October 26, 2018
Suggestions by Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel were ignored. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Deforestation and mining contributed to the disaster

With the worst floods in recent memory to have struck an Indian state, Kerala was ravaged by the waters, with nearly 153,000 citizens moved to 1,790 relief camps.

The losses and damages are estimated to round off to a staggering Rs 50,000 crore, including severe ruin of 10,000 km of public roads, close to 21,000 homes and a distressing number of 3 lakh farmers claiming absolute destruction of their farm land.  

Consistent and heavy downpour, ill management of state resources and the lack of engagement on demands made of the Centre have been glaring explanations for the devastating circumstances which the locals were put through.

Experts have said that the extent of damage could have been controlled, if timely management and implementation of environmental policies existed. 

The scale of disaster in Kerala would not have been as huge if suggestions by Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel been implemented

Gauging the response of the governments on both State and Centre levels, the immediacy of on ground action was well received but the lack of foresight and preparedness became primary reasons of discontentment among the people. Ecologist Prof Madhav Gadgil called the cataclysmic situation a ‘man-made disaster’, deeming it a result of poor governance and even poorer implementation of the mitigating measures and precautions. “The scale of disaster in Kerala would not have been as huge as it is had the suggestions made in the report by Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel been implemented,” Prof Gadgil said.

The panel, appointed by the Union government in 2010 and headed by Prof Gadgil, had raised concerns over quarrying, mining and the construction of high rise buildings in certain areas of the Western Ghats, including Kerala.

Western Ghats, is a mountain range that runs through six states along the Arabian Sea and was declared as a world heritage site in July 2012 by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). It has exceptionally high level of biological diversity and endemism and is recognised as one of the world’s eight ‘hottest hotspots’ of biological diversity.

The panel had suggested that the entire Western Ghats be designated as an ecologically sensitive area (ESA) with a graded or layered approach to conservation.

These concerns were largely ignored by the governments of six states, including Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, that come under Western Ghats.

Several protests were held and private funders lobbied against the report. The Union government appointed another panel—the Kasturirangan committee—which proposed that only one-third of the Ghats be designated as ecologically sensitive.

There is a greater acceptance of the committee report now and the issue was also raised in the state assembly

In the end, the government issued a draft notification designating 56,825 sq km of the Western Ghats as ESA. The notification banned mining, thermal power plants and other red category industries as classified by the Central Pollution Control Board in the ESAs. It had also recommended State-level and national-level monitoring bodies.

However, the notification expired as the state did not arrive at a consensus. The results of not implementing the recommendations are evident. The issues raised by Gadgil report are now considered major contributing factors to landslides in the wake of heavy rains. “There is a greater acceptance of the committee report now and the issue was also raised in the state assembly,” said Prof Gadgil while talking to GoI Monitor over phone. “But I am not sure if this will result in greater action on the ground. Authorities might just forget about environment once the state recovers.”

In Kerala, the Gadgil report was earlier seen as biased against those living in hills since Western Ghats include only the upper reaches of the state. Major political parties and a section of the church had come out on the streets supporting people and protesting against the proposed ban on certain economic activities. Today, the situation is different. “People on the ground have realised that we can’t afford to ignore environment if we want to avoid recurrence of such disasters,” said Shibu Raj, a local activist and author. 

The draft notification on declaration of ecologically sensitive area expired in August as the consultations with six Western Ghats states failed. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) had to step in and restrain the states from giving environmental clearance to activities that may adversely impact the eco-sensitive areas. 

It also asked the Centre government to reissue the draft notification and settle the matter within six months and issue a final notification. It’s high timel the six states take lessons from Kerala floods and stop reaping economical dividend from deforestation and polluting industries.

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