The Southern Indian state of Kerala was at the receiving end of this year’s Southwest monsoon since it’s onset on May 29 2018. The deluge took on Noachian proportions. The monsoon caused unprecedented destruction that measured up to second worst in 94 years in terms of its sheer devastation. The monsoon that lashed the state witnessed over 300 accounted deaths. The unaccounted that perished could run up to thousands. It caused damage to the tune of over Rs, 19,512 crores to the state, with nearly 20,000 houses and over 16,000 km of the state PWD roads and 82,000 km of regional roads badly damaged. Landslides and flooding damaged crops in about 26,824 hectares of cultivable land, putting paid to the dreams of financial windfall for thousands of farmers, which usually accompanies the celebration of the state’s own festival of Onam around the time of the year when the monsoon struck. Precious lives, dreams and possessions of a lifetime of many were washed away by swirling waters, and buried under colossal landslides. Homes were infested with poisonous snakes and disease- spreading African snails and quagmired with highly infected slush when water ultimately receded. Distinct possibility of outbreak of various epidemics after the monsoon stares at the face of a state on its back foot. Leptospirosis (rat fever) has already killed 12.
It is true that the unprecedented downpour caught the government machinery unawares. The state government was just about relaxing and licking its wounds, after having just tamed the unheard of and strange Nipah Viral epidemic, much to its credit. The government’s unique effort earned it worldwide recognition when Kerala’s Chief Minister and Health Minister were honored by the Institute of Human Virology in Baltimore, USA for their efforts in containing the outbreak, which was foreign to even the state’s medical fraternity. Without choosing to rest on its laurels, the government plunged into taking the monsoon devastation by its ears on a war footing. Putting away petty partisan politics when calamity struck, the Chief Minister along with the leader of the opposition undertook an aerial survey of the rampaged state. The Central government chipped in with financial aid, though it fell far short of what was requested for. The Prime Minister later undertook an aerial survey and announced more aid and welfare measures that again fell far short of what a state in distress expected from the NDA-led Central government. Kerala had expected Modi to declare the unparalleled deluge a ‘national disaster’, which the beleaguered state truly deserved. That declaration never came, much to the consternation of the entire state ripped apart by the monsoon fury. Men from other parts of India serving her armed forces and National Disaster Relief Force, along with the state police helped Kerala rescue people trapped under landslides, collapsed buildings and in houses submerged in inundated areas. Shutters of 35 of the 39 dams in Kerala, including the 123-year-old Mullaperiyar Dam, were opened for the first time in history. This had the rivers overflow their banks like never before in the history of the state. Relief camps were created out of schools and other government establishments. These camps were equipped with medical aid, medical personnel, young volunteers, clean food and water, warm clothes and empathy of the less-affected, who volunteered to help. Armed forces arrived in helicopters. Able-bodied fishermen arrived in mechanized and country boats to rescue stranded people, and to provide them with food and water. Yoga classes were conducted in relief camps by armed forces to help spruce up lagging spirit of a people who lost everything in the deluge. When nature once again turned a great leveler, man helped fellow man in trouble, irrespective of color, religion, creed, gender, and financial capabilities. There was no place for such narrow considerations. As of August 18 2018, 2.23 lakh people from 52,856 families were sheltered in 1,568 relief camps. Larger cities like Cochin suffered shortage of potable water with river Periyar that quenched the thirst of the city’s inhabitants exceeded permissible levels of turbidity to 400 NTU(Nephelometric Turbidity Unit) from 80-120 under normal circumstances , caused by water rushing from the Idukki Dam, the shutters of which were opened, to release1,25,000 liters of water/second! The dam, one of the highest arch reservoirs in Asia was opened after 26 years, considering the huge volume of water that had flowed into the dam, which was almost bursting at its seams.
The state thus had to contend with two sources of water causing its inundation- the rain, which showed no intentions to abate, and water stored in 30-odd dams, which were like sieves, with rain water filling them just as water stored in them escaped through opened shutters.
As the beleaguered state struggles at damage control right now, it is also time and impertinent to circumspect as to why she was affected like never before by the monsoon. Logically, the state cannot be held responsible for the southwest monsoon, which is a natural phenomenon, and an essential one for an agrarian economy like India. But inhabitants of the state ought certainly to be held responsible for part of the damages caused by the seasonal rain. Man, by violating the environment in more ways than one has certainly added to the destruction of gargantuan proportion.
