Land use policy critical

Land use policy critical

Western Ghats

While travelling to Talakaveri Wildlife Sanctuary in Kodagu last year, I was shocked to witness the speed and the scale at which the forest land is being converted.  One could easily sense the natural disasters that awaited by looking at those hills cut open and forests converted into plantations. However, the recent havoc caused by incessant rain was certainly not expected.

The damage in Kodagu is no less than in Kerala. Rains caused flash floods and landslides across Malnad region, the heart of Western Ghats — people died, houses were washed away, cattle drowned, roads and bridges collapsed. Days later, many people are still waiting for medical help, electricity and road services are yet to be restored in places.  

This hilly area of Western Ghats is intrinsically a fragile zone. The topography of steep slopes and sharp gradients makes it vulnerable to landslides. Geologists find seismological vulnerability as well, because of discontinuity factors like dips of barren rocky land and fault lines. The hydro-geological factors, like fast accumulating water pressure in porous topsoil and the loose lateritic layers beneath, make this region susceptible to landslides during intense rainfall.  

Attributing the recent disaster simply to such natural phenomena would be irresponsible.

It is rather the impact of decades of unhealthy land use practices like uncontrolled forest encroachment, sand mining and quarrying among others. This is what ecologist Madhav Gadgil meant when he termed the flood in Kerala ‘man-made’.

One may trivialise it, by blaming it on population density or increasing demand for resources. But a close look at Kodagu reveals multiple causes. The prime reason is, of course, the large-scale migration of people from Kerala to Kodagu in recent decades, leading to unplanned settlements and expansion of commercial crop plantations. Land conversion on such a scale is visibly contributing to landslides.  

The forest in Kodagu is mainly government-owned revenue land. Evergreen pockets like Kans, Bane, Kumki, Kharab lands have become easy target for encroachers, since they are not regulated by the Forest Department. The political class, unfortunately, looks at this as an opportunity to appease migrant voters and often try to influence revenue authorities not to take action against them. Democracy seems to be finding short-term electoral dividend more lucrative than long-term ecosystem benefits of forests and rivers.

The lack of proper land use policy is spoiling this fragile terrain. Hills are cut, paddy fields and ponds are dumped and streams are diverted, with modern earth excavators making the job easy.

“The landscape change in the last three decades is more than what happened in the last three centuries”, say Kodagu’s senior residents. In Kodagu and elsewhere in the Ghats districts, clearing the forest and dissecting the hills seem to be so easy; no one is around to regulate the activities. Officials who try face the ire of politicians. After all, it is the people who vote, not the hills and trees! 

Not only this land capital, but its natural resource dividends are also abused. Streams and rivulets have fallen prey to illegal sand mining. The quarries are seen even on steep hill slopes. Encroachments leave barren pockets amidst valleys. All these cut open the topsoil and allow water to percolate down the soil layers. You don’t need much scientific training to understand that Western Ghats soil is protected only by the thick biomass cover provided by forest and soil organisms. If natural mulching is removed, loose soil beneath erodes quickly and the hills start sliding. But this wisdom has been lost with the aspiration of rapid ‘development’ setting in, thanks to rubber economy.

The way forward

The remedy for the problems of Kodagu and other parts of Western Ghats lies in a holistic outlook. What is needed is the right land use policy in place. The extension of settlements or farms, construction of roads or industries, all need to follow management plans developed by town development authorities and Grama Panchayats. The Zilla Panchayats have the constitutional mandate to come up with district development plans as per Panchayat Raj Act. But they all ceased to exist in practice long ago.

Disasters could be minimised, if not averted, only when development is as per planned land use. Floods and similar calamities can then be handled in a better way, with effective disaster management protocols. Thiruvananthapuram-based National Centre for Earth Science Studies (NCESS), for instance, has shown in its pilot projects, how disasters can be handled effectively by respecting ecological principles. Floods or draughts, their impetus may lie in natural causes, but the impact is mostly due to man-made causes.

When the Gadgil-led Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) suggested measures to manage Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESA) of the Ghats, such sustainable land use policy was in its mind. But politicians across the political spectrum rejected this entire set of recommendations without even reading the report. The Kasturirangan committee, formed to ‘make WGEEP recommendations implementable’ also gave some remedial measures, although much deviated from original objectives. But the Karnataka government has rejected even those minimum restrictions suggested by it.

People and nature of Kodagu or any other part of Western Ghats cannot be treated like this anymore. The topography, vegetation and climate together have made this region a unique biodiversity-rich landscape. It needs better land use and natural resource management policy and practices. Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy’s recent order to stop all land conversions in Kodagu has created a new window to look at governance mechanisms afresh. He should draw inspiration from the Gadgil report at least now. I wish that on my next visit to the Ghats in Kodagu, I find new seeds sown on the slippery, steep hills. 

(The writer is Director, Centre for Conservation Biology & Sustainable Development, Sirsi)

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