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'Floods in Kerala will become worse'

August 22, 2018 10:00 IST

'Man-made interventions vastly increased the magnitude of the tragedy.'

IMAGE: A rescue team evacuates people from flood affected areas in Kottayam district, August 20, 2018. Photograph: PTI Photo/Coast Guard

As Kerala faces its worst floods in several decades, ecologist Madhav Gadgil, who headed the Western Ghats ecology expert panel formed by the Union ministry of environment and forests in 2010, has raised serious concerns about the government's seriousness in dealing with ecologically-sensitive areas.

The government-constituted WGEEP, in its 2011 report, had recommended that several areas in Kerala which come under the Western Ghats should be classified as ecologically sensitive.

"The governments in every state opposed our report, be it BJP-ruled states, CPI-M ruled states or any other party," Gadgil tells Rediff.com's Syed Firdaus Ashraf.

What went wrong in Kerala, according to you?

A whole range of issues (went wrong).

You cannot pinpoint only one cause.

In general, there has been a (steady) environmental loss and a suppression of the democratic process.

We have highlighted this specific detail in our report.

Could the latest floods in Kerala have been prevented?

Our recommendation is supported by our own laws and by the Constitution which makes people sovereign.

It says we must devolve democratic powers to the people.

It is a matter of having a law-abiding and democratic society and not, as currently prevailing, a law flouting and democray suppressing system.

 

How much of the Kerala tragedy is man-made?

Man-made interventions vastly increased the magnitude of the tragedy.

The Kerala assembly recently amended the Wetland Act, which makes it easier to reclaim paddy fields etc for infrastructure projects, which has been criticised by ecologists.

Earlier, there were restrictions on constructing on wetlands.

The real estate lobby has power and they are trying to allow the real estate sector to build on wet lands.

It means it is certain that in future, such floods in Kerala will become worse.

Your report has become the central point of discussion post the Kerala floods. How did it come about?

In 2010, the ministry of environment and forests constituted the Western Ghats Ecology Experts Panel to look into whole range of issues of environment and development.

This included parts of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

The aim was to suggest ecological sensitivity in different regions, like which are more sensitive and which are less sensitive.

For various sectors, what kind of activities are appropriate and what way it must be implemented.

This report was submitted to the government in August 2011.

Why did the government undertake this study?

This place (the Western Ghats) is an ecologically sensitive region.

It is one of the world's richest biodiversity reservoirs and there was a whole range of development activities taking place in an unplanned fashion.

There was a lot of public pressure, that all of these things should be examined.

Therefore, we had undertaken the study.

Did you predict such a tragedy would strike if development work was not halted in these ecologically sensitive areas?

We are not jyotishis (astrologers), but our study certainly looked at the developmental work which was going on in these ecological sensitive areas that would lead to an increase in landslides and cause floods.

We certainly had no possibility to say that in August 2018 Kerala will suffer floods.

We did not give that kind of detailed prediction.

But, broadly, we did predict that there will be these kinds of environmental issues, including floods.

Did the government take any action on your recommendations?

No action was taken.

Our report was very explicit and said that there was flouting of laws by government agencies and (highlighted) the corruption by them.

After our report came out, government agencies were very unhappy with us.

The measures we suggested to be implemented would have hurt many economic interests -- like the illegal stone quarry business.

So, our report was rejected forthwith.

Our report was suppressed and the government was then forced to release it after a Right to Information (plea) was filed in the Delhi high court.

The court told the government to release our report.

The ruling classes were all opposed to our report, but on the ground people were supporting our report.

The governments in every state opposed our report, be it BJP-ruled states, CPI-M ruled states or any other party.

As a country, are we not sensitive to the ecology, going by your panel's experience?

This is a sociological and political question.

You can make your own assessment.

I can only say that it is clearly a group of vested interests on the government machinery which is driving these kind of decisions.

It is said that reports such as yours create hurdles in creating jobs. Therefore, no government wants to implement any report that places ecology over development.

It is absolute, utter nonsense.

Out report mentions that the Lote chemical complex (in Ratnagiri district, Maharashtra) created 11,000 jobs.

However, due to unabated pollution, it has destroyed the jobs of 20,000 fishermen.

This is clearly mentioned in our report.

Fishermen too agitated (against the chemical complex).

They agitated for 280 days.

Every time Section 144 was invoked and the police suppressed their agitation.

They have lost more jobs because of industries.

The government is not interested in jobs in natural resource-based sectors, which is the real livelihood of our country.

Our governments are interested only in certain industrial development, and not employment creation.

We have completed evidence for that in our report that was published.

Syed Firdaus Ashraf / Rediff.com
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