By Sreekumar Raghavan
Kerala has witnessed the most unprecedented natural disaster in a century. Relief and rescue operations are in full swing with Army, Navy, Air Force, NDRF,local people, organisations,state government working together with the one goal to save as many lives and ensure sufficient supplies of food, medicine and toiletries.
Kerala had witnessed incessant rains this South-West Monsoon season that began in May last and will extend to September. Amidst all these developments, there is a view gaining ground that Kerala invited this disaster by putting too much pressure on the ecologically sensitive Western Ghats, a chain of mountains which traverse through the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa, Maharastra and Gujarat.
Scientist and Ecologist Madhav Gadgil of Centre for Ecological Sciences had submitted a report in 2011 to Kerala Government to protect the region by putting restrictions on mining, quarrying, use of land for non-forest purposes, illegal constructions but it was rejected by the state.
In a cartoon in Times of India, Sandeep Adhwaryu depicted Kerala Chief Minister asking God,”Isn’t this your own country?” and the God responding ” it’s yours too.” Deforestation, rampant construction, quarrying and other unscientific development has triggered earth quakes and landslides, God reminds the Communist Leader!
In Kerala, the development vs environment debate has always taken centre stage in the past four decades and poetess Sugatha Kumari was in the forefront against the agitation against implementing Silent Valley Hydro electric project in Palakad. It had received Central Government approval when Morarji Desai was the Prime Minister. Ultimately, the project was shelved and now the Silent Valley National Park with a rich fauna and flora is attracting tourists from all over the world. Inchikad Balanchandran’s popular poem, “Can the next generation survive in this land?” talks about the highly polluted waters and land (ini varunnoru thalamurakke ivide vaasam sadhyamo). Even the mountains are looking for a shade while the rivers are crying for drinking water. This poem is often recited by students to win prizes in festivals and competitions.
Yesterday there was an interesting FB post showing a man standing outside his house half submerged in water but still not willing to be rescued to a safer place. He said pointing to the rising waters-‘it is all because of the damage we have caused to the environment and there is no running away from it.’ He didn’t call himself an environmentalist or activist. There is no update on what has happened to this bearded man cursing mankind for the floods.
Three Crore People in a Narrow Strip of Land
Kerala, God’s Own Country is a narrow strip of land with 3.5 crore people living in a densely populated region with ecologically fragile resources. With forty four rivers and 39 dams, mountains and hills, Kerala is highly susceptible to natural disasters such as earth quakes, flooding and drought from time to time. The last major catastrophe happened in 1924 when entire Aluva, Perumbavoor, Kalady, Irinjalakuda and present Cochin International Airport at Nedumbassery were flooded.The same regions have become flooded again in 2018, says Murali Thummarakudy, Chief of Disaster Risk Reduction of UN Environment Programme. He had warned in 2013 that the same places that were flooded in 1924 would become flooded again if another major catastrophe happens.People may forget about a flood after a few years time but nature will find its place.
Kerala Flood relief operations became a nightmare for the armed forces because many people refused to move to relief camps or safe places even after the ground floor or the premises were flooded as they expected water to recede soon. Many others couldn’t reach out to rescue teams as power supply and telecommunications failure made it difficult to contact others. The Navy PRO said that the most challenging part was that roads were washed away and rescue boats had to reach houses that had narrow approach roads. The visual media continued to portray distress areas while not showing areas that were safe. Lot of people could have been moved to safer places if people were willing to accommodate atleast two families in a house.
There are different views about how the State Government co-ordinated the relief and rescue operations. However, the Navy PRO was of the view that a co-ordinated efforts of large number of stake holders were involved in the rescue operations and that they would remain in Kerala till the last person was rescued. He said all Navy officers have a special affinity to Kerala because they get their training at some point in their career in INS Academy,Kochi.
There are also conflicting views on the role of national media in reporting this disaster. Only after the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and also coverage in BBC and New York Times, the print and electronic media woke up and started doing a better job. So also the help from UAE and Gulf regions where large number of Malayalees have helped build their economy was also encouraging.
Was it a man made disaster?
Partially it is true that it is a man- made disaster. We perhaps need more direction and vision regarding the economic growth and development of this fragile ecologically sensitive region. Even as tourism, agri business, plantations,education, IT and electronics are considered the better options for the state, regulatory authorities need to create a master plan and demark certain sensitive areas such as river banks, mountains from major projects, high rise buildings and polluting industries.
Kerala cannot withstand a similar natural catastrophe anymore.
(Photo Courtesy: Floods in Kodungallur by Sreejith Easwaramangalath (Copyrighted)