Kerala Floods: Future Tense

If ‘Edavappathi’ (South West Monsoon) comes, can ‘Thulavarsham’ (North East Monsoon) be far behind?

It was American writer John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) who gave a poetic treatment to the first millennium BC parable of six men without eye-sight touching and describing an elephant. Each of them touched a part of the elephant and concluded that the elephant was like a wall, a fan, a spear or rope, depending upon where he had touched.

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right
And all were in the wrong!

It is perhaps in the same way that learned ecologists, environmentalists, geologists, politicians, officials and the long array of regular channel debaters describe the ‘maha pralayam’ (great deluge), as the media have pompously, but appropriately, dubbed the Kerala floods, and its causative agents. Each one of them is partly in the right, but all are in the wrong.

The devastating floods, caused by extremely heavy and widespread rains on the one hand and the indiscriminate opening of the flood gates of almost all of the 80-odd hydel and irrigation dams on the other, had killed as many as 483 people, destroyed thousands of homes and rendered multitudes of well off and low income sections in the affected districts as destitutes overnight. The miscalculation, or apathy, of the engineers and officials responsible for dam management was cited by many as the most important reason for what can be described as the damnation of Kerala.

Even before the floods were full blown and had affected only the hilly regions through a slew of landslides, environmentalists had started their virulent campaign in the social media against settlers of the upper reaches of hilly areas of Idukki and Wayanad districts. The target was the long time settlers of the regions and recent settlers dubbed as encroachers. Some even saw the root cause of the landslides and floods in the ‘Malabar migration’ (1920-1970), the large scale migration to forest areas in Wayanad and other high range regions by a predominantly Christian population in search of land for cultivation. Some resurrected the Gadgil Panel report on the protection of the Western Ghats, a report that had almost been shelved by the central government that appointed it and all the state governments involved in it as it was felt it was too environment friendly for comfort. Ecologist Madhav Gadgil himself came on the scene telling media interviewers that the main reason for the landslides in the Western Ghats was the mushrooming of authorized and unauthorized quarrying centres.

Engineers of the state Electricity Board, on their part, vehemently denied that it was their acts of commission or omission that led to the deluge. According to them it was caused by intense heavy rains. Full stop.

As in the parable of the elephant, each one of them is right, but all are in the wrong.

What no one appears to have suggested is the obvious connection between the gross environmental abuse highlighted by Gadgil and misguided environmental activism itself. Consider the large number of quarries functioning in the Western Ghat areas, some with licence and many without it. The blame squarely rests with the government and law enforcing officials. But at the base of the problem we can definitely find environmental activism.

Kerala has 44 rivers, all but three of them west flowing, and countless minor rivers and rivulets. Sand sediments from these rivers have been used from time immemorial for house construction purposes and may continue to be used during the centuries to come. But the so called environmental activists, ably assisted by the media, made a concerted, vociferous and widespread campaign against the ‘sand mafia’ (mafia is the Kerala media’s most favoured loan word in Malayalam). The state government, without considering the long term impact of its decision, banned river sand mining altogether in six rivers even as the restrictions in respect of other rivers were made more stringent.

The sum total of all these actions was that river sand, an essential ingredient of house construction, became not only scarce but also a very costly material that many could not afford. River sand from Tamil Nadu used to come to Kerala in large trucks but that also petered out because of the restrictions. Some enterprising people then brought sand from Gujarat to Kochi port in a huge ship. Though it was a big media event then, it could not be ascertained if this was a one-time wonder or a continuing programme.

It was when river sand became scarce that rock sand or Manufactured Sand (M-Sand) as it is known became the norm. Now no house or other building in Kerala is built without rock sand. No wonder the number of quarries multiplied.

If ecologists like Gadgil oppose quarrying and river sand mining, it will be good if they suggest an alternative to rock sand and river sand for house construction. Construction cannot be done with cement alone.

When discussing the floods one environmental activist had said that there was so much of flood because the rivers were very shallow and therefore they naturally overflowed. It goes without saying that the rivers would not have remained shallow had there been regular, and regulated, sand mining.

Though relief and rehabilitation work are in full swing now, reconstruction of homes and homesteads, roads, bridges etc may take quite some time. Even before they are taken up the state will have to brace for another rainy spell, the North East Monsoon or Retreating Monsoon of October- November, a period of intense thunder-showers known as Thula Varsham in Kerala.

It is in this respect that the Kerala State Electricity Board and the Kerala Irrigation Department have to rise to the occasion, to avoid the same costly error they committed during the South West Monsoon season. These two bodies, together managing about 80 major and minor dams, have to ensure that the reservoir levels are kept considerably low to accommodate any quantity of rainfall in the catchment areas during the peak monsoon season. In that case they would be able to avoid the frantic opening of all the shutters of all the dams as they did in August.

Oscar Wilde once said: ‘To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.’

In the case of the Electricity Board and the Irrigation Department what happened in August because of their possible inaction may be considered a misfortune, but if they repeat that performance, or lack of it, during the next monsoon season (October-November), due to carelessness, or callousness, or both, neither history nor the people of Kerala will ever forgive them.


More by :  P. Ravindran Nayar

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