A Wake-Up Call:

Re­cent dev­as­ta­tion fol­low­ing heavy flood­ing in Ker­ala shows that un­bri­dled de­vel­op­ment will ul­ti­mately lead to dis­as­trous con­se­quences.

India Business Journal - - CONTENTS - IBJ BU­REAU

Re­cent dev­as­ta­tion fol­low­ing heavy flood­ing in Ker­ala shows that un­bri­dled de­vel­op­ment will ul­ti­mately lead to dis­as­trous con­se­quences.

Ker­ala is just re­cov­er­ing from rain-in­duced floods of apoc­a­lyp­tic na­ture. For over two weeks in Au­gust, the skies opened and stormy rains caused huge dev­as­ta­tion across the south­ern State. Ex­ces­sive rains, floods and land­slides de­stroyed roads, bridges, build­ings and houses, forc­ing al­most 15 lakh peo­ple to take shel­ter in re­lief camps.

More than 400 peo­ple were re­ported dead in the un­prece­dented del­uge. The State, known for its scenic, green land­scapes and serene back­wa­ters, was left count­ing heavy losses, es­ti­mated to have crossed the State's an­nual cap­i­tal ex­pen­di­ture of Rs 26,500 crore for 2017-18.

Dur­ing the same time, tor­ren­tial rains in moun­tain­ous Kodagu dis­trict of neigh­bour­ing Kar­nataka led to thou­sands of peo­ple get­ting ma­rooned. A large part of agri­cul­ture mainly rub­ber in Ker­ala and cof­fee in Kodagu - and in­dus­try, es­pe­cially small and medium en­ter­prises (SMEs), had to bear the brunt of the

Ker­ala-Kodagu dis­as­ter.

'Man-made calamity'

Ker­ala re­ceived 352.2 mm of rain­fall be­tween Au­gust 9 and 15, over three times more than the nor­mal rain. To that ex­tent, the State was ham­pered by a nat­u­ral dis­as­ter of un­prece­dented pro­por­tion. How­ever, na­ture was not the only cul­prit in the tragedy. Hu­man omis­sion and com­mis­sion were equally re­spon­si­ble for the dev­as­ta­tion that fol­lowed.

Many of the State's 44 rivers and 61 dams across them nat­u­rally con­trib­uted to the heavy flood­ing fol­low­ing the rains. Many of the dams had to be opened as they were dan­ger­ously full. The re­sult was more wa­ter sub­merg­ing a large part of the State. Dam man­age­ment has al­ways been a con­tentious is­sue, not just in Ker­ala but the en­tire coun­try. In fact, a 2017 re­port by the Comptroller and Au­di­tor Gen­eral of In­dia (CAG) had warned that not a sin­gle dam in the State had an emer­gency ac­tion plan in place for dis­as­ter man­age­ment. Pre- and post­mon­soon safety in­spec­tions had not been car­ried out for any of these dams ei­ther. No won­der, as the skies opened and dams too were opened, Ker­ala lay flooded and bat­tered for days to­gether.

Most im­por­tantly, far from be­ing a sur­prise, pos­si­bil­ity of such dev­as­ta­tion was high­lighted sev­eral years ago. Mad­hav Gadgil, a renowned ecol­o­gist and founder of the Cen­tre for Eco­log­i­cal Sciences at the In­dian In­sti­tute of Sci­ence, Ben­galuru, had, in fact, pre­sented a com­pre­hen­sive anal­y­sis of the threats posed to the Western Ghats by reck­less re­source ex­trac­tion.

Mr Gadgil had been com­mis­sioned by the Union Min­istry of En­vi­ron­ment and Forests (MoEF) in 2010 to study the frag­ile ecosys­tem of the Western Ghats and come up with so­lu­tions to sus­tain the eco­log­i­cal bal­ance along the sen­si­tive moun­tain range - span­ning Gu­jarat, Ma­ha­rash­tra, Goa, Kar­nataka, Ker­ala and Tamil Nadu run­ning par­al­lel to the coun­try's western coast.

The Mad­hav Gadgil Re­port, sub­mit­ted to the min­istry in 2011, had noted that the Western Ghats had "been torn asun­der by the greed of the elite and gnawed at by the poor, striv­ing to eke out sub­sis­tence". The com­mit­tee had sug­gested that 1,40,000 km of the Western Ghats be clas­si­fied into three zones. In some ar­eas, the com­mit­tee had rec­om­mended strong re­stric­tions on min­ing and quar­ry­ing, use of land for non­for­est pur­poses, con­struc­tion of high rises and some such ac­tiv­i­ties. It had also called for strict reg­u­la­tion of many other "devel­op­men­tal" works in con­sul­ta­tion with lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties and Gram Pan­chay­ats.

