INDIA: Kerala and Karnataka floods a grim reminder to protect the environment

Since late July 2018 Kerala started receiving unusually high rainfall (a total of 3,368 mm rainfall in this monsoon). This was initially ignored, as this southern-most state is a frequent recipient of torrential rains. With time however, matters worsened and for the first time in history, 35 out of 42 dams in Kerala had to be opened at the same time. What followed were heavy floods across 12 out of 14 districts of Kerala. The floods have been declared a ‘Level 3 Calamity’ or ‘Calamity of severe nature’ by the central government and the entire state was put on red alert. Landslides and further natural disasters soon followed suit, with 1/6th of Kerala’s population directly affected. Several parts of Wayanad Idukki were cut-off and isolated due to landslides. With the death toll climbing up to 400, and three lakh people being shifted to 1600+ relief camps, the road to recovery for Kerala is looking rough. Kodagu, Udipi and parts of Karnataka have also been badly affected.

Most of the regions affected by the monsoon are regions classified as ecologically-sensitive zones by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), headed by eminent scientist and ecologist, Madhav Gadgil. The Panel was constituted in 2010 to assess the ecological status of the Western Ghats and to give recommendations to the stakeholders on protecting the entire range. The experts considered earlier reports (including the Pronab Sen Committee report), conducted their own investigations, consultations and research in all concerned States, and finally wrote the much debated report on the Western Ghats.

The Report, submitted in 2011, is based on extensive study and research in Kerala and five other states. The Gadgil committee classified 140,000 kilometres of the Western Ghats in three Ecologically Sensitive Zones (ESZ), based on the threats they face, and according to the environmental protection required. The Panel asked for strict actions, such as an embargo on sand mining and quarrying, construction of dams and wind power projects, polluting industries, railway line & major roads in ESZ I. They further recommended regulation of tourism and use of land for non-forest purposes, phasing out of chemical pesticides, genetically modified seeds, and plastics in these zones. The Panel proposed a Western Ghats Ecology Authority to regulate these activities in the area, and stop further degradation of the region.

Kerala had strong reservations however, to the complete ban proposed on several of the on-going or upcoming projects and activities. All the six concerned states, unequivocally disagreed with the Gadgil Committee report, and refused to take action. Gadgil attributes the scale of the current flood disaster to poor governance and a lawless state that refused to comply with environmental laws. According to him, the callous attitude of the states contributed to this disaster, thereby making it a ‘man-made calamity’.

While the natural disaster took the lives of about 400 people, destroyed homes of thousands and sent lakhs of people to relief camps and shelters, what remained indestructible was the spirit of the people. Along with the rescue teams of central forces including units of the Indian Army and Indian Navy, state forces such as Kerala Police and Kerala Fire and Rescue Services, and the fisher community from coastal districts of Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam took an active part in the rescue operations.

The way in which people of Kerala have helped one another during the floods has shown the best of humanity. It reinstates the belief that calamities can bring people together despite their stark prejudices and differences. ‘God’s own country’ stayed true to its name with mosques being opened to Hindu families and temples letting people from different faiths conduct their prayers. People displayed unparalleled courage, determined to fight under the common banner of humanity. People drove all manner of vehicles to supply material to relief camps, from cycles to trucks. There was always a steady flow of volunteers setting up relief camps and mobilising funds and materials. While the former flew in from different parts of the world, the latter mainly came from throughout India. The online campaigns and social media were also actively supportive and kept the momentum going. They were widely used to rescue and find people, pets and even cattle.

Amidst every human tragedy, there will also be people with vested interests, showing the most of their inhumanity. Kerala has also seen people trying to politicize and communalise the worst tragedy the state has ever experienced. News was spread on how the floods were a ‘much-anticipated wrath of God’ on a state that went against the ‘divine order’ by trying to get women to enter the famous Sabarimala Temple. There were numerous tweets and online posts on how Malayalis consume beef, and therefore deserve nothing better than this. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) condemns such hateful propaganda aimed at stopping the help and solidarity pouring in for Kerala, due to these and other reasons. Standing with the Kerala government, central agencies and all those working tirelessly to rebuild the state, the AHRC also calls on the central and state governments to carefully study the Gadgil committee report. It is necessary for the government to work together with companies and civil society to ‘thoughtfully conserve’ the environment and prevent natural disasters of this scale and devastation.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-054-2018
Countries : India,
Issues : Environmental protection, Impunity, Right to food, Right to health,