Rains wreaked havoc in Kerala in the past few days, leading to landslides and flash floods. On October 20th, paying homage to the dead, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan stated in the Assembly that 39 people had lost their lives last week, with 217 houses being shattered completely and 1393 houses partially. 304 relief camps have been opened along with the various districts, to which 3851 families have been shifted. The CM also noted that six people have gone missing since October 12th.
Kottayam and Idukki are among the most affected districts. As it heavily rained, Koottikal (Kottayam) witnessed successive landslides in eight locations on October 16th. Kokkayar in Idukki also had landslides on the same day leading to fatalities. The three children’s [Amna (8), Afsan (8), Ahiyan (4)] bodies found buried in an embrace from Kokkayar linger as an agonising scar of the losses in an unexpected moment.
The Opposition has criticised the SDMA (State Disaster Management Authority) for failing to foresee and be prepared for the crisis. Apart from SDMA, NDRF (National Disaster Response Force) and the Armed Forces also stepped into the rescue operations that involved local people, KSRTC and Rescue cum Ambulance Boats of Water Transport Department. Though climate change and cloudburst were initially cited as the prime factors leading up to the disastrous situation, soon fingers were pointed at the Kerala government for being negligent towards environmental concerns while taking up development projects.
The significance of Madhav Gadgil’s the Western Ghats Ecology Experts Panel Report of 2011 resurfaced as having been the gospel the state dared to violate. The whole episode has paved the way for an intense bunch of debates. Questions raised range from those on the sanctity of the proposed infrastructural projects as the Silver Line Rail Project (K-Rail) to those on the mining permissions sanctioned in the state. It is estimated that the state has permitted over three times the number of quarries that could be sanctioned, and the trend has been consistent even after the catastrophic floods of 2018. (Mathrubhumi 21/10/21)
In another set of arguments, the tendency to resort to the Gadgil Committee Report as the ultimate word on environmental disasters have been critically looked at. A set of engaging discussions that took over the social media in the last few days involving academicians and environmental enthusiasts revealed the need to drill down into a more specific and empirical take on the relation between local people and ecology. Also, the shades of elitist conservative rhetoric that carefully abstains from blaming the lifestyle sponsored by capitalism got critiqued in the row. This call for more grassroots level accounts and narratives on the ecology of Western Ghats is highly promising.
Yet, as the reports and experts suggest, if particular instances of quarrying in nearby localities and the government’s negligence are among the factors interlinked in leading up to the climate change in action, is it fair that the 42 died and the many got displaced became the ones to pay worst for an ecological abuse that they were not directly responsible for?
Rains turning into disaster: Role of changing land use patterns
A disaster is not merely an accident with the potential to cause losses. It is also constituted. Disasters occur when a community is “not appropriately resourced or organised to withstand the impