Seven years after he submitted a detailed report that prescribed ways to conserve Kerala’s Western Ghats, renowned ecologist Madhav D Gadgil is aggrieved again that his 2011 study of the ‘fragile’ mountain ranges met with total stonewalling from administrators.
The expert’s worst fears have come true: the southern state is battling its fiercest floods in a century.
At age 76 and away in Maharashtra’s Pune along the northern stretch of the same 1,600-km mountains also called Sahyadri, Gadgil told The Tribune that he feels for the people of God’s Own Country where he had worked intensively for a year as the head of a Centre-deputed committee on environmental protection.
Its task was three-fold: compile information on the biodiversity hotspot that is the Ghats, develop a geo-spatial database and interact with government bodies as well as civil-society groups.
The nine-member Gadgil panel recommended a regulation on natural exploitation and concrete construction along the Kerala stretch of the Ghats, wanting it to be divided into three zones and conserved with separate levels of intensity. None of it yielded a positive response from the then Oommen Chandy regime. What’s more, protests arose against those homilies made public in 2012, following which another committee headed by scientist K Kasturirangan effectively muted the Gadgil recommendations by preparing a watered-down version in October 2013. “Almost every political party had its interest in scuttling our recommendations.
They resorted to false propaganda,” says Gadgil, founder of the Centre for Ecological Sciences in Bengaluru. “Corrupt netas, hand-in-glove with one mafia or the other, sensed a sure slide in slush money. For instance, we found plenty of illegal mining quarries along the hilly tracts of Kannur and Pathanamthitta. They had the patronage of this political party or that religious group.”
Today, such high ranges on Kerala’s eastern belt bordering Tamil Nadu are among the worst-affected. Landslides across the week have uprooted their trees, buried buildings along with people and dumped mounds of earth on to rivers.
But, aren’t rains primarily the trigger? “Not exactly,” says Gadgil, dispassionately. “Kerala gets heavy rains over long spells like it did this monsoon too. But this is the first time the state experienced such a flood (after 1924). Why? I’d blame ecological degradation aided by mindless construction.”
In 2018 Kerala, Gadgil says he finds a parallel in 2013 Uttarakhand, when a multiday cloudburst in June led rivers to breach their banks after debris from both sides blocked their course along the Himalayas. “Obviously, it’s human intervention adding to the havoc,” he says. “On the Western Ghats, stone quarries were polluting the air and water, debilitating the topography. My panel had sought for devolution of power, but they (top rulers) won’t permit it.”
All the same, the administration is keen on building more dams. The present Pinarayi Vijayan regime would quietly make moves to go ahead with a proposed hydel-power project in Thrissur district’s Athirappally, famed for its waterfalls, even as resistance from green activists would force it to speak for a consensus. “Well, I’m no expert on reservoirs,” Gadgil shrugs. “But I can say my own Maharashtra suffers from such construction lobbies. A Rs 21,000-crore dam got designed by contractors, not engineers!”
Critically, the ‘ambivalent’ 163-MW Athirappally project is conceived to come up across the Chalakudy river, which was among the most furious in the present deluge. Won’t it be unwise to re-create buildings on floodplains? “Oh, wetlands serve as reservoirs, too. One shouldn’t tamper with them,” Gadgil says. “Also, mangroves or paddy fields.”
A tropical state like Kerala, with sunlight aplenty, can make better use of solar power instead of relying on conventional sources of energy, he agrees. And cites a cruel irony: “Most months of a year, the shelved dam-waters simply evaporate. Then, in an emergency, you suddenly open all shutters, and aggravate the floods!”
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