Irshalwadi was a picturesque village at around 3,700 feet (about 1,128 metres) above sea level, deep inside the Sahyadri forest range (Western Ghats) near the famous Irshalgad Fort in Raigad district of Maharashtra. Its 228 inhabitants, residing in 48 households, had to walk one hour to reach the village from the foothills. On the night of July 19, Irshalwadi was wiped out, and in its place stands a huge mound of earth that once formed the now-barren hillside.
“We heard a big noise and immediately started running out of the house. I realised it was a landslide. Suddenly, my wife slipped, and the falling earth took her. I was holding my son’s hand but in the confusion, he too slipped into the loose soil,” said Bhagwan Bhagar, narrating his ordeal. He was lucky to survive as his father and neighbours rescued him. In his family of nine, only four survived; he also lost his brother, sister-in-law and their one-year-old daughter.
Tari Pardhi, 64, was in tears at a camp for survivors. On July 19 morning, she went to the nearby Panvel market with a harvest of homegrown vegetables and spent the night with her relatives in Panvel. She lost her husband Pandu and son Abos in the landslide. “We lived all our life by the side of this mountain,” said Pardhi. “I never thought the same mountain would make me lonely.”
Only 142 of the 228 residents survived. After four days of relief work, the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) suspended search operations as heavy rain had caused the bodies to decay. “Bringing out such bodies would be disrespectful to the deceased as well as to their families,” The State government declared in the Assembly. “There is also a fear of the spread of infectious diseases. So, after getting out 29 bodies and 57 still missing, the government has decided to suspend the search operation.” At least 180 personnel from five NDRF teams and the Thane Disaster Relief Force were involved in the search and rescue operations in continuous heavy rain.
A disturbing trend
Irshalwadi is the third village to be wiped out in the last 10 years. On July 30, 2014, Malin in Pune’s Ambegaon tehsil was the first to be wrecked, killing 151 people. Then, on July 24, 2021, Taliye village was wiped out; 85 lives were lost. Malin was on the east of the Sahyadri range, and Taliye and Irshalwadi were on the west. Data with the District Collectorate show that 387 people have been killed in landslides in the last 18 years in Raigad. In terms of landslide threat, the State disaster management cell has classified nine villages in the district as very sensitive and 11 as sensitive; the State as a whole has 230 sensitive villages. If landslide-prone is the criterion, the number increases to more than a thousand.
Kondhari in Pune district is a landslide-prone village with 41 houses and 324 residents in Bhor tehsil. A landslide in July 2022 damaged a few houses. Anusuya Mandhare, 72, has her home on a mountain slope and lives in fear after what happened to Taliye in 2021. At night, Mandhare and other senior citizens of Kondhari sleep in schools run by the district council. “Last year, we heard the noise of the landslide,” said Mandhare. “It is terrible. Since then, our youths have stayed awake the whole night in the rainy season.” Shankar Parathe, whose house is near Mandhare’s, said that the government should relocate them as soon as possible. “It was Malin first, then Taliye and now Irshalwadi. Ours could be the next village in this chain,” Parathe said. “We have heard that the proposal to relocate us has been given to the State government. We hope the government acts fast.”
According to sources in the State’s Relief and Rehabilitation Department, there are 20 villages like Kondhari, which need immediate relocation. One source claimed that proposals had been submitted to the department and a decision over the relocation of homes was pending with the Ministry. While speaking in the Assembly after the Irshalwadi incident, Chief Minister Eknath Shinde said orders had been given to the Rehabilitation Department to immediately find locations to shift the villages. “Villages which need immediate relocation will be given place,” said Shinde. “The department has been asked to work on the locations, discuss with villagers and finalise at the earliest.”
- On the night of July 19, Irshalwadi village was wiped out, and in its place stands a huge mound of earth that once formed the now-barren hillside. Only 142 of the 228 residents survived.
- Data with the District Collectorate show that 387 people have been killed in landslides in the last 18 years in Raigad.
- The Madhav Gadgil panel’s 2011 report recommended the classification of 64 per cent of the Ghats as Ecologically Sensitive Zones and the designation of the range as an Ecologically Sensitive Area but all six States opposed it.
- In recent times, floods have also underlined ecological degradation in the Western Ghats.
True to form
The government machinery has been true to type. After the Malin landslide in 2014, the State administration shifted 20 families from nearby Sakharmachi village to Lambachi Wadi in Thane district. The administration had assured them that permanent rehabilitation would happen soon. But even nine years later, the villagers of Sakharmachi continue to remain in Lambachi Wadi. “We keep going to officers at tehsil and district levels, but nobody listens to us,” said Shankar Mhase, a Sakharmachi villager. “For how long do we need to stay here in barracks kind of houses?”
