Volunteers and rescue personnel evacuate local residents in an Indian Navy boat from a residential area in Aluva, Kerala, on August 17, 2018. Photo: AFP, Times of India/ RK Sreejith.
Volunteers and rescue personnel evacuate local residents in an Indian Navy boat from a residential area in Aluva, Kerala, on August 17, 2018. Photo: AFP, Times of India/ RK Sreejith.

Experts say the devastating flooding in Kerala in southern India was made worse by badly planned development that damaged the local ecology. Environmentalists say rain was not the only factor in the disaster – man-made activities aggravated the deadly impact of the storm.

Weeks of torrential rain led to 80 dams in the state being opened and 44 rivers overflowing. This triggered landslides and submerged many towns and cities. About 400 people were killed in the seven weeks after May 29, and displaced at least 800,000 people, who have been forced to take refuge in thousands of camps.

“Look at the landslide areas. [They are] all in ecologically sensitive areas where greedy men were involved in construction activities and flouted all norms,” said V Madhusoodhnan, a retired Indian Administrative Services officer, who has written a book on Kerala’s environmental history.

“And if we look at the cities in the state that have been totally flooded, we can see that these cities were built or have been expanded on leveled farmland, blocking the normal waterways,” he said.

Madhusoodhnan, founder and head of the World Institute of Sustainable Energy in Pune, said policy-makers should give serious thought to development that risks damaging the environment. “Only then we can stop this flood being repeated,” he said.

India is highly vulnerable to floods. Some 45.6 million hectares of the country’s total geographical area of 329 million hectares is flood prone. A report last year on the Flood Control Management Program by a working group from India’s Comptroller and Auditor General revealed that, on average, 7.5 million hectares of land is hit by flooding every year, with 1,560 lives lost and damage to crops, homes and public utilities estimated at 18 billion rupees (US$258 million).

Ignoring the Gadgil Report

When the first downpours wreaked havoc, environmental scientist Madhav Gadgil told the media the floods the hit Kerala had been predicted. He said the natural disaster could easily have been tackled if the Gadgil Committee Report, calling for the Western Ghats to be protected, had been implemented.

“The situation in Kerala is really worrying. Such heavy rains are hitting the state. But this is a man-made disaster in the monsoon. It happens not only because of the rains but due to the non-viable use of land and soil. We had given detailed guidelines. It was recommended that we protect the natural resources with the approval of local self-governing bodies. But nothing was realized,” Gadgil told reporters.

The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, also known as the Gadgil Commission, after its chairman Madhav Gadgil, was an environmental research commission appointed by the national Ministry of Environment and Forests.

The commission submitted its report to the government in New Delhi in August 2011. The expert panel compiled information about the Western Ghats and drew up a geospatial database based on environmental sensitivity after consultation with government and civil society groups.

However, people in Kerala, especially some Christian groups, objected strongly to the report being implemented. Most of the farmers in the hilly regions affected such as Wayanad were Christians. In the 20th century, a large number of Christians were part of the Malabar Migration, leaving southern Kerala and acquiring land in Wayanad and other adjoining areas with abundant forest and wasteland. They claimed the Gadgil Committee report was excessively concerned about the environment and not in tune with “on-the-ground realities”.

Water drainage

Meanwhile, T Gangadharan, president of the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad, a science movement in the state, said that if buildings were located on land where water must drain, flooding was bound to occur.

“We ignored the importance of wetlands. We ignored the sensitivity of ecologically fragile land. And in cities, we built buildings on leveled farmland. Now, where will the water drain? So, floods are not surprising,” he said.

Commenting on the impact of the rains and ensuing damage, Susheela Bhatt, a former state government advocate, said it was time for people to reflect. “After seeing this havoc, I think it’s high time to be retrospective,” she said.

Following the heavy rain and landslides, Munnar was cut off from other areas. Last month, the government disbanded the Munnar Special Tribunal, set up in 2011 by then chief minister VS Achuthanandan to settle controversial land disputes in Munnar.

Mini Mohan, a social activist closely associated with Ekta Parishad, an organization engaged in raising land rights issues, said the flood havoc occurred because the Gadgil Committee’s report was ignored and a later report was watered down. The Kasturirangan report sought to balance concern about development and environment protection by scaling down environmental regulations proposed by the Gadgil Committee.

“We allowed encroachments. We allowed deforestation. We allowed excessive quarrying. We kneeled and crawled in front of the land-grabbing mafia. And now we are suffering,” Mohan said.

Dr M Kamarudeen, a biodiversity management expert in the state capital, said using explosives to blast rock in quarries had also caused rapid landscape changes, which led to landslides. “Quarrying and construction should not be allowed in landslide-prone areas. Not only the Western Ghats, but also the estuarine mangroves should be preserved to minimize natural calamities,” he said.

Long delays

Last year, the Comptroller and Auditor General’s Performance Audit on “Schemes for Flood Control and Flood Forecasting” examined the effectiveness of flood control and forecasting schemes. It revealed that there were long delays before detailed project reports were approved, so technical designs were often irrelevant by the time funds were allocated.

“Flood management works were not taken up in an integrated manner covering an entire river or tributary, or a major segment of rivers or tributaries. There were delays in completion of projects under the flood management program. Many telemetry stations [a communication process to collect data in remote areas] installed during the XI five-year plan remained non-functional, meaning that real-time data for most of the period was not available,” the report said.

There were huge delays in the completing of river-management projects and work related to border areas.

No Emergency Plans

“Emergency Action Plans had been prepared for only a few large dams. Key recommendations of the Rashtriya Barh Ayog [National Flood Commission] such as scientific assessment of flood-prone areas and enactment of the Flood Plain Zoning Act have not materialized. Performance and concurrent evaluation were not done as per scheme guidelines,” the report said.

There were also delays in the release of national funds for state governments, which affected 48 projects, funds not being used or being diverted by agencies to unapproved projects.

Meanwhile, Kerala’s chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan has said the state will try to borrow 100 billion rupees ($1.4 billion) from the national government to help pay for reconstruction.

# This is the third of a three-part series on the floods that have devastated Kerala state. Click for the first and second reports.

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