- Construction of illegal structures in environmentally sensitive areas. Munnar, Kerala’s most famous hilltop tourist destination is a classic example. Illegal resorts and hotels have been constructed aplenty on the hilly terrain of this famous tourist destination by land sharks and real-estate goons by adequately greasing the right palms, flouting rules and regulations. Sreeram Venkitaraman, a young IAS officer had tried to identify such buildings and demolish them after he was posted as sub-collector of Devikulam. However the state government shunted him out just as his bulldozers moved towards the ‘big fish’. Construction of these concrete structures invariably needs well- entrenched foundation. Piling and other machinery-heavy procedures that ensures strong foundation loosens the earth, causing landslides, especially during monsoons. Many such resorts operate in the high hazard areas in Munnar, as well as other scenic spots in the state, which is a favorite tourist destination, foreign as well as those from the country, flocking to it ever since Kerala found itself one among the list of ‘must visit tourist destinations in the world before you die’ drawn up by the National Geographic. Noted environmentalist John Peruvanthanam opines that areas that suffered worst damage were those classified as Ecologically-Sensitive zones (ESZs) in Kerala by the Western Ghats Expert Ecology Panel (WGEEP). Districts of Idukki and Wayanad bore the brunt of the monsoon fury in terms of landslides. A majority of the 123 villages classified as ESZs in Kerala by the Kasturirangan Commission exist in these districts. The environmentalist minced no words by opining that the people in the above said districts and others paid the price for the state failing to implement the WGEEP recommendations. More than 300 lost their lives in around 90 major landslides between 1961 and 2018. Both the original Gadgil Committee and the subsequent Kasthurirangan Commissions had recommended restriction of construction activities in the ESZs, but money-avaricious land sharks pooh-poohed the recommendations to add to the dimensions of their wallets by greasing hands that mattered. Illegal resorts thus mushroomed in tourist spots in Idukki and Wayanad districts of Kerala, with the state government buckling under pressure from the resort lobby and settler farmers. Curiously even government organizations too defied the restrictions. Who doesn’t like to have some easy money, after all? According to a report in The Times of India, the Kerala state-owned Tourism Department, KTDC has been constructing buildings and cottages at Kuravan Mala, just 80 meters from the Idukki Dam, flouting the rule that construction within 100 meters of the Dam ought to be approved by the Dam Safety Authority. The report had pointed out that the area prone to landslides, done in by construction activity and subsequent flow of tourists would make it vulnerable to natural disasters. That turned out to be prophetic this year!
- Illegal quarrying and sand mining for construction purposes which goes on right under the government’s nose with the patronage of politicians and construction agencies too add to landslides. The Gadgil committee identified 2,700 quarries across the crest line of Kerala’s Western Ghats. Of these, 1,700 quarries which mostly crush stone to sand operate illegally.
- Though check dams are constructed on seasonal rivers to prevent rain water from flowing into the distant sea to provide fresh water bodies for local use and strengthen the ecosystem, private groups construct them indiscriminately in estates and tourists spots to add to their ‘scenic beauty’ to attract tourists. It was only in June this year that such a check dam atop a hill in Karinchola allegedly led to a landslide that killed seven. The Kerala High Court ordered demolition of the check dam constructed by the ruling front MLA of Malapuram. Environmental activists claim existence of numerous check dams across most of Kerala’s 44 rivers. These not only disrupt free flow of rivers, but also bring in more silt and sand, thus affecting water flow upstream. They can also prove fatal when the need arises to discharge water from reservoirs, like it did during the recent deluge.
- Land reclamation is another major scourge to have caused the massive monsoon- related destruction. Large tracts of paddy fields are reclaimed by real estate sharks for construction of huge apartment complexes, in their effort to urbanize Kerala. Pavement of land around homes with tiles similarly cause flooding by preventing seepage of rain water into the planet’s belly, adding to depletion of precious ground water.
- Mindless disposal of waste and nonexistent proper waste disposal too contributed to the floods. The villain of the piece in this respect is plastic. Plastic thrown most mindlessly and indiscriminately into the Thevara-Perandoor Canal chocked it. It was unable to drain its putrid and highly contaminated water into the sea, as the result of plastic chocking it. This caused inundation of the heart of Kochi in places like Edapally and Elamakara. The putrid water from the canal entered numerous homes. If there is one area for the authorities to set the ball rolling to prevent another deluge, it is outright and determined ban of plastic in the state.
- Deforestation and ground leveling for cultivation purpose is another factor that contributed to the damage. Use of modern heavy machinery to flatten land aggravates crumbling of hilltops. The ability of roots of trees to hold soil together was there for all to see when Tsunami struck Kerala on December 26, 2004. Deforestation takes away this crucial and an important safeguard against landslides. Western Ghats, a bio-diversity hotspot is slowly and steadily being chipped away by the politician-contractor-bureaucracy nexus. New highway projects slicing through the Ghats in Karnataka are expected to fell more than 7 lakh trees
- Though the above said are manmade, there’s one which is not, but contributes significantly to frailty of the Western Ghats. The Ghats is notorious for prolonged seismic activity, according to geologist Satish Thigale. While seismic activity loosens the soft upper layers of the soil, land tampering using earthmovers results in cracks in the loose sand- a sure recipe for landslides during monsoons.
- There has been irrelevant and distasteful blame-game and mudslinging between the government and the opposition regarding opening the dam shutters adding to the deluge. Undoubtedly, dearth of involvement of personnel with crucial scientific temper like engineers and involvement of ignorant politicians had clearly led to goofing up of opening the dams’ shutters.