Hope flickers for those still buried

Landslide toll 41; environmentalists blame it on ‘man-made’ disaster in Western Ghats

Mumbai/Pune

The National Disaster Response Force personnel had recovered 41 bodies till Thursday evening amid receding hope of finding more survivors in Malin village where 150 people are still feared to be trapped.  The rescue workers have pulled out nine survivors from the rubble thus far.

The 41 dead included 16 women and five children. Several victims were given a mass cremation on Thursday by grieving relatives as politicians of all hues – such as Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and NCP leader Sharad Pawar – descended on the ill-fated village. Rajnath has announced a compensation of Rs 2 lakh to each deceased’s family from the Prime Minister’s relief fund. Pawar, who visited the survivors admitted in a hospital at Manchar, too, promised all help from the State Government and measures to avoid recurrence of such disasters.

Meanwhile, environmentalists have blamed massive illegal quarrying and other illegal activities in the forests and hills across Pune district for the ‘man-made’ disaster. Environmental activist Sumaira Abdulali has written to the Prime Minister and sought urgent action in this regard. “In the past several years, political and commercial imperatives have taken precedence over environmental safety and the results of some of these short-sighted policies are becoming increasingly visible. The lack of cooperation and active stonewalling of the WGEEP is one such case in point, which is very relevant to the area where the landslide has occurred. Had environ-mental recommendations been followed, in particular those relating to deforestation and protection of the ecological balance of the area, perhaps this tragedy could have been avoided,” she has written in her letter.

The ecological experts’ panel on Western Ghats, too, had made some specific observations on the proposed windmills and development of the area near Bhimashankar, where Malin village is situated. WGEEP had alleged collusion between the Forest Department and certain windmill operators to permit large-scale deforestation in this environmentally fragile area. WGEEP had even specifically mentioned the danger of landslides after conducting site visits and noting the deliberate destruction being caused to the area.

A Ministry of Environ-ment and Forest notification last year too had cited the fragile nature of the Western Ghat ecosystem and had warned of the threat from developmental activities. The notification had ordered immediate halt to sand mining and quarrying; construction of thermal power plants; and building and construction of township projects of specific area. “Malin along with a host of other villages falls into this category,” several environmentalists have pointed out.

Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan too mentioned the concerns expressed by the environmentalists during the cabinet meeting on Thursday. “There are several villages near the Sahaydri mountain range. There are incidents of landslide due to cutting of trees as well as construction activities on the hills. Mountains have been flattened for agriculture”, he said.

“Since environmental experts have informed that the Malin landslide occurred due to such activities, if necessary, a policy would be prepared to tackle such activities,” Chavan said later.

Official sources also said that the Maharashtra state government is likely to order a probe into the incident and announce compensation after a detailed report of the devastation is prepared by the state’s relief and rehabilitation department. It is likely to be cleared by the cabinet next week.

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