Restoring Kerala’s ecological infrastructure
From the plantation economy to hydel power to tourism, it’s a story of environmental decline that needs to be arrested
he creation of new Kerala’, as the State government has named the reconstruction programme, requires rebuilding of manmade infrastructure lost in the floods. But restoration of ‘natural infrastructure’ lost due to human interventions during the last few decades is equally pivotal to ensuring Kerala’s future security.
What is lost
Major ecological destruction began in Kerala during the British colonial period, especially during the period after the advent of the industrial revolution. As the environmental historian Richard Grove has rightly categorised, colonialism was also a period of ‘green imperialism’. By 1810, the British had established effective control over all three regions of present-day Kerala — Malabar, Kochi and Travancore. Since the beginning of the 19th century, there have been sporadic attempts to clear forests and establish commercial plantations of coffee, cinchona and tea.
But the watershed in large scale forest destruction was in 1877-88, when the British planter John Daniel Monroe bullied the local ruler to lease him 144,020 acres (215 sq. miles) of virgin forests in the Kannan Devan hills in Idukki region of the kingdom of Travancore. This was over 3 per cent of the total area of Travancore. Tropical forests were cleared for largescale commercial plantations, first for coffee and subsequently for tea. Thus began the massive destruction of what the Madhav Gadgil Committee called the ‘water towers’ of the Southern-Western Ghats.
This plantation mania spread across all three regions of Kerala, denuding large areas of the high ranges. In the beginning of the 20th century, rubber arrived in Kerala and spread like a parasite through the low-lying areas of the Western Ghats and the midlands. Rubber also contributed to forest and biodiversity loss across Kerala, occupying 28 per cent of the cropped area (5.5 lakh hectares) in the State today.
The large-scale internal migration from coastal and midland areas to the Western Ghats in Kerala, which began in the first half of the 20th century and lasted till 1980, also contributed to forest destruction. In the Idukki region of Travancore and Wayanad region of Malabar, migration resulted in extensive forest clearance for agriculture and human settlement.
Another factor that led to forest destruction is the massive urbanisation in the State. In 1970-71, when Kerala’s population was 1.69 crore, the urban population was only 15.1 per cent. But by 2015-16, when the state’s population grew to 3.34 crore, the urban population shot up to 47.7 per cent. Kerala is today a suburban or ‘rurban’ (rural + urban = rurban) State. Urbanisation made major demands on resources for construction and infrastructure projects.
The explosion of stone quarries in the State after 1980, has been phenomenal. Today, Kerala has over 5,000 quarries, out of which over 2,000 are in the Western Ghats. Yet another factor which has contributed to forest destruction is the over-dependence on hydro-power.
Out of the 58 small and big dams in Kerala, 35 are hydro-electric projects. Together they have contributed to destruction of over 350 sq.km of evergreen forests, in the reservoir area alone. Three major rivers have over a dozen dams each, which have altered the riverine ecosystem in many ways.
Besides, as has been found in a 2015 study by the Central Water Commission, in many dams commissioned before 1971, the reservoir capacity has been significantly reduced due to silting. So in Dams have altered the riverine ecosystem in many ways
extreme rain events, they are unable to hold water as per their designed capacity.
When united Kerala was created in 1957, 36 per cent of Kerala’s land area constituted forests; by 1990 this was reduced to 12 per cent, according to a study by the National Centre for Earth Science Studies in Thiruvananthapuram. The 2016 Economic Survey of the Kerala Government claimed that Kerala had 19,230 sq.km. of forests — which is 49.5 per cent of the total land area. But the devil is in the details; out of the above, only 1,523 sq.km is classified as ‘dense’ forests, which is only 3.9 per cent of the State’s land area.
In an ecologically fragile State where 75 per cent of the land has a gradient of above 20 per cent, the loss of dense forest cover of this magnitude is an invitation to disaster. Excessive sand mining from riverbeds, to feed the construction mania in the State, has led to reduction in the water absorption/retention capacity of the river beds.
Based on sand audits conducted in 14 major rivers, it is found that sand extraction is up to 85 times in excess of the sand deposition. In the 3,200 km network of rivers, river beds capable of retaining
and slowly releasing 500 million sq.metres of water at a time have been eliminated through sand mining. The entire 38,863 sq.km. of Kerala’s land mass is the catchment area or drainage basin of its 44 rivers and their 900 tributaries. Many tributaries have been done to death. Thousands of flood paths consisting of small streams, rivulets, etc., have been levelled for construction.
Though not strictly classified as wetland, the once extensive network of 7.6 lakh hectares of paddy fields in Kerala have played the role of flood plains in the State. About 80 per cent of the paddy fields have been levelled or converted for construction and commercial cultivation and only 1.9 lakh hectares remain. After 1980, uncontrolled tourism development has also contributed to this disruption.
Ecological restoration cannot prevent the recurrence of extreme rain events. But it can certainly ameliorate their impacts considerably. The first crucial step in this direction would be the adoption of the Madhav Gadgil Committee report and its implementation.
Kerala desperately needs a River Restoration Authority to rejuvenate the network of 44 rivers and their 900 tributaries, rivulets and countless streams. In those rivers irretrievably destroyed by sand mining, a ‘mining holiday’ should be declared till the sandy riverbeds of about 12 feet each is restored in the respective rivers.
Sand obtained by de-silting of the dams could replace the quantity lost during this mining holiday. Pit mining should be totally banned. ‘Bar skimming’, wherein every year only the surface two feet of the sandy riverbed is allowed to be removed manually, as opposed to current mining using earth-removing machines and jet pumps, should be legally mandated. Restoration of the riverside flood plains lost to encroachment, coupled with establishment of ‘bio-shields’ using local plant species, in place of cement and stone construction on the edges would be another imperative.
Equally important is the protection and preservation of Kerala’s wetlands. The programme to revive thousands of village ponds lost to the construction mania should be expanded to cover restoration of inland streams, canals and rivulets lost to human intervention. This includes many of the heavily flooded areas are converted paddy fields, a typical case being the Kochi International airport.
It would only be appropriate to remind Kerala society of these words from Karl Marx’s Capital (Volume 3)’: “Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors, its usufructuaries, and like boni patres familias, they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition.”
The author, a former IAS officer, is a Sahitya Akademi award winning writer in Malayalam.