Flood: It happened last year, no lessons were learnt

The landslips and overflowing of flood waters along the entire west coast and the hill region of the Western Ghats is a clear pointer to the way we have failed to handle the fragile mountain range.

As the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Maharashtra are facing the worst-ever floods of the past half century, the red alerts issued by the Indian Meteorological Department in parts of Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu, Wayanad in Kerala and Kodagu district in Karnataka indicate that it will be worse than the calamity that devastated these regions in August 2018.

As the crisis worsens, the flood waters are spreading across 18 districts, not just in the hill regions of the Western Ghats, but widening its coverage into the Deccan plateau, the dry regions of Karnataka and Maharashtra, with the Krishna and its tributaries overflowing, taking toll of both urban areas and the fertile cultivated belt of Belagavi, Kolhapur and Sangli. Compared to the floods of 2018, this year the devastation caused has surpassed all the records in terms of loss of human lives, property, livestock and livelihood.

Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa said “that the floods and heavy rains have caused more Rs 6,000 crore worth damage in terms of crop loss and damage to property”. About 18 of the state’s 30 districts are affected by heavy rains; some three lakh people in 2,000 villages are facing distress due to severe flooding and heavy rains.

The final costs of the Kerala floods in 2018 were estimated to be Rs 30,000 crore, with 400 people losing their lives. In Kodagu, the loss was around Rs 4,000 crore, and the rehabilitation projects are still pending. This year, once again, the floods in the Cauvery basin in Kodagu have submerged huge tracts of agricultural land and coffee estates, and landslides have wiped out entire villages, with people buried alive.

These events indicate that our politicians and bureaucrats are not willing to learn lessons from the past mistakes that led to the unprecedented disaster in the Western Ghats. The landslips and overflowing of flood waters along the entire west coast and the hill region of the Western Ghats is a clear pointer to the way we have failed to handle the fragile mountain range.

Though politicians and the media point out that it is the heavy and continuous rainfall that has led to this situation, man-made factors have aggravated the situation. The Geological Survey of India studied the situation after the floods in Kodagu and concluded that “the land use changes, especially the razing of mountain slopes, blocked the streams and led to further landslips, resulting in slope failures.” It also stated that if corrective measures are not taken, “the recurrence of such events cannot be ruled out.”

Ironically, this warning has come true not only in Kodagu and Kerala, but the landslides have occurred in many other parts of the Western Ghats, disrupting the hydrological cycle, decimating the road and communication links and causing irreparable damage to the ecology of the region.

The warning bells were sounded in the report submitted by the Western Ghats Expert Ecology Panel, known as the Gadgil report, in 2011.  The worst damage has been caused in those areas where this committee had suggested having policies for protection by declaring them ecologically-sensitive areas.

Not only was the Gadgil report rejected, even the much-diluted Kasturirangan report was rejected by all the states that comprise the Western Ghats.

The most shocking aspect was that the previous Karnataka government rejected this report in August 2018, immediately after the Kodagu floods! The elected representatives of the Karnataka Assembly also have the dubious distinction of rejecting the World Heritage tag given by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) to the Western Ghats.

The destructive policies in relation to Western Ghats were supported by all political parties, irrespective of their ideological differences. They showed solidarity in continuing those polices that led to the decimation of natural capital, especially that which provided water and climate security to the entire region.

With the current catastrophe that has engulfed the entire hill ranges, the coastal region and the Deccan plateau impacting six states, the people have the right to question the elected representatives in each of the states whether they are willing to reimburse the phenomenal costs not from central or state governments, but from their personal assets? They should be held responsible for the loss as a consequence of their decisions that have eventually caused the present destruction.

The loss of lives, fertile topsoil, agricultural livestock and land cannot be compensated. But why are our rulers not willing to learn the lessons from past mistakes?

Obviously, they are more interested in earning windfall profits from quarrying, sand mining, dams, river diversion, and building large infrastructure even if all that means destroying the ecologically fragile area. With this kind of outlook, we cannot expect them to act in the interest of people or of conservation of natural resources.

The crocodile tears of politicians in the hour of flood fury is a farce, and people need to question their sincerity and commitment to address the real issues that have aggravated this crisis -- before such floods become a regular phenomenon.

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