Sakharmachi’s residents worry even more after the landslide at Irshalwadi. It is not as if the administration was not warned. Ramdas Thombare, a volunteer in the effort to preserve Irshalgad Fort, had alerted Chouk gram panchayat four years ago about landslide danger in the area. The gram panchayat informed the Khalapur tehsil office about the threat. In July, a part of a stone pinnacle at the fort collapsed. That was not enough of a warning for the administration to relocate the residents of Irshalwadi.
Irshalwadi has again brought to the fore the issue of the eco-sensitivity of the Western Ghats. In 2022, the Disaster Management Department commissioned a study of landslides by the Advanced Centre for Water Resources Development and Management. Its report said that landslide incidents had increased in the last 10 years and asked the government to set up an early warning system. Incessant rainfall plays a critical role, according to the report. Locations that received more than 100 mm rain in five hours have faced landslides within a fortnight. Marked shifts in the climate pattern and extreme rainfall events are major factors.
In 2010, the Environment Ministry in the UPA government had appointed the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, chaired by Madhav Gadgil, to assess the impact of climate change on the mountain range. The panel’s 2011 report recommended the classification of 64 per cent of the Western Ghats as an Ecologically Sensitive Zone and the designation of the range as an Ecologically Sensitive Area. The report’s most important recommendation was to halt infrastructure development in the range, including the building of roads, the construction of thermal power plants, and the construction of dams.
However, all six Western Ghats States opposed the recommendations of the Gadgil committee. The UPA government then constituted a high-level working group under the chairmanship of Dr K. Kasturirangan. This committee reduced the designated area for the Ecologically Sensitive Zone from 64 per cent in the Gadgil report to 37 per cent. Gadgil responded by delivering a stinging criticism of the Kasturirangan report.
“Join hands to save the Ghats”
While speaking in the Assembly after the Irshalwadi landslide, Congress State chief Nana Patole demanded the implementation of the Gadgil report to preserve the ecology of the Western Ghats. He said, “The work done by Dr Gadgil is important for the environment. The implementation of the committee report will help to prevent landslides in future.” Gadgil also spoke to the media after the Irshalwadi landslide. He appealed to the people to join hands to save the Ghats. “Roads have been built wrongly in the Irshalwadi area,” said Gadgil. “There are many illegal stone mines. These are the reasons for landslides. We can’t call it natural calamity alone.” On his report, Gadgil said, “Had government accepted the report, these incidents could have been averted. But everyone knows why the government will not accept it. That’s why people must come forward and raise their voice to save the Western Ghats. At least this will force governments to make some provisions to avoid such incidents.”
In recent times, floods have also underlined ecological degradation in the Western Ghats. Floods have become regular occurrences along the mountain range in Maharashtra. Kolhapur and Sangli districts experienced floods in 2019 and the Konkan region in 2019 and 2021. In 2021, Chiplun city of Ratnagiri district and Mahad of Raigad experienced heavy flooding that impacted many lives. After the relief work was completed, many activists joined hands to look into the possible factors that contributed to the flooding. On visiting locations in Mahad and Chiplun tehsils, activists were shocked with what they found. Rajan Indulkar, an activist from Chiplun, said, “The deforestation of Sahyadri was shocking. Basically, trees help to prevent soil erosion. The soil that accumulates in all the riverbeds of the Konkan region is the result of this deforestation. The possibilities of landslides and floods increase after such heavy soil erosion on mountain slopes.”
Large-scale deforestation to build new tourist locations has also adversely impacted the mountain chain. Indulkar and his colleagues visited various locations in Mahad and Poladpur tehsils of Raigad district, and Khed and Chiplun tehsils of Ratnagiri district. “At many places, the smaller and medium pinnacles of the mountains are delinked from the main range,” Indulkar said. “It was like cutting a mountain into pieces. This increases the possibility of sudden increase in water level of rivers, floods as well as landslides.”
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The Western Ghats cover 51 districts in six States and are one of 34 global biodiversity hotspots. The mountain range neutralises more than 4 million tonnes of carbon. The Ghat ecosystem accounts for 10 per cent of the total greenhouse gas emissions that are neutralised by the country’s forests. Geologists believe that the Ghats are 150 million years old, which makes it older than the Himalaya. Many rivers that flow through the Deccan Plateau originate from the mountain range. Landslides like the one at Irshalwadi have sent a clear and loud warning sign that life in the Western Ghats is under threat. The State government would do well to heed the warning and take concrete steps to protect people before the next tragedy occurs.