The tragedy that Kerala faced for the past two years was not God’s wrath, but due to human greed – a tragedy that was waiting to happen.

The tragedy in Kerala can be summed up as 3G – God, Gadgil

and Ghat. Some social media folks have been suggesting that the unprecedented

floods that sank Kerala to its nose in the past two years was due to God’s

wrath; especially Lord Ayyappa who was so upset at moves to allow women to

visit Him that he decided not to see anyone on Malayalam New Year Day that fell

on August 17. This is absolutely rubbish. Gods can never get angry, sad of

happy. If so, He is one among us – a mortal. But in law, especially in Law of

Torts, the unusual downpour that sank many parts of Kerala last July- August

and this year in north Kerala was an Act of God -- an event that directly and

exclusively results from the occurrence of natural causes that could not have

been prevented by the exercise of foresight or caution. In short, an inevitable

accident. Courts have recognized various events as acts of God—tornadoes, earthquakes,

death, extraordinarily high tides, violent winds, and floods. So, was it just

an Act of God? No, Kerala tragedy was partly an Act of God, but mainly

man-made. After the Act of God, the other 2Gs are Gadgil and Ghat. The concurrent

tragedy and disaster due to floods and landslides in Kerala were just waiting

to happen. Though Kerala gets a fairly good spell of monsoon rains, this time

nature has taught a deadly lesson: Go back to earlier reports on environment and

act. And, act fast. Madhav Gadgil, ecologist and founder of the Centre for

Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, had prepared

an elaborate report as chairman of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel

(WGEEP). The Commission was appointed by the Ministry of Environment and

Forests of India. The commission submitted the report to the Government of

India on August 31, 2011. Note the month – the same month in which disaster

struck Kerala in both the years. Soon after tragedy struck Kerala, Gadgil said

that irresponsible environmental policy is to be blamed for the recent floods

and landslides in Kerala. He rightly called it a "man-made calamity".

He said that the committee report had recommended protecting the resources with

the cooperation of local self governments and people, but those recommendations

were rejected. He also pointed out that quarrying is a major reason for the

mudslides and landslides. Most of the regions impacted by this monsoon were

once classified as ecologically-sensitive zones (ESZs) by the Gadgil Committee.

According to environmentalists, the committee's recommendations were

strong enough to protect then sensitive Western Ghat region. The committee had

suggested that 140,000 kilometres of the Western Ghats be classified in three zones

as per the requirement of environmental protection in the areas.

In some areas, the committee recommended strong restrictions

on mining and quarrying, use of land for non forest purposes, construction of

high rises etc. But the Kerala government rejected the committee report and virtually

dust-binned it. In fact protesters burnt Gadgil’s effigy and he had to return

as a sad man. Had the recommendations been implemented, much of the landslides

and loss of lives due to overflowing rivers could have been avoided. According

to environmental scientist Dr VS Vijayan, a member of the expert panel on the

Western Ghats, what is happening in Kerala is simply a man-made disaster. That

is an understatement. He said the impact should have been limited if the Gadgil

committee report, aimed at protecting ecologically-fragile mountain ranges, was

implemented. He attributed the floods to human incursions and unscientific

developmental activities in ecologically-sensitive areas. Other

environmentalists also point fingers at the extensive quarrying, mushrooming of

high rises as part of tourism and illegal forest land acquisition by private

parties as major reasons for the recent calamity The Commission recommended

freeing the Ghat region and areas around rivers and rivulets and to go in for

massive forestation drive in hilly tracts. However, when the findings were made

public, Christian organizations in Kerala strongly protested since most of the

farmers in the hilly regions were Christians, especially in Wayanad. In the

last century, a very large number of Christians had migrated from southern

Kerala and acquired forest land in Wayanad and other areas with abundant forest

and waste land, in what is known as Malabar Migration. The Gadgil Committee

report was criticised for being excessively environment- friendly and not in tune

