Opinion

2014 Malin landslide, a manmade calamity

Sudhirendar Sharma | Updated on July 30, 2020 Published on July 30, 2020

The Western Ghats remain as vulnerable as these were on the night of July 30, 2014, and no less than remembering the day as an avoidable human tragedy can have those perished rest in peace

The village of Ahupe, overlooking the twin mountains of Machindergad and Gorakhgad in the Western Ghats, is tucked picturesquely at an altitude of almost 4,000 ft in the Ambegaon taluk of Pune. This little plateau is a favourite of weekend trekkers who climb upwards from Khopivali in the Konkan to enjoy the lush green valleys and amazing waterfalls. Despite its craggy hills and picturesque dales, it remains one of the most deprived areas, inhabited predominantly by the Mahdeo Koli tribe.

The undulating landscape on basalt rocks is largely grassy, though the cattle population in the region remains sparse. This is because the grass cover is not fodder for cattle, but has a role in binding the top soil layer on the rocky surfaces. The region is home to several Devrais, sacred groves protected by rural communities to preserve their biodiversity.

Not many trekkers and tourists ever notice that about 10 km from Ahupe is the uninhabited village of Malin, where no humans live today, because on July 30, 2014, a massive landslide had swallowed up almost the entire tribal village of around 50 families. The final death toll was 153 when the rescue operation was stopped, and around 100 people were reported missing. Nothing of the old village remains except for its school building. A memorial with the names of men, women and children who died has been erected by the State Forest Department. In addition, trees bearing the names of the deceased have been planted to make the lifeless slope look green again.

The Malin tragedy has been long forgotten, but it did trigger a familiar environment versus development debate then, leading to inconclusive studies on the cause-effect of landslides. Interestingly, a few months before the tragic event, in December 2013, the infamous Western Ghats Ecology Experts Panel of the Union Environment Ministry had declared 37 villages in the Ambegaon taluk as ecologically sensitive, banning all kinds of mining, quarrying, and big construction activities. Ironically, the taluk continues to remain a hotspot for real estate developers who entice city-dwellers to park their disposable income in farm houses and boutique residencies.

There were incessant rains the week before the tragedy, as much as 600 mm, which had triggered mudslide of a deeply weathered soils the slope of which are known to be susceptible to disturbance. It is recorded that disturbances were caused by the flattening of large tracts of hills to promote paddy cultivation as a source of livelihood for the tribal under the government scheme called Padkai. In reality, padkai is a traditional practice wherein tribes carefully select small patches of barren uplands to be converted into fields using bullocks. Appropriation of this by the government resulted in heavy earth-moving equipment levelling the land with no regard to its vulnerability.

Given the nature of such ecological devastations, attribution of cause(s) remains a contested subject. The Western Ghats remain as vulnerable as these were on the night of July 30, 2014, and no less than remembering the day as an avoidable human tragedy can have those perished rest in peace.

Utter desolation has settled on the spot which was full of life only a few years ago. Where households once stood with its teeming population, the traveller now beholds a lonely wilderness of concrete memorial of dead people, tall grass and abandoned building, the fittest emblem of the manmade folly. Has the tragic fate of Malin stirred the popular imagination in this country or have we forgotten the past to commit ourselves to repeat it? With landslides being a recurring phenomenon ever since, have we not circumscribed our ecological vision like a frog in the well?

The author is a writer and development professional

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Published on July 30, 2020
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