Kerala Floods: When Politics, Religion Took Precedence Over Environment and Ecology
Over 3 lakh people have been displaced, 80 dams opened, 10,000 km of roads damaged and losses have mounted over Rs 10,000 crore.
If only all the politicking over the recommendations of the Gadgil panel and the Kasturirangan committee had not happened, probably this disaster could have been avoided.
If Kerala is currently suffering from landslides and mudslides following torrential rains and flooding in the state, a major part of the blame has to go to the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) and the church for politicising the issue of preserving sensitive areas in the Western Ghats. A set of recommendations made by Madhav Gadgil-headed Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel in 2011 was resisted by almost all across the state, terming it too eco-friendly.
The Gadgil panel’s most important recommendations were that a national level authority - Western Ghats Ecology Authority- be set up to manage 67 per cent of the areas in the Western Ghats that were sensitive and three zones, based on their eco-sensitivity, be set up. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization(UNESCO) considered the recommendations and included 39 sites on the Western Ghats in its heritage list.
Then, a committee headed by space scientist K Kasturirangan, then a member of the Planning Commission, was asked to look into the issue of preserving western ghats ecology. Kasturirangan tried to balance the concerns of development and environment protection and recommended that 37 per cent of the areas in the Western Ghats be declared as ecologically-sensitive. A feature of the recommendations was that the committee recommended a total ban on development activities across 60,000 sq km ecologically sensitive areas in Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat.
The Kasturirangan panel identified 13,108 sq km in Kerala as ecologically sensitive. It said that mining, quarrying, thermal plants’ construction, polluting industries, buildings over 2,000 sq metre and townships in over 50 hectares should not be allowed in the sensitive areas. In Kerala, 123 villages spread across 12 of the 14 districts were identified as ecologically-sensitive, with 48 of them from Idukki district. This led to a hue and cry being raised and agitations being launched. Former Idukki member of Parliament P T Thomas that the Left Democratic Front (LDF), led by CPI-M, and the church were misleading the people.
Thomas insistence that the Madhav Gadgil report be implemented in toto resulted in the Congress denying him a ticket in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Congress lost the seat to an independent backed by the Left Democratic Front (LDF) Joice George. Thomas has openly accused the church of opposing both Gadgil and Kasturirangan reports with a priest Sebastian Kochupurakkal leading an agitation by a group called High Range Protection Council. The Bishop of Idukki’s Syro Malabar Catholic Church opposed his renomination by the Congress, while the LDF and the church indulged in scare-mongering that the people in sensitive areas would be displaced.
Thomas also charged the media in Idukki of catering to the interests of the church and farmers who had settled in high ranges. Ironically, the Kerala government didn’t accept even Kasturirangan panel’s recommendation fully. In October 2014, the Oommen Chandy Government appointed a three-member panel headed by then Kerala Biodiversity Board chairman Oommen V Oomen to go into the impact of the Kasturirangan report on people’s livelihood.
The panel came out with a report that only 9,993.7 sq km area should be kept under ecologically-sensitive zones. In addition, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan told the State Assembly that his government had revised recommendations on demarcation of ecologically-sensitive areas based on a study conducted by the Kerala State Remote Sensing and Environment Centre. Besides the church, the Indian Union Muslim League, which was a key member of the Oommen Chandy Government then, a couple of Madrasas and two leaders claiming to represent Hindu interests also opposed restrictions on grounds of environment and ecology.
All these politicking has resulted in every road in Idukki being blocked by landslides every 2-3 km. An entire stretch of road on Thodupuzha has been lost to landslide, while a few bridges have disappeared. Idukki member of Parliament Joice George has termed the situation alarming in Idukki, with all channels of communication cut off. Many have been killed in the landslides and retrieving the bodies is proving to be a tough job.
Nearly 350 lives have been lost since 29 May when the south-west monsoon set in. More casualties are feared due to the effects of the torrential rain. Over three lakh people have been displaced, 80 dams opened, 10,000 km of roads damaged and losses have mounted over Rs 10,000 crore. These are initial estimates and we are likely likely to see the figures being raised as reports from remote areas in 10 of the 14 districts pour in. Maybe, it is not the time to harp on the Gadgil or the Kasturirangan panel recommendations. But when the water drains and the sky clears up, when safety of all people are ensured and after they return home, it will be only fitness of things that the Kerala government look at these recommendations seriously. Implement them. On its part, the Centre should extend all help possible, including in implementing the reports. And pray religion is kept off administration issues, lest they be politicised.
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