Successive year, same story

Flood-fed disaster this year portrays Kerala’s failure to learn important lessons from 2018

If you sow the wind, you will reap the whirlwind. So goes the Biblical saying. Kerala has just had another date with disaster, exactly a year after the century's worst floods battered the state almost beyond recognition.

One should have thought appropriate lessons would be learnt from the 2018 catastrophe. The repeat of last year's horrors shows that we have not. We are paying a heavy penalty for inexcusable inaction. A deeper analysis of the grave situation is necessary to realise the catastrophic consequences of our criminal failure to apply the correctives.

A notable feature of this year's disaster is that the damage has been most pronounced in the Malabar region. Districts like Wayanad, Malappuram, Kasaragod, Kozhikode and Palakkad have been the worst hit. Majority of the deaths have happened due to landslides in the Malabar region.

The reasons are not far to seek. Indiscriminate grant of licence for quarries and sand mining are villains of the piece. The fact that as many as 80 landslides have happened within a week into the calamity is self-explanatory. Governments of both the right and left persuasion are guilty. And they owe an explanation for the dismal failure to initiate remedial action.

How do we go about undoing the damage? Well, the top priority must be accorded to permanent shifting, at the earliest, of the vulnerable population from ecologically fragile areas.

This a task easier said than done. There will be fierce resistance, as had happened when the Madhav Gadgil Report on saving the Western Ghats was published. But the government must show the political will to do that.

What happened in the wake of the 2018 calamity was that people returned from relief camps to their damaged houses and started living there again after undertaking repairs. Those who lost their homes reconstructed them with the help of the government and other agencies. That will be an invitation to the disaster which must be averted at all costs.

No wonder, Gadgil has squarely blamed successive governments for their failure to implement his report to protect ecologically fragile areas by shifting people to safer areas. Ignoring the warning has resulted in death and destruction through torrential rains and dreaded landslides.

Gadgil, it may be mentioned, had notified as many as 123 villages as ecologically sensitive areas (ESAs). All construction activity must be banned in the ESAs. Indiscriminate issuing of a licence for quarrying activity must become a thing of the past and a non-bailable offence. Likewise, people must not be allowed to live in ecologically sensitive areas, especially in zone 1 and zone 2 as recommended by Gadgil.

Successive governments are also guilty of watering down provisions of the Wetlands Act. To the credit of the erstwhile VS Achuthanandan government, it enacted the legislation and enforced it vigorously. But the Oommen Chandy government that succeeded the VS government and the present Pinarayi government diluted the Wetlands Act in the name of development. Precious wetlands and waterbeds were filled up with vengeance as it was resulting in alarming shrinkage of the area where water could be spread out and retained. The government still has time to make amends. All it has to do is to cancel amendments to the Act and retain status quo ante. That is, rigorous implementation of the Wetlands Act the way the VS government did.

A major reason why Kerala finds itself in a sorry plight is the unpardonable assault on nature. Eroding the base of rivers through indiscriminate sand mining has created a dangerous situation. Rivers have lost their capacity to retain water. Encroachment of river banks has caused the rivers to shrink in size. Mindless felling of trees and deforestation have played havoc with the delicate ecological balance, once pride of Kerala. The destruction of forests and felling of trees causes floods. Rivers have virtually become stormwater drains with the water rushing towards the sea. The result is unprecedented floods during monsoon season and drought during the summer months thanks to the erosion of river basins. This must cease if we are serious about saving the dying rivers of Kerala.

The government must also give top priority to constitute its own Disaster Management Force (DMF). This is of paramount importance. Having its own DMF will enable the state to launch rescue and relief work without having to depend on the central forces stationed far away from the state.

Last but not least, it is time to change entrenched mindsets. The tendency to trifle with nature must be avoided. People must learn to live in harmony with nature. Otherwise, nature will exact its revenge as it did in 2018 and now, again, in 2019. The need to preserve and protect whatever remains of the Western Ghats cannot be overemphasised. This must become an article of faith with the people of the state. Failure to do so would result in Kerala turning from being God's Own Country to a country of calamities. At stake is survival of the state. Time for action is now. Tomorrow will be too late.

(The views expressed are strictly personal)

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