Growth & sustainability: Kerala, Uttarakhand disasters testimony of failure to do this

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October 21, 2021 6:15 AM

The Madhav Gadgil report on conservation of the Western Ghats submitted to the Centre in 2011 is brought up almost annually in connection with rain-related disaster in Kerala.

The Madhav Gadgil report on conservation of the Western Ghats submitted to the Centre in 2011 is brought up almost annually in connection with rain-related disaster in Kerala.The Madhav Gadgil report on conservation of the Western Ghats submitted to the Centre in 2011 is brought up almost annually in connection with rain-related disaster in Kerala.

Climate change is, without doubt, at the root of the rain-wreaked havoc Kerala and Uttarakhand are seeing. The heavy rains would certainly qualify as extreme weather events, and 14 of the 16 studies published in the latest Explaining Extreme Events from Climate Perspective—a special supplement of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society—lay the blame for the extreme weather event they examined at the door of anthropogenic climate change. However, the devastation in the two states can’t be pinned to climate change alone; it has a lot to do with development that exacerbates risks from climate change.

The Madhav Gadgil report on conservation of the Western Ghats submitted to the Centre in 2011 is brought up almost annually in connection with rain-related disaster in Kerala. It had called for designating the entire Ghats as eco-sensitive—with a three-tiered ranking of sensitivity banning any development activity in the most sensitive zones. That should have served as an early warning, but the political class (and not just in Kerala) found it unpalatable. The K Kasturirangan committee that the Centre set up as the successor to Gadgil after all six stakeholder states rejected the latter’s recommendations made more liberal recommendations. But, eventually, just 9,993 sq km of the total area in Kerala was notified as ecologically sensitive—a good 3,115 sq km lesser than even the Kasturirangan recommendation.

Post the 2018 disaster, much has changed in the state’s approach—and much hasn’t. The state government has been proactive in backing flood-resistant construction in vulnerable districts under its Life Mission, with learnings from the Netherlands’s Room for the River emulated. At the same time, the state decided in 2019 to go ahead with semi high-speed rail corridor despite the potentially severe environmental and ecological consequences flagged. The state will have to acquire 1,383 hectares across fragile ecosystems such as wetlands, forests, backwaters, etc, for the project; some experts have even termed this a foundation for future disasters. State and local authorities have also not been able to keep under check mono-cultivation on hills degrading the slopes’ top soil and construction that leaves the topography feebler than before.

The same culprits are to blame in Uttarakhand—development and other economic activity in the region without much thought given to vulnerabilities of ecology and topography. Hydel power projects, encroachment of streams, glaciers, etc, for construction, roads, etc, have all boomed. And, it is not the state and local governments alone that are behaving quite myopically. The Lakhwar Multipurpose dam (in Uttarakhand) that had been shelved in 1992 recently received a key approval from the Centre, despite objections from experts. Via an affidavit before the Supreme Court, the Center has also made it easier for work to proceed in seven hydel power projects in Uttarakhand, notwithstanding criticism from experts across domains, from water policy to ecology. Climate change as a malaise may be general, but the pain points are all local—the states and the Centre must realise this and act not just to contain damage but also to build resilience. The development imperative vis-a-vis population pressures can’t be wished away, but certainly can be balanced against needs of ecology and geography.

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