam had reported that soon after the Gadgil report was made public, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, in a discussion in the Kerala Legislative Assembly in June, also expressed reservations on the report. He made it clear that most of the suggestions were impractical, and Kerala was opposed to the formation of a new Western Ghats Ecology Authority (WGEA), a key recommendation, as the state could ensure the protection of its environment within the provisions of existing laws. Chandy told the Assembly that the Government of Kerala had written to the Central Government objecting to nine recommendations made by the committee in the report.
Idukki district, with an area of 4,479 sq km, is the second-largest district of Kerala with rugged mountains and forests in about 97 per cent of the total area. It also has a large number of settlers.
Madhyamam had further reported that a top official of the state environment department, on condition of anonymity, said the present fear raised by people of Idukki is because of “confusion” and as per official forest records, many of the present-day towns in Idukki district are marked as protected areas and are thickly populated. The government can make a decision on this aspect, and the confusion can be cleared”, the government official said.
Religion over Environment
While it is understandable that the Church wanted to safeguard the interests of the majority Catholic population in Idukki district, it was and is imperative to see the ecological ramifications of such a stand without scientific reasoning. The loss of human lives and the amount of destruction that has taken place could have been minimised to a great extent. To make such statements and issue warnings against such a critical report was irresponsible, to say the least.
The editorial in Laity Voice had accused Dr V S Vijayan, the honorary chairman of Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and National History Foundation, had only one agenda that is to implement Gadgil report and questioned his source of funds. Speaking to TOI, ATREE project coordinator Jojo T D had said on Jan 2013, that his organisation had been doing conservation work along the Western Ghats right from 2007 and ATREE began with a mission to conserve some of the last remaining eco-fragile regions like the Eastern Himalayas and the Western Ghats. He had also said that they had been involved in conducting several training and awareness programmes on ecology and environment and it is absurd to say, as accused by the Laity Voice editorial, that they had in any way influenced the Gadgil report.
In retrospect, the scale of the damage caused by the floods could have been significantly reduced if these reports were taken seriously and implemented. Kerala is a small state, and the density of population is extremely high. The scale of illegal constructions can be likened to Uttarakhand. Both these states have a high density of tourist population thereby deforestation for buildings of hotels and resorts is very high. Uttarakhand also faced debilitating flash floods due to its disregard for the environment, and now Kerala has paid a hefty price. It is going to be a long, arduous journey for the government as well as the citizens of Kerala to build everything from scratch.
In light of the events in Kerala, let us hope that people take nature’s warning more seriously and keep religion and politics out of it. Ultimately it is the common man who pays for the follies of their interference.
(The writer is a Bengaluru-based Environmentalist)