By Nandini Basak
Kerala, known for its beautiful backwaters and greenery, was devastated due to severe flooding and heavy rainfall.
Between June 1 and August 18, the state as a whole received 2344.84 mm of rain against a normal course of 1649.3 mm, which was 42.17% more than usual. In districts like Idukki, the excess was over 70%.
Over than 480 people died and at least million were evacuated from low lying areas mainly in parts of central and South Kerala.
The preliminary estimation of the government suggests that more than 50,000 houses have been completely damaged and about 57,000 hectares of cropped land ravaged by the floods-severed Kerala experience after the great flood of 1924.
About 80 of the major and minor dams were opened, for the first time in history, since the water level had risen close to overflow level. There were major landslides in several parts. Roads, houses, bridges and other buildings in several parts, especially in Western Ghat areas were damaged.
This scenario revived the debates on the past rejected recommendations by the Gadgil Committee.
The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), also known as the Gadgil Commission headed by Madhav Gadgil, ecologist and founder of the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru submitted its report on western ghats on 31 August 2011.
The report defined the boundaries of the western ghats and divided it into ecologically sensitive zones highest (ESZ1), high (ESZ2) and moderate sensitivity (ESZ3) based on their existing conditions and the nature of threats.
Most of the regions affected in this severe flood came under these sensitive zones, example: Munnar, Thamarassery, Vythiri and Thiruvambady were classified as ESZ as per the report.
The committee also recommended that no new dams based on large-scale storage to be permitted in this sensitive zones and was against the construction of Athirappilly and Gundia hydel projects.
However, none of the six states (Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu) agreed to the recommendations given by the Gadgil Committee.
When a new committee, constituted in 2012, under the chairmanship of K Kasturirangan, former chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation, analysed nearly 1,750 responses from these states, it found that about 81% were not in favour of Gadgil Recommendation.
One of the reasons why the panel faced stiff resistance from all political parties, particularly in Kerala, was the involvement of private lands.
The committee broadened the demarcation of Western Ghats and included a total of 1,64,280 square km in it and classified the entire area into cultural landscape and natural landscape.
The ‘cultural landscape’, comprising nearly 60% of the Western Ghats, was where human settlements, agriculture and plantations existed.
Of the remaining ‘natural landscape’, “biologically rich” area was only 37% or about 60,000 sq km. The committee said only this area needed to be classified as ecologically sensitive area (ESA), demarcation of which is yet to be finalised.
While speaking on the media, Madhav Gadgil said that this is a ‘man-made calamity’ due to irresponsible environment policies.
He pointed out that quarrying and mining in this sensitives zone is a major reason for the mudslides and landslides. The recommendation to suspend some of the industrial and mining activities and protect of resources with the cooperation of local self-government and people had been ignored calling it “too-environment friendly”.
According to a study, nearly 40 % of the 5,924 granite quarries in Kerala in 2014-15 were located in ecologically sensitive areas. Significantly, a quarter of them was in what the Gadgil committee categorised as the extremely sensitive ESZ 1.
The noted ecologist also warned that Goa might also face the same disastrous calamity if it doesn’t take precautions on the environmental front.
“Certainly, all sorts of problems are beginning to surface on the environmental front in the Western Ghats. Goa, of course, does not have the Western Ghats which are so high as in Kerala, but I am sure Goa will also experience all sorts of problems “, he told Times of India.