Violated environment adds to Kerala’s monsoon woes

By Dr. George Jacob

Kochi: The southern Indian state of Kerala was at the receiving end of this year’s Southwest monsoon since its onset on May 29.

The deluge took on Noachian proportions. The monsoon caused unprecedented destruction that measured up to second worst in 94 years in terms of its sheer devastation. The monsoon that lashed the state witnessed more than 300 accounted deaths.

The unaccounted that perished could run up to thousands. It caused damage to the tune of over 195.12 billion rupees to the state, with nearly 20,000 houses and over 16,000 km of the state PWD roads and 82,000 km of regional roads badly damaged.

Landslides and flooding damaged crops in about 26,824 hectares of cultivable land, putting paid to the dreams of financial windfall for thousands of farmers, which usually accompanies the celebration of the state’s own festival of Onam around the time of the year when the monsoon struck.

As the beleaguered state struggles at damage control right now, it is also time and impertinent to circumspect as to why she was affected like never before by the monsoon.

Logically, the state cannot be held responsible for the southwest monsoon, which is a natural phenomenon, and an essential one for an agrarian economy like India.

But inhabitants of the state ought certainly to be held responsible for part of the damages caused by the seasonal rain. Man, by violating the environment in more ways than one has certainly added to the destruction of gargantuan proportion.

Construction of illegal structures in environmentally sensitive areas is a major reason. Munnar, Kerala’s most famous hilltop tourist destination is a classic example. Illegal resorts and hotels have been constructed aplenty on the hilly terrain of this famous tourist destination by land sharks and real-estate goons by adequately greasing the right palms, flouting rules and regulations.

Sreeram Venkitaraman, a young IAS officer had tried to identify such buildings and demolish them after he was posted as sub-collector of Devikulam. However the state government shunted him out just as his bulldozers moved towards the ‘big fish’. Construction of these concrete structures invariably needs well-entrenched foundation. Piling and other machinery-heavy procedures that ensures strong foundation loosens the earth, causing landslides, especially during monsoons.

Many such resorts operate in the high hazard areas in Munnar, as well as other scenic spots in the state, which is a favorite tourist destination, foreign as well as those from the country, flocking to it ever since Kerala found itself one among the list of ‘must visit tourist destinations in the world before you die’ drawn up by the National Geographic.

Noted environmentalist John Peruvanthanam opines that areas that suffered worst damage were those classified as Ecologically-Sensitive Zones (ESZs) in Kerala by the Western Ghats Expert Ecology Panel. Districts of Idukki and Wayanad bore the brunt of the monsoon fury in terms of landslides.

A majority of the 123 villages classified as ESZs in Kerala by the Kasturirangan Commission exist in these districts. The environmentalist minced no words by opining that the people in these districts and others paid the price for the state failing to implement the WGEEP recommendations. More than 300 lost their lives in around 90 major landslides between 1961 and 2018.

Both the original Gadgil Committee and the subsequent Kasthurirangan Commissions had recommended restriction of construction activities in the ESZs, but money-avaricious land sharks pooh-poohed the recommendations to add to the dimensions of their wallets by greasing hands that mattered. Illegal resorts thus mushroomed in tourist spots in Idukki and Wayanad districts of Kerala, with the state government buckling under pressure from the resort lobby and settler farmers.

Curiously even government organizations too defied the restrictions. Who doesn’t like to have some easy money, after all? According to a report in The Times of India, the Kerala state-owned Tourism Department, KTDC has been constructing buildings and cottages at Kuravan Mala, just 80 meters from the Idukki Dam, flouting the rule that construction within 100 meters of the Dam ought to be approved by the Dam Safety Authority. The report had pointed out that the area prone to landslides, done in by construction activity and subsequent flow of tourists would make it vulnerable to natural disasters. That turned out to be prophetic this year!

Illegal quarrying and sand mining for construction purposes which goes on right under the government’s nose with the patronage of politicians and construction agencies too add to landslides. The Gadgil committee identified 2,700 quarries across the crest line of Kerala’s Western Ghats. Of these, 1,700 quarries which mostly crush stone to sand operate illegally.

Though check dams are constructed on seasonal rivers to prevent rain water from flowing into the distant sea to provide fresh water bodies for local use and strengthen the ecosystem, private groups construct them indiscriminately in estates and tourists spots to add to their ‘scenic beauty’ to attract tourists. It was only in June this year that such a check dam atop a hill in Karinchola allegedly led to a landslide that killed seven.

The Kerala High Court ordered demolition of the check dam constructed by the ruling front MLA of Malapuram. Environmental activists claim existence of numerous check dams across most of Kerala’s 44 rivers. These not only disrupt free flow of rivers, but also bring in more silt and sand, thus affecting water flow upstream. They can also prove fatal when the need arises to discharge water from reservoirs, like it did during the recent deluge.

Land reclamation is another major scourge to have caused the massive monsoon- related destruction. Large tracts of paddy fields are reclaimed by real estate sharks for construction of huge apartment complexes, in their effort to urbanize Kerala. Pavement of land around homes with tiles similarly cause flooding by preventing seepage of rain water into the planet’s belly, adding to depletion of precious ground water.

Mindless disposal of waste and nonexistent proper waste disposal too contributed to the floods. The villain of the piece in this respect is plastic. Plastic thrown most mindlessly and indiscriminately into the Thevara-Perandoor Canal chocked it. It was unable to drain its putrid and highly contaminated water into the sea, as the result of plastic chocking it. This caused inundation of the heart of Kochi in places like Edapally and Elamakara. The putrid water from the canal entered numerous homes. If there is one area for the authorities to set the ball rolling to prevent another deluge, it is outright and determined ban of plastic in the state.

Deforestation and ground leveling for cultivation purpose is another factor that contributed to the damage. Use of modern heavy machinery to flatten land aggravates crumbling of hilltops. The ability of roots of trees to hold soil together was there for all to see when Tsunami struck Kerala on December 26, 2004. Deforestation takes away this crucial and an important safeguard against landslides.

Western Ghats, a bio-diversity hotspot is slowly and steadily being chipped away by the politician-contractor-bureaucracy nexus. New highway projects slicing through the Ghats in Karnataka are expected to fell more than 700,000 trees.

Though the above said are manmade, there’s one which is not, but contributes significantly to frailty of the Western Ghats. The Ghats is notorious for prolonged seismic activity, according to geologist Satish Thigale. While seismic activity loosens the soft upper layers of the soil, land tampering using earthmovers results in cracks in the loose sand- a sure recipe for landslides during monsoons.

There has been irrelevant and distasteful blame-game and mudslinging between the government and the opposition regarding opening the dam shutters adding to the deluge. Undoubtedly, dearth of involvement of personnel with crucial scientific temper like engineers and involvement of ignorant politicians had clearly led to goofing up of opening the dams’ shutters.

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