The floods of catastrophic dimensions that ravaged Kerala recently have brought into sharp focus the all-round ecological destruction caused by human interference in the State’s hilly terrains.

The fact that there were 12 major landslides and hundreds of minor ones within a fortnight in the mountainous districts of the State underscores how fragile the land has become over the decades. Idukki and Wayanad districts, which fall on the Western Ghats, have been completely cut off by the floods, as the roads connecting them with other parts of the State lie in total disrepair.

Questions from the tragedy

Needless to say, a spate of torrential downpours — that carried on continuously for a few days —precipitated the deluge, which was the severest that the Kerala has witnessed since 1924. The calamity so far has claimed over 300 precious lives, but the death toll could have been much higher had it not been for the swift and coordinated action by the authorities, civil society and the public, which has won them laurels. The overflowing rivers and the opening of 30-odd filled-to-the-brim dams, equally contributed to the flooding of the plains.

The tragedy also revived the discussion around the need to protect the fragile ecosystem of the Western Ghats, the 1600-km-long mountain range, regarded as the one of the eight ‘hottest’ biodiversity hotspots in the world. Kerala accounts for nearly 18 per cent of the biodiversity-rich Western Ghats. About eight years ago, the then UPA government constituted a 14-member Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), under the chairmanship of noted ecologist Madhav Gadgil, to look into measures required to arrest the widespread ecological devastation that the fragile Western Ghats were facing from human activities.

The panel worked tirelessly on it for a year and a half, consulting experts and people’s representatives at all levels, including panchayats, and submitted its report in August 2011 — only to be rejected by then Union Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan. The Minister also refused to meet Gadgil, a globally renowned ecological scientist known for his work on the Western Ghats. A year later, the UPA government appointed a new committee under the chairmanship of K Kasturirangan, former chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation, to “examine” the WGEEP report as it was not acceptable to any of the six Western Ghat States — Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat.

The Gadgil Committee divided the Western Ghats into three ecologically sensitive zones — highest (ESZ1), high (ESZ2) and moderate sensitivity (ESZ3), in addition to the Protected Areas, which are managed under regulations prescribed under pertinent acts such as the Wildlife Protection Act. It suggested that ESZ1 and ESZ2 would be largely ‘no-gone’ zones for mining, polluting industries as well as large-scale development activities, including new railway lines. It also objected to new dams, thermal power stations or massive windmill farms or new townships in ESZ1.

The panel, however, said the local communities and gram sabhas will have a larger say in deciding on matters relating to the ecology of these regions. It also called for stricter regulation on tourism, phasing out of plastics, chemical fertilisers and a ban on diversion of forest land into non-forest applications and conversion of public lands into private lands.

Reduced protected area

The High Level Working Group, headed by Kasturirangan, on the other hand, did away with the graded approach in terms of ecological sensitivity, divided the Western Ghats into cultural lands, where there are currently human settlements, and natural lands and recommended declaring cultural lands — around 60,000 sq-km or 37 per cent of the total — into ecologically sensitive area (ESA).

Last year, the Environment Ministry notified an area of 56,285 sq km in the Western Ghats as ESA. In the context of Kerala, the Kasturirangan committee had proposed an area of 13,108 sq km as ESA, but under pressure from the Kerala government, the notified area was brought down to less than 10,000 sq km.

One of the reasons why the Gadgil panel faced stiff resistance from all political parties, particularly in Kerala, was the involvement of private land. A large part of the ecologically sensitive areas where it was seeking to bring in regulation belonged to private citizens. Attempts to introduce social control over the use of private land have often been challenged. Many advanced economies, however, have been successful in introducing the concept of zoning. Such zoning indicates what may or may not be permitted in a particular area, on the basis of topographical characteristics such as slope, elevation, proximity to water bodies or forests, soil structure, flora and fauna. But such regulations impose restrictions, particularly on conversion of land from one use to another, which are often resisted, and usually by the rich and the powerful.

While the restrictions may not have much of an impact on people, they are often instigated — sometimes by groups with vested interests — to oppose such moves. As a result, such regulations and their implementation face an uphill task with myopic political considerations often coming in the way.

Lessons from Gadgil

The stiff opposition faced by the Gadgil committee, and for that matter the Kasturirangan committee, is a good example of such resistance to change from a laissez-faire approach to land use. The zoning proposed by the WGEEP had attracted widespread criticism and some of the ambiguities and misinformation created a formidable opposition to it, primarily benefiting vested interests exploiting the Western Ghats for short-term profits.

While the present disaster caused by such heavy rainfall (since June, Kerala has received 42 per cent more rains with Idukki getting 83 per cent more than its normal) couldn’t have been completely avoided, its severity could have been reduced if measures to protect the fragile environment were in place. According to a recent study, nearly 40 per cent of the 5,924 granite quarries in Kerala in 2014-15 were located in ecologically sensitive areas. Significantly, a quarter of them were in what the Gadgil committee earmarked as the extremely sensitive ESZ1.

Probably, Gadgil is right in saying that this disaster was partly man-made. The renowned ecologist was quoted in the media as saying development in the State in the last several years has materially compromised its ability to deal with a disaster of this proportion, leading to increasing the magnitude of the human suffering.