Interview: Madhav Gadgil

‘This could happen again.’

Print edition : September 14, 2018

Madhav Gadgil. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

Interview with the ecologist Madhav Gadgil.

It is almost seven years to the date since the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) set up by the Government of India under the eminent ecologist Madhav Gadgil recommended that several areas in Kerala and all of Kodagu district, which come under the Western Ghats, be classified as ecologically sensitive zones. Both areas were recently ravaged by floods and landslides. In September 2011, in its voluminous and well-researched report based on data from the ground and satellite imagery (all of which were made available to the public), the Gadgil panel recommended a slew of measures for the preservation of the natural environment in the ecologically fragile Western Ghats, including strict curbs on mining, timber felling, quarrying and on the use of land for non-forest purposes. Of course, the report was unpalatable to successive governments in the six stakeholder States.

Faced with objections from them and adverse responses from others, the Union Environment Ministry thought it best to appoint another panel, this time one headed by the space scientist K. Kasturirangan, to “examine” the Gadgil committee report in a “holistic and multidisciplinary” manner. The Kasturirangan committee, which submitted its report in 2013, watered down the recommendations of the Gadgil panel. In effect, it suggested that only a third of the Western Ghats need be identified as ecologically sensitive, differentiated between “natural landscapes” and “cultural landscapes” and, in Gadgil’s words, “destroyed the spirit of [his] panel’s report”. Excerpts from an interview the 73-year-old Gadgil gave Frontline.

Kerala has seen its worst floods in almost a century, Kodagu some of the worst landslides in living memory Are these natural or man-made disasters?

Admittedly, there was intense and excess rainfall in both Kerala and Kodagu. Scientists have been saying that on account of global warming there has been an increased prevalence of extreme climatic patterns both in frequency and magnitude… excess and low rainfall. But the disaster in Kerala and probably in Kodagu has been also caused by major and unjustified human intervention in the natural processes, which has gone on unabated [for many years]. This human intervention has increased the magnitude of the damage, be it flooding or landslides, manifold. In Kerala, for example, the proliferation and quantum increase in illegal stone-quarrying activity has resulted in stones and rubble getting into streams and even the rivers, silting them up badly. There has also been large-scale construction, much of it illegal.

You have been quoted many a time as opposing the illegal stone-quarrying activity in Kerala. But it is as rampant as ever.

Yes. Way back in 2013 after we had submitted our report, there were many demonstrations against the stone-quarrying activity. And in one of the demonstrations in Kozhikode district against the quarrying, a boy died after he was injured during the stone throwing reportedly organised by the stone-quarrying mafia against the demonstrators. But nobody was brought to book. People realised they were going to be completely unsupported by the authorities. In recent years, stone quarrying has become even more rampant, exceeding all limits. Quarrying and mining are taking place in a very improper fashion.

Timber felling, improper tree cutting has also had an adverse impact. The forest department’s decision to replace natural forests with monoculture or forests of exotic species has also disturbed the hydrological balance.

Your report also highlights the premature silting up of reservoirs, especially those in the steep valleys in the Western Ghats States, because of massive encroachment and deforestation of catchment areas. How true is that today?

It is as rampant as ever. Besides this, dams have been unnecessarily constructed or planned to be constructed even where technically and economically unjustifiable. This has caused the drying up of streams and even waterfalls. Our report had strongly opposed the construction of the Athirappilly dam on the Chalakudy river in Kerala’s Thrissur district for these very reasons. Another reason for the flooding has been unscientific and improper water management. This poor management is a prescription for disaster. Reservoirs should be gradually filled up as the monsoon progresses not to the fullest the moment the monsoon starts. Water should be released from the dams into the river as an environment flow to protect river life and systems. This year halfway through the monsoon the dams were filled to capacity. And then when there was excess rain the water was suddenly released, causing a flooding downstream. This exacerbated the situation.

In a petition before the Supreme Court, Kerala has accused Tamil Nadu of just this.

States are now wont to play these political games. But they are all equally guilty of this unscientific water management practices.

Would you agree that rampant and, at times, illegal construction has also contributed to the disaster in Kerala?

Certainly. For example, Kerala has the wetland protection Act [the Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act, 2008]. But it has not been able to prevent construction of houses and other building in paddy fields and even riverbeds. Paddy fields would act as sponges, but now this water is getting into and flooding concrete houses. The water has nowhere to go.

Your report also talks of the fact that reservoir “operations of hydroelectric stations are in tune with the power needs rather than downstream water needs and hence, daily flow fluctuations created by peak and off peak operations of reservoirs in dammed rivers have led to upstream-downstream conflicts in many river basins”. Also, the “diversion of flows into another river basin after power generation is creating problems of daily flood in the recipient basin and drought in the diverted basins”. Have these points have been borne out in this disaster?

Yes.

Do you think that if your report had been implemented, the floods in Kerala could have been prevented?

It is not a question of the recommendations in our report being accepted or not. If the Kerala government had just followed environmental laws, a disaster of this proportion could have been avoided.

But why was your report not accepted?

It would have been in any law-abiding society. Our report was within the framework of our Constitution, environmental laws and meant to protect the ecologically fragile environment. I have asked critics of our report to point out any distortion of facts, illogical conclusions or recommendations that were not within the framework of the Constitution. But all they say is that it is impractical to implement. I would categorise this as the stand of a lawless government that suppresses democracy and does not want local communities to be empowered.

Vested interests that do not want any environmental laws are making sure local people have no say, dictating what governments should do and they [vested interests] are sabotaging and destroying the environment. We wanted our report to be translated into the local language so that it could be examined by gram panchayats in the Western Ghats and give them a level of empowerment right from the ward level and allow them to plan for themselves. Basically, we advocated a bottom-up process.

Of course, that has not happened. And now Kerala is seeking an aid package of Rs.26,000 crore.

T.M. Thomas Isaac, Kerala Finance Minister, 20 years ago co-authored a book titled Local Democracy and Development: The Kerala People’s Campaign for Decentralised Planning. And he has very rightly advocated that every gram panchayat be empowered to generate its own “Panchayat development report”. But that has not happened. Why? Kerala would do well to implement Thomas’ recommendations.

You found “flaws” in the Kasturirangan report.

Our report emphasises taking good care of water resources, streams and rivers. The Kasturirangan report ignores this. This will cause havoc on the environment as has been seen in Kerala. The Kasturirangan report has been carried out in an opaque way. It was written for the forest bureaucracy and in a way to increase their [forest bureaucracy’s] powers. Then again, the Kasturirangan report categorises land under the Forest Department as natural landscapes while that under private ownership as cultural landscapes. This is absurd. The ecological system is not confined to or dictated by the ownership of the land.

Do you see this type of disaster happening again in Kerala or in other States?

Yes, this could happen again unless there is a drastic reorientation in the way society operates. Right now the greed for enormous profits has resulted in governments being lax in implementing environmental norms. The Central government has in fact been bending over backwards to make sure that the National Green Tribunal does not function properly.

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