Eminent ecologist and writer Madhav Gadgil, during the sidelines of a lecture he had given, said that there was prima-facie evidence of unscientific methods having been adopted while opening and closing the shutters of major dams in Kerala in apparent reference to the recent unprecendented floods and landslides that had killed upto 500.
On inquiry about whether the simultaneous opening of dam shutters led to the tragedy, he said, “Prima facie from what people tell me, that seems to be so. But I understand there’s going to be a lot of evidence. A friend of mine from Kochi sent me a long list of statements by Kerala state electricity board officials who said that ‘Oh, we will store all water, we will never open the gates.’ Now, there is a scientific regime of arranging reservoir flow. Water resource engineers tell me that the policy should be the dam should be full only at the end of the monsoon, not midway through like this. And then there was rain and they suddenly opened. This seems to have been completely improper, unscientific management. This should be examined in detail.”
His comments are considered significant as his report done by an expert panel on the Western Ghats was hailed as path-breaking, with his committee proposing suspension of certain industrial and mining activities in areas under the Western Ghats and called for more engagement with locals and grassroot-level leaders. His comments were later diluted by the Kasturirangan commission.
After the onslaught of the floods, the Kerala government has directed local bodies to restrict all construction activities in vulnerable areas and those affected by landslides. Until a scientific study is done to determine appropriate zones for construction in landslip-prone areas, such activities will have to be completely stopped, the government ordered.
Gadgil said that the process of rebuilding of Kerala must be inclusive and not turn into another bureaucratic exercise.
“There’s abundant evidence that the so-called scientific expertise which bureaucracy exercises is actually fraudulent. Athirapally (proposed hydroelectric project on the Athirapally waterfalls) was one example. Even the Silent Valley (project) where I talked to Kerala electricity board people trying to understand what scientific reason they had for saying that this would be a good project. They were just insisting that the project should go through. So it should not be a bureaucratically managed so-called scientific exercise. Bureaucracy and scientific experts can give inputs, but it should be opened up, made transparent. We should have a grassroot, bottom-up approach to take final decisions, This may take a little time, but it is the appropriate method,” he said.
During his lecture, which was organised by the Kerala HC unit of the Indian Association of Lawyers in Kochi, Gadgil warned against the dangers of exclusive methods of development at the cost of conservation.
He cited various measures the government could take such as implementing the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments, setting up Biodiversity Management Committees of citizens and empowering them to document the status of local ecosystem, accord Biodiversity Management Committee a central place in preparation of environmental impact assessments, stop distortion and suppression of all environment and development related information, empowering tribals and traditional forest dwellers to control and manage nontimber forest produce and continually ask local bodies for suggestions.
“Kerala, of all states, is capable of doing this. It is better-placed than any other states to undertake this paradigm shift,” he said.
In one of the first unprecedented floods in history, fresh onslaught of rain in Kerala since August 8 has led to a death toll of over 400. 80 dams have been opened. A red alert has been issued in all the 14 districts of the state. There have been power cuts and food shortage across the state.
Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi announced a financial assistance of Rs 500 crore to the flood ravaged state of Kerala after chairing a high level meeting with Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, Union Minister Alphons KJ and other state ministers for checking rehabilitations measures and assessing the damage. He also announced an ex gratia of Rs 2 lakh per person to the next kin of the deceased.
The President of the United Arab Emirates Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan instructed officials to set up a national emergency committee to help flood-hit areas of Kerala, reported news agency ANI.
Gadgil, said that the scale of the disaster would have been smaller had the state government and local authorities followed environmental laws. He headed the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel formed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2010, said at least a part of the problem in Kerala was “man made”.
“Yes, there is an intense rainfall event which has caused this. But I am quite convinced that the last several years’ developments in the state have materially compromised its ability to deal with events like this and greatly increased the magnitude of the suffering that we are seeing today. Had proper steps been taken, the scale of the disaster would have been nowhere near what it is today,” Dr Gadgil told The Indian Express.