The devastation wreaked by the Kerala floods make it amply clear that the state’s political class failed its people by rejecting the Madhav Gadgil Commission recommendations on the preservation of Western Ghats ecosystem. The Gadgil committee had strongly batted for declaring the entire Western Ghats as an ecologically sensitive area, assigning three levels of sensitivity to its different reaches. It had called for a ban on all developmental activities in the highest-vulnerability areas, while, only some such works were to be undertaken in the other areas, under the strictest regulation. In fact, it had specifically cited the example of the Idukki dam, whose construction engulfed the entire catchment area of the Periyar river in the area, when it talked about how reservoirs in the Western Ghat states were accumulating copious amounts of silt—leading to severely compromised storage capacity—largely because of encroachment and deforestation in the adjoining areas. In the context of the floods, Gadgil, who founded the Centre for Ecological Studies at the Indian Institute of Science, told The Indian Express that activities like stone quarrying which have proliferated in Kerala in violation of existing environmental laws compounded the damage from the floods. What is ironical is the Kerala’s state disaster management plan, published in 2016, had squarely blamed construction and quarrying in Western Ghats districts for landslides that have become a common feature of the south-west monsoons.
It is not just in Kerala that the political class has ignored environment, ecology and sustainability in its calculations for development. In fact, when all six stakeholder states—Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu—rejected the Gadgil Commission report in 2011, the Union government, instead of foregrounding the concerns the report had highlighted, set up the K Kasturirangan committee to review the Gadgil recommendations in a “holistic and multidisciplinary manner”. The Kasturirangan report, of course, recommended that just a third of the Western Ghats be designated ecologically sensitive. Even after, 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. In Uttarakhand that faced similarly devastating floods in 2013, there are over 244 proposed and existing hydel projects. There have also been reports of illegal sand and stone mining in the catchment areas and the mountains in the state. While there is a need to harness the hydroelectricity potential, this has to be done responsibly, with ecology and sustainability being the compass. Instead, since the state’s creation in 200, there has been a rush by different governments to announce hydel and other development projects in an area that has not only become vulnerable to landslides through building and tunnelling activity, but also lies in a seismic zone. There is no doubt that development—and the attendant job creation—is as much a governance imperative as a political one. Indeed, as Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and Environment, who was a member of the Kasturirangan panel, pointed out in a 2014 blog-post, the key question is how policy can “promote development that is sustainable”. Sadly, the Centre and the states—and not just Kerala and Uttarakhand—have really put environment and ecology front and centre in their development policies. With climate change effects worsening and extreme weather events becoming more common, this will only mean more Kerala-like devastation.