Unabated tree felling

Behind the Kodagu disaster

Livestock and people walk past a damaged road caused due to heavy monsoon rainfall, in Kodagu. PTI

The massive 4,200 mm of rainfall in 10 days submerged areas in 14 districts of Kerala and Kodagu district of Karnataka. The Kodagu district received 2,700 mm of rainfall on one day — August 17. It has been the most devastating flood in the last 100 years causing widespread human tragedy.

Disaster management teams swung into action and continued rescue and relief operations on a war-footing. Funds and relief materials are pouring in from across the country for the victims housed in the relief camps.

The Kerala government has been criticised for the delay in releasing water from the dams even when the reservoirs were full. Release of water from the dam and heavy downpour coincided, which compounded the misery. Looking at the records of past several years of drought, the authorities could not have released water in anticipation of rain. The criticism is certainly unfair.

Over the years, natural drainage patterns in human areas are disturbed due to the increasing urbanisation. Whenever there is heavy downpour, water does not find enough space to flow and that causes flooding. Planners must ensure that no natural drains are disturbed whenever layout of an area is planned.

Let us examine the reasons for flooding in Kodagu district.

With heavy rain, soil profile is fully charged with moisture and mass of the earth is no longer stable. It is further aggravated when there is no tree growth in the area. With the force of water, the unstable earth mass comes down causing landslide.

Some land masses have sunk up to a depth of 20 metre. Road between Madikeri and Sampaje is affected by landslides and also some portions of roads have sunk, disrupting the traffic. Similarly, road between Madikeri and Somwarpet has met with the same fate.

There were landslides in the village limits of Madapura, Haleri, Makkodlu, Makkandur, Hattiwade etc, causing extensive damage to coffee estates, roads and bridges. Nearly 150 km of roads in the district got damaged in the disaster.

Extensive landslides in coffee estates have left many planters in a state of shock. They are not in a position to decipher their land. Another survey may be required to refix the boundaries.

Kodagu is a hilly district providing catchment to river Cauvery. The lives of millions of people in villages and towns of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are dependent on this river. If the catchment is further disturbed, the population in the command area of the river including that of Bengaluru would suffer.

The total extent of the district is nearly 4,200 sq km and only 1,700 sq km are notified forests in control of Forest Department. The remaining are in private control as well as under the Revenue Department. A major chunk of privately controlled area is under coffee cultivation.

There is a lot of ambiguity in land tenures with regard to ownership rights. In some cases, one has a right on land, while in some other cases, the person has right on land as well as tree growth. Some owners have got the right on tree growth from the date of grant but were successful in getting permission for even older trees.

The Karnataka (Preservation) of Trees Act has played havoc in the district. Timber merchants camped for decades and influenced the officers to get certificate of ownership on tree growth and consequently the felling permission. Permission to extract naturally growing trees has been granted even on steep slopes.

Confusion relating to land tenure has been fully exploited by merchants in collusion with the officers. Sometimes, faulty survey reports have resulted in clearing forests in adjoining reserved forest areas also. Although some officers have faced enquiry and disciplinary action, the damage was done.

Recently 50,000 trees were cut in Kodagu for the power transmission line. When environmentalists protested, Union Minister Piyush Goyal asked them to plant 75,000 trees. One must know that the natural trees cannot be compensated by planting few seedlings. Growing trees of different species is not easy — even the Forest Department is successful in growing only monoculture of teak and Acacia auriculiformis.

Now, a railway line to Kerala is proposed through the forests of Kodagu which will be a big disaster. Elephant population from Kodagu is migrating towards north. We are still harping on Hubballi-Ankola railway line. When do we learn from the calamities?

Forest cover

The French Institute, Puducherry, has been assessing the status of forest cover based on interpretation of satellite imageries in Kodagu district since 1967. Reports in 1977, 1997 and 2007 conclude that the district has lost 30% tree cover in 40 years. In spite of this, grant of felling permission is going on unabated, which is the main cause of the disaster.

Recently, tree felling permission in Karnataka was banned by the National Green Tribunal until 10 trees are planted for every tree extracted. Under pressure from timber lobby, the state government moved the Supreme Court and got this order stayed. There is a case for continuing the ban at least for Kodagu district.

Layouts are formed in paddy fields for the expansion of the habitation. Scores of trees are being removed. Water remains stored till it drains in rivulets and tributaries of Cauvery. It has worked like a shock absorber in flood-like situation. In such layouts, flood water has nowhere to go except to enter the houses of the people.

Permission has been granted for establishing new resorts. The JCBs are used to cut hill tops and construct infrastructure for ‘view points’. In the process, natural drainage patterns are disturbed and the area becomes prone to landslides.

Complete reconstruction is likely to take decades but some short-term works like rebuilding roads and bridges may have to be urgently done. More forests will have to be diverted for the purpose of essential works like realigned roads, bridges etc. We are caught in a vicious circle and go on losing forests for development. 

(The writer is retired Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Karnataka)

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