“Development is the biggest lobby today and has big money. Leaders have a single point agenda of diluting environmental protection laws,” said former Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh in a recent interview to a TV channel. He made the statement in response to the recent floods and landslides in Kerala.
Kerala, which has almost 40 per cent of the Western Ghats, has been witnessing landslips and floods from 2018 onwards. Despite natural calamities, the state is yet to learn hard from the disasters.
2021 is only a repetition of 2018. In 2018, when the state saw landslides and flood, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan pointed out that these disasters were unknown for hundreds of years in the state and the situation was grim. How far the state has gone from this statement? Better to say, the state has not budged a little. The mindset of politicians in their approach to development projects has not changed even after severe flood disasters in the recent past in the state. And to say, reports point out that mining operation continued in Kootickal Panchayat in Kottayam district that witnessed more than ten deaths in the 2021 October landslide even as region was hit by a landslide. This shows how deep rooted influence the quan mafia have. Moreover, several reports earlier had cautioned against any mining activities in the Kootickal region, which were all surpassed by officials.
DESPITE CALAMITIES, SILVERLINE STILL A PRIORITY
Coming back, a recent anecdote on the much ambitious 540-km semi high-speed railway –Silverline– across Kerala, is quite evident to show how the State approaches environmental issues. In the midst of the floods, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan met Union Minister for Railways Ashwini Vaishnav in N Delhi on October 22, 2021 to get the final sanction for Silverline, despite opposition from environmentalists and the people. Notwithstanding all the disasters, the ruling CPM leadership is for their ambitious “Silverline” that needs acquiring 1,383 hectares of land that cuts cut through the State’s ecologically fragile coastal ecosystems. This includes forest areas, backwater regions, wetlands, densely populated areas and paddy fields. The Government’s pet project will also have devastating effect on the eco-sensitive heritage sites such as Ponnani-Thrissur Kole wetlands, Madayipara biodiversity park in Kannur. Thirunavaya ponds, lakes, Kadalundi bird sanctuary in Kozhikode and wetlands in Malappuram. No doubt, the construction of the new semi speed rail line will drill holes in the already fragile Western Ghats. Simply, it is Silverline that prevails over environment.
DEVELOPMENT, THE GREATEST LOBBY
Once the disaster struck, environmentalists are back on track, blaming the government for not implementing the various reports, especially the Madhay Gadgil report. The environmentalists have their limits, as is quite evident from all over the world, to rule over political minds. For the ruling Front, environment is always secondary. They put the blame on environmentalists and other like-minded people for scuttling development. As wisely said by Jairam Ramesh, “there is a mining lobby, there is a tourism lobby, there is a construction lobby. Development has become the greatest lobby.”
It was in 2011 that the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel chaired by Madhav Gadgil submitted its report. Even after 10 years and appointment of another committee led by K Kasturirangan, the highly ecologically sensitive region in Kerala continues to be an epi-centre of construction activities. The state Government kept silent on the report after widespread protests from farmers, the church and political parties.
The disaster that the state witness from 2018 is a result of activities like rock quarrying. construction of new buildings and roads and destruction of natural forest in the highly economic zones. The state should have taken the flood and landslips for the last three years as a warning despite watering the ecological reports for mere political gains. It is high time that the government consider an environmental protection system.
Kerala, according to experts, is likely to witness repeated floods and landslips in the coming years. It is high time Kerala comes up with clear policies on land management and environmental protection. The states should recall Gadgil Committee report for safeguarding its people from future disasters. A bridge should be weighed between development (sustainable development) and environment protection for avoiding future calamities. The state should focus on barring any change n land used pattern that could be disastrous to the hills region.
Kerala should rethink on its human development approach along with environment protection. The state cannot go after only development, axing all environmental issues. Dredging the hills in the name of development will only bring more disasters and not the economy that the State thinks. It could drain the finance of the state in words of calamity.
DISASTERS FROM 2018
In august 2018, over 485 people were killed in the floods and landslides. The year 2019 saw the death of about 50 people when a portion of a hill range caved in at Kavalappara near Nilambur in Malappuram district. Apart from this, landslips in Wayanad and floods in central Kerala led to t death of a dozen people and rendered many homeless. A landslide wiped out a massive settlement of tea estate workers and killed 74 people in Pettimudi in Idukki district in August 2020.