Partly a man-made calamity

Interview/ Madhav Gadgil, ecologist

56-kannur After the storm: A landslide in Kannur that resulted in the damage of houses, crops and bridges | Dhanesh T. P.

Noted ecologist Madhav Gadgil blames the “law-flouting” state government for the devastation in Kerala. The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), headed by Gadgil in 2011, had suggested measures to preserve the ecologically frail Ghats. But, the Kerala government, like the other five states, chose to reject the report. Having suffered such devastation, Gadgil feels that the state should survey the “ecologically sensitive zones” that have been compromised due to greed-driven development. Stone quarrying and changes in forest land use go unabated, as the political machinery is in the grip of money power, laments Gadgil, who is the founder of the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. Excerpts from an interview:

What caused the Kerala floods?

Illegal stone quarrying in ecologically sensitive zones and unrestricted construction caused the landslides and floods. It is partly a man-made calamity. These contributed to the magnitude of the damage.

Deforestation is known to reduce the water yield in rivers. So why did the rivers swell up in Kerala?

Madhav Gadgil Madhav Gadgil

Floods have occurred in response to various changes in river streams and river beds. In Kerala, besides deforestation, the stone quarrying has resulted in huge amounts of rubble, which fell into the water bodies and reduced their water-carrying capacity. This caused flooding. Wetlands have been encroached upon due to unplanned construction and natural water storages have been destroyed, too.

Kerala has witnessed unprecedented rainfall in nearly a century. Can the floods be attributed to heavy rain?

Of the rainfall in the month of August over the last 143 years in Kerala, August 2018 has only the sixth highest. On earlier occasions, it was much more. The rainfall is not unprecedented, but the floods are. Human interventions aggravated the situation.

Your report on the Western Ghats was met with resistance from subsequent governments.

Our recommendations would have been accepted by any society that believes in good governance. Resistance is from the political machinery, which is firmly in the grip of money power. In Kerala, at least 90 per cent of stone quarries are illegal. But, the government is legalising them. Quarries are owned by prominent leaders of every political party. So, they gang up against any rational conservation measure.

What is the way forward?

There are acts passed by Parliament which mandate involving local bodies in decision making. In the Plachimada case [tribals versus Coca-Cola Inc over water rights], the Kerala High Court and legislature upheld the right of the gram panchayat to oppose decisions that are inimical to the interests of their citizens. But, despite an order to give compensation of Rs 160 crore, not a single penny has been paid.

We are amid law-flouting governments across all states. In a democracy, people have the tools to fight it, but have to get organised to fight for their rights peacefully. This can ensure there is environmentally favourable and people-oriented development.