Kerala Flood: Nature’s Fury or Man-made Disaster?
| Onkareshwar Pandey - 27 Aug 2018

Kerala Flood: Nature’s Fury or Manmade Disaster?



New Delhi, 27 August 2018, The recent devastating flood in Kerala has caused immeasurable damage to the environment. The quantum damage of flora, fauna, and livestock are unprecedented and incalculable. It will take several years for the washed away forest to regrow. It feared that close to 400 people have died including a few bodies missing, or may be washed away with the current. In monetary terms, as per ASSOCHAM estimate, the flood has caused damage of close to Rs 20,000 crores (roughly 2.8 billion dollars). Who is responsible for this? Apparently nature? No, mostly it is human beings and the systemic corruption: their insatiable greed, uncontrolled exploitation of forests and rivers, contractor-mining-mafia and lack of planning to moderate water flow. That is why it is more of a manmade disaster than nature’s fury.

The disaster was foreseen and forewarned by Dr MadhavGadgil, a world-renowned environmentalist from Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. The regions which have borne the brunt of the Kerala flood-fury had been declared as “Ecologically-Sensitive-Zone” by the “Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel”, headed by Dr Gadgil and so also known as the Gadgil Committee. Mr VS Vijayan, an environmental scientist and a member of the same expert panel said, "Kerala is going through a man-made calamity. The impact should have been limited if the Gadgil committee report, aimed at protecting ecologically-fragile mountain ranges, was implemented."The written report Mr Vijayan was referring to was submitted to the government way back in 2011 by a team of experts headed by Dr MadhavGadgil of the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. The panel had strongly recommended that mining and quarrying be stopped in certain areas to avoid a potential disaster. They had specifically objected to the uncontrolled mining of sand from the river beds that actually works not only as resistance but also holds the water and helps in percolation further down the subsurface. The committee also recommended restrictions on deforestation and unhindered use of land for construction purposes. The committee had suggested that approximately 1,45,000 square kilometers of the Western Ghats be classified into three zones as per the requirement of environmental protection in the areas. But greedy and corrupt vested interests in the Kerala government rejected the committee report and did not adopt any of its recommendations. In the aftermath of the floods and landslides, Dr Gadgil has rightly blamed the "irresponsible environmental policy" of state government. Because he can’t say it in plain words that it is a result of greed and corruption. But he called it “a man-made disaster”. Many other prominent environmentalists too have pointed fingers at the extensive quarrying, mushrooming of high-rises in the low lying areas that in reality were spill channels.

It is a manmade disaster in more than one way. There are total 42 dams in Kerala. Idukki, among most affected districts, alone has 12 reservoirs and Palakkad; another district among most affected has 11. So, more than half of the total reservoirs are concentrated in these two districts.

At the last moment, all the floodgates were opened to save the reservoirs from overflow and damage. Why not before? When the reservoirs were brimming in July itself and forecast from IMD was of heavy rain in throughout August, what stopped them from slowly releasing the water? The laidback bureaucracy and indifferent political leadership had nothing in mind for tomorrow.

All was left to low-level irrigation engineers, who can’t take a decision of releasing the water. Unless and until accountability is fixed things will move on easy pace and people will perish at the cost of cozy comfort of bureaucracy. Ultimately, the most despised by the bureaucrats, the Armed Forces will save the day, the bureaucracy and the citizenry in peril.  The governments need to fix responsibility.

Further “Water Resources” is presently in “Concurrent List”. If need be it should be taken in the “Union List.” Many times the nation felt that water should be in the Union List because it is, most of the time, inter-state instead of intra-state. The kind of hurdle Ms Mamata Banerji had created before Tista water treaty was signed and Kavery water dispute between TN and Karnataka are some of the other episodes that force us to reconsider the constitutional status of water. 

(The writer is an author and ex-army officer who has taken part in relief and rehabilitation works. The views expressed in this article are his personal)  

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