“God’s own land” seems to have been let down by God these days. Even as funds, medicines and food items are pouring from all parts of the country and elsewhere, the torrential rains and floods have raised questions about planning and administration of the southern state. These issues need to be addressed sooner than later as embedded in such natural calamities are seeds of epidemics and crime.
As the first leg of the flood relief effort in Kerala comes to an end and the focus shifts from rescue to disease control and rehabilitation, it is time to ask whether Kerala has learnt any lessons from this catastrophe.
This question gains importance because of the past reactions to the 2004 tsunami and the 2017 cyclone Ockhi. Climate change is a reality and this should be factored into any planning and development activity. During the 2016 Kerala State Assembly polls, none of the political fronts — the CPI (M)-led LDF, the Congress-led UDF or the BJP-led NDA — had anything to say about climate change. At that time, some of those who had reviewed different party manifestoes had warned that climate change, and not investment, should be the primary factor in developmental activities. Based on what Kerala has witnessed, it is time we revisited our approach to dams, their operation and plans for new ones.
The Athirapillai Dam project needs a fresh review. These floods were dam-induced floods. When the dams were built, the rivers disappeared, and many took advantage of this and used the barren land (the river bed) for development activities. When the dams were opened a few days ago, the river reclaimed its previous bed and much more. Dams are built for irrigation, power generation, and flood control; and, nowadays, they also serve as an important source for drinking water. These objectives are inherently contradicting. For power generation, maximum water needs to be stored in the reservoirs, so releasing it for irrigation and drinking purposes will not help the power sector. This time, water was released from the reservoirs when it breached the maximum capacity limit and this added to the flood woes. How to overcome these built-in contradictions? That is the challenge.
The Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF government recently amended the Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act, 2008 recently amid great resistance from opposition and environment activists. This was a dangerous move because a major cause for flooding in central Kerala was due to the excessive reclamation of paddy fields (by about 80 percent from the 1970s). This had reduced the flood plains of most of the rivers. Rivers have the right to flow and a minimum ecological flow is to be maintained even if dams are built.
Rivers should not be treated like canals. Once there is a flood, a river may take the easiest path which may be through populated towns like Pandalam, Chengannur, Aluva, Chalakudy, or Nedumbassery where the Kochi airport, built on a floodplain, is. In some cases, the flood waters diverted into densely-populated areas because its natural course was blocked. We have to go back to the basic lessons regarding the Western Ghats as explained by eminent ecologist Madhav Gadgil and his team.
Gadgil said the Western Ghats is Kerala’s water tower. The protection of the Western Ghats is critical for the survival of our spices, exports, water, power, tourism, agriculture and employment. There are ecologically sensitive areas, whose destruction will be disastrous.
That has happened now. A major cause of fatalities during the floods was landslides caused because of illegal mining and construction on hilly areas. Kuttanad, the region covering Allapuzha and Kottayam districts in Kerala, is another ecologically sensitive area. It is an agricultural land covered with backwaters which are predominantly below the sea level. Flood waters in Kuttanad forced more than 200,000 people to evacuate their homes. That was a colossal loss of property and man-hours.
It is a common picture all over Kerala that roads and buildings have obstructed the natural flow of water in the region. The Thanneermukkom barrage meant to stop sea water from entering the region, and the Thottappally spillway, which acts as a drain into the Arabian Sea, is not functioning properly. The recommendations of the MS Swaminathan commission were implemented in a wrong manner. The purpose of the report, to regain the ecological sustainability of the area and thereby reduce the agrarian distress, was defeated.
Tourism is important for the state’s economy, and places such as Munnar, Kuttanad, and Wayanad get prime focus. The floods wreaked havoc in these places. Rampant illegal construction of resorts and excessive use of houseboats in the backwaters have proved self-destructive. As almost all districts were severely affected by the flood, in a sense, what has to happen is the rebuilding of Kerala itself. Rehabilitation and resettlement by the government should go through thorough introspection — because the past experiences meted out towards fishermen and people in Kuttanad are really disappointing. Our humbug of development of transport, housing and communication systems in Kerala must be challenged.
What is most important at this hour of rebuilding of the worst natural calamity affected Kerala is to have a serious and sincere relook at the whole lifestyle in the State. It’s the testing time for the leaders, planners, administration and most importantly, the affected Keralaites. I am sure the state and its population would live up to the call of the hour and would defeat the natural calamity enlarged by selfish and short-sighted man-made designs.
Bharatkumar Raut is a political analyst and former Member of Parliament (RS).