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

The Hindu Business Line - - THINK - GM PIL­LAI KK MUSTAFAH

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

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.

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