Manmade crisis in God's Own Country

Cover of Flood and Fury: Ecological Devastation in the Western Ghats. Credits:
Shekhar L Kuriakose, member secretary of the Kerala Disaster Management Authority, is an expert on landslides in the Western Ghats. He has studied the works of several ancient and modern travellers who have explored the region, and claims that there is not a single mention of landslides. “The landslides... began in the 1960s,” he tells the author of the book under review. “It has more to do with human interference.” Viju B informs us that 13 of the 14 districts of Kerala are prone to landslides, which along with recent and regular flooding, has made God’s Own Country a site of manmade natural disasters.

In August last year and this year, the southern state of Kerala had been devastated by floods caused by excessive rainfall, overflowing rivers, and landslides. In 2018, 483 people died in the natural calamity, and about 150 more went missing; the total loss to property was Rs 4,0000 crore. This year, fewer people (121) died in another flood; the loss to property is yet to be estimated. Mr Viju, the metro editor with The Times of India, Kochi, who has covered the 2005 Mumbai floods, began writing this book as response to the 2018 floods — but as subsequent events have shown, the issues it deals with will continue to be relevant for years to come.

In the Introduction, Mr Viju writes: “Our forefathers used to call these mountain ranges Sahyadri, which means benevolent mountains.” He goes on to ask, “Why have these mountains turned hostile?” He provides some startling figures to answer his own question: “The illegal revenue from mines... in Goa alone... between 2006 and 2011 is estimated to be around Rs 35,000 crore.” In the past six decades, the forest cover in the Western Ghats has been compromised severely because of human activity, writes Mr Viju — “35 per cent of the original forest cover in Western Ghats have been destroyed.”

Added to this is the apathy of the authorities, who prefer to turn a blind eye to clear signs of climate change instead of addressing the issues that can avoid a calamity. “The Kerala government’s stand that the floods were once-in-a-hundred-years phenomenon, and that everything is going to be normal again, is asking for disaster to recur,” writes Mr Viju. This echoes the attitude of the authorities in neighbouring state Tamil Nadu, whose capital Chennai was devastated by unprecedented floods in 2015. In her account of the calamity in Rivers Remember, journalist Krupa Ge records how happy the authorities were to blame it on a “once-in-a-hundred-years” rainfall rather than address structural issues that can prevent floods in the future. The playbook of inefficiency is identical everywhere.

Mr Viju’s book is divided neatly into 11 chapters, with 10 of these named after some area or district in the Western Ghats, such as Idukki, Wayanad, Coorg, or Bicholim. He has travelled extensively in the region meeting a large number of people, including government officials, local workers, migrants, and people of indigenous communities who have lived in these areas for ages. He has also consulted a large number of news reports and historical texts to reconstruct the changing ecological face of the Western Ghats. One wishes that the mountain of narratives and material Mr Viju has collected was put together a little better, to make reading it less of an effort.

One of the chapters in the book is dedicated to Pathanamthitta, which was in the eye of the storm recently because of a controversial Supreme Court order allowing the entry of women in the historic Sabarimala temple. Mr Viju writes, quoting a devotee, “There is nothing wrong if devotees wish to continue these traditions (disallowing menstruating women from entering the temple)... Perhaps, in matters of faith, there is no question of rationality.” Even though I am happy to defer to Mr Viju’s knowledge of the area, it is difficult to agree with this view. He is also quick to note the devastating effect the popularity of Sabarimala has had on the neighbouring areas: “50 lakh (5 million) people visiting every season has put huge ecological pressure on the core wildlife corridors of the Periyar Tiger Reserve.”

The writer not only enumerates the endless problems in the region but also makes a case for what can be done to improve the situation. “The first step towards conservation of the Western Ghats would be empathising with the concerns and aspirations of communities inhabiting them, and understanding their centuries-old subcultures that are rooted in the mountains.” As Mr Viju argues, the exploitation of ecological resources should be protected from the unending greed for unbridled commercial interests. If the frequency of calamitous natural events is anything to go by, this is sound advice.

Flood and Fury: Ecological Devastation In the Western Ghats
Viju B
Penguin Random House
Pages: 285
Price: Rs 399

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