with the ground realities. People describe Kerala as a land of greenery. But

the reality is that many stretches that appear to be thick forests for the

untrained eyes are actually plantations. Kerala’s ‘success’ story, as many say,

is that of unbridled avarice, corruption and environmental rape. A Church-sponsored

political party was in the forefront of this uncontrolled destruction of

Kerala’s forests for many decades. The modus operandi was simple: The Church

used to send a group of destitute laities to the highlands of Idukki or Wayanad

and illegally occupy reserve forest lands. They would start cultivation on the

encroached land and soon a settlement were formed. Forest cover vanished and

was replaced by plantations in the Western Ghats. It was an explosive mixture

of organised religion, votes and greed. By the 80s, other communities had

learned the trick and had formed their own pressure groups to repeat the

process with varying levels of success. As people became rich, the levels of

greed to went up. Plantations started losing their charm due to militant labour

movements. So, the rich turned to quarrying the Western Ghats which was an

easier way to riches. No political party dared to take on the Church, the

quarry and sand-mining mafia, the influential business class or the labour

unions. That is why when the Gadgil Committee report came in 2012, the influential

Church took it as a prestige issue to defeat the purpose of the report.

Politicians too vilified the report as lots of votes were at stake; so, let

Nature be damned was the attitude of the political class across the spectrum. A

watered-down version of the report by Dr Kasturirangan was accepted in principle

and was forgotten the moment it was filed.

After plantations and quarrying came the tourism boom. This tripled the pressure on environment. Illegal resorts boomed on encroached lands. The power of this mafia could be guessed from the failure it inflicted on a strongman like VS Achuthanandan, who declared war on encroachment during his tenure as the Chief Minister. But it is unfair to single out the Church alone in this unscrupulous race to satisfy their avarice and greed. The builders in the city, the amusement parks of politicians and many such people belonging to all caste, creed and religion, have contributed to messing up what many proudly say God’s Own Country. Today, Kerala is one large haphazard city built on either side of national and state highways, filled with people who bring life to a standstill if an inch of their land is taken away for a public cause. Hence it was not surprising that when the flood came, it affected the entire state. Today, Kerala has posh houses – what are called Dubai Mansions – even in remote villages. But none of the neo-towns have proper drainage system or lung space except the ones built by the British. Hence this current disaster was just waiting to happen. “Insensible use of land, soil and rocks led to this deluge. Landslips and flash floods happened in areas that witnessed widespread human incursions. I hope everyone will learn a lesson from this. Due to climate change, such tragedies are bound to increase. Nobody can stop rains or control floods. But we can take measures to lower the intensity of such impacts,” said Vijayan who was part of the Gadgil panel. In 2010, the Centre set up an expert panel under Gadgil following widespread concern that the Western Ghats, which plays a key role in breaking rain clouds over the subcontinent, was shrinking due to human incursions. When all six states falling under the Ghat region (Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat) opposed the recommendations, another committee was constituted under former ISRO chief Kasturirangan. Kasturirangan had made some changes in the zonal classification and reduced ecologically sensitive areas to 37% from 64%. But still many states opposed it saying people living in the fringe areas of Ghats will be thrown out of their habitat if the report was implemented. Nature is back with fury. Flood waters have washed away all the encroachments on river banks. Kerala should go back to the Gadgil recommendations and see that encroachments do not mushroom again. In fact, the state is now paying huge compensation to encroachers who lost their homes in the current floods. Rehabilitate them elsewhere. At the same time, the state should go in for afforestation on a war footing in eco-sensitive areas. Unfortunate part is that God’s Own Country is filled with people who have scant respect for nature. The present tragedy has given an opportunity in disguise. The floods have changed the topography of the State. It is time to build a fresh state of Kerala with proper planning. Take Gadgil ‘pill’ seriously, however bitter it is.

Author: Shankar Raj

R Shankar was Former Editor, The New Indian Express, Karnataka and Kerala. He has over 30 years of experience and continues to contribute articles to various publications and online platforms.