The unprecedented floods in the state of Kerala in southern India have been described by a prominent ecologist as “manmade”.
The terrible floods offer a timely warning for us, in particular the governments of Penang, Kedah, Pahang, Kelantan, Terengganu and Sarawak.
Kerala policymakers had ignored the concerns raised by environmentalists about development in ecologically sensitive areas.
A committee headed by Harvard-trained ecologist Madhav Gadgil, founder of the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, looked into the environmental concerns of the hilly forested region of the Western Ghat. Its report in 2011 recommended strong protection for 140,000km of ecologically sensitive areas with the cooperation of local government and the ordinary people.
It recommended restrictions on quarrying, highrise construction and use of land for non-forest purposes.
But guess what? The Gadgil Committee’s report was criticised as being too environmentally friendly and not in touch with the reality on the ground. The report and its recommendations were rejected by the Kerala state government.
A subsequent Kasturirangan Committee report watered down the Gadgil report. It wanted to to reduce the ecologically sensitive areas to 37% of the Western Ghats – lower than the 64% recommended by Gadgil Committee report.
What a colossal mistake in a state which takes pride in being “God’s own country”. Today, so many people are paying the price for that decision to neglect ecological protection. Let’s remember that when we harm the ecosystem, we are only hurting ourselves in the future.
I have highlighted several key comments from this excerpt from a Mongabay report.
Speaking to various regional media, Madhav Gadgil has said that irresponsible environmental policy is to blame for the recent floods and landslides in Kerala. He also called it a “manmade calamity”. He said that the committee report had recommended to protect the resources with the cooperation of local self governments and people, but those recommendations were rejected. He also pointed out that quarrying is a major reason for the mudslides and landslides.
Other environmentalists also point fingers at the extensive quarrying, mushrooming of high rises as part of tourism and illegal forest land acquisition by private parties as major reasons for the recent calamity.
V. Thomas, former scientist at the National Centre for Earth Science Studies (NCESS) told Mongabay-India that nobody wants to discuss the reasons behind natural disasters. He also believes that the Gadgil committee report had to be taken seriously.
“Landslides caused major damage this time. Most of the people have died in landslides. These landslides were severe in hilly districts like Idukki, Wayanad etc. – the regions that came under Gadgil Committee report,” said Thomas. “The report had clearly mentioned how to protect ecological sensitive areas with the help of local communities. But state did not accept it. None of the authorities tried to convince people in the area over Gadgil report. So people were also against it. That was a failure of government as well as other concerned organisations. We implemented some other recommendations which were not suitable for the environment.”
He added that water raising in dams will not cause a big issue and that discussions on environmental concerns are needed. “Quarrying is a major reason for environmental hazards like landslides. Apart from that, buildings in environmentally sensitive areas are also a reason. Resorts, hotels and religious institutions built on such areas destroying the nature can also contribute to a disaster,” he said.
He also said that learning from this experience the state should give priority to environment hereafter.
Dr. C.M. Joy, environmental activist and a retired college professor alleged that people who are engaged in quarrying and illegal encroachment of forest land are the ones that lobbied against the Gadgil Committee report.
“All these districts that were badly affected have got wide range of quarries, both legal and illegal. Underground is a huge source of water. But doing unscientific constructions, mining and quarrying, the soil that covers this water storage been removed. This causes pressure, which results in land slide or mudslide,” he said.
He added that quarrying also causes tremors. “There are more than 1500 illegal crusher and quarrying units in Kerala. Apart from that, illegal buildings appear in water zone areas, so a heavy rain can cause flood. We humans are responsible for all these,” he said.