The re­port had met with re­sis­tance from gov­ern­ments of all six stake­holder States. There­after, the MoEF had ap­pointed an­other panel, headed by space sci­en­tist K Kas­turi­ran­gan, to "ex­am­ine" 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, had se­verely wa­tered down the rec­om­men­da­tions of the Gadgil panel, ef­fec­tively sug­gest­ing that only a third of the Western Ghats be iden­ti­fied as be­ing eco­log­i­cally sen­si­tive.

After pro­tracted con­sul­ta­tions with the State gov­ern­ments, the MoEF last year no­ti­fied some 57,000 sq km of the Western Ghats as an eco­log­i­cally sen­si­tive area, in which all min­ing ac­tiv­i­ties, large con­struc­tion, ther­mal power plants and highly-pol­lut­ing in­dus­tries were banned.

Ac­cord­ing to en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, the com­mit­tee's rec­om­men­da­tions were strong enough to pro­tect the sen­si­tive Western Ghat re­gion. How­ever, the six State gov­ern­ments seemed to have come un­der pres­sure of var­i­ous lob­bies, lead­ing to di­lu­tion of even the Kas­turi­ran­gan com­mit­tee's sug­ges­tions. "Ir­re­spon­si­ble en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­icy is to be blamed for the re­cent floods and land­slides in Ker­ala. At least a part of the prob­lem in Ker­ala was man-made," opines Mr Gadgil, the ex­pert whose wise coun­sel went un­heeded.

New de­vel­op­ment mod­els

It was Ker­ala's turn to earn the na­ture's wrath in Au­gust. In 2013, a cloud­burst had brought cat­a­strophic de­struc­tion to Ut­tarak­hand, trig­ger­ing mas­sive land­slides and flash floods and killing close to 6,000 peo­ple. In be­tween Ker­ala and Ut­tarak­hand, many cities, such as Mum­bai, Chen­nai and Ben­galuru, among oth­ers, have time and again come to a stand­still with heavy down­pour. Now, Mr Gadgil warns that Goa could face the same fate as Ker­ala as the de­vel­op­ment pat­tern in the western State is sim­i­lar to the one in Ker­ala.

Un­for­tu­nately, a lot of ac­tiv­i­ties that go in the name of de­vel­op­ment have had ad­verse im­pact on the ecol­ogy. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of trees are felled to pave high­ways or other types of in­fra­struc­ture. Sim­i­larly, un­con­trolled sand min­ing has con­strained river flows, while rapid spread of high-rise build­ings on un­sta­ble hill slopes has weak­ened the soil. Re­lent­less min­ing and quar­ry­ing in eco-sen­si­tive ar­eas have dis­turbed their eco­log­i­cal bal­ance.

Glob­ally, some cities are seek­ing to re­verse this tra­jec­tory of un­planned con­struc­tion. Nairobi, the Kenyan cap­i­tal, is in the midst of an ex­ten­sive de­mo­li­tion drive, up­root­ing thou­sands of build­ings built on ri­par­ian land that choke the flow of wa­ter and con­trib­ute to se­vere an­nual floods. In 2002, in South Korea's Seoul, the city mu­nic­i­pal­ity had torn up an el­e­vated high­way that had been built over the Cheong­gyecheon stream. This in­ter­na­tion­ally-fa­mous, ur­ban-re­newal project has re­duced traf­fic, slashed air pol­lu­tion and cut the ur­ban heat. In Yonkers, New York, an on­go­ing project aims to res­tore the buried Saw Mill river. Zurich in Switzer­land has been an early pi­o­neer, de­vel­op­ing the Bachkonzept (stream con­cept) to cre­ate, res­tore and un­cover a num­ber of streams and springs. Lon­don, which built over a num­ber of fa­mous rivers, has now un­cov­ered and re­stored a num­ber of these wa­ter­ways.

The demon­strated eco­log­i­cal and en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits are clear. So are the so­cial and eco­nomic re­turns. Such types of restora­tion need to be­come more wide­spread and em­bed­ded in rou­tine cli­mate change and dis­as­ter man­age­ment plan­ning in In­dia. Trans­par­ent shar­ing of hy­dro­logic and rain­fall data, ef­fec­tive and co­or­di­nated man­age­ment of dams and reser­voirs and strin­gent reg­u­la­tion on land use in eco-sen­si­tive re­gions are some of the first steps that Ker­ala as well as In­dia have to take to limit the im­pact of nat­u­ral calami­ties. It is high time that de­vel­op­ment did not in­cur the wrath of na­ture.

"Ir­re­spon­si­ble en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­icy is to be blamed for the re­cent floods and land­slides in Ker­ala. At least a part of the prob­lem in Ker­ala was man-made."


Noted Ecol­o­gist

Dam man­age­ment has al­ways been a con­tentious is­sue, not just in Ker­ala but the en­tire coun­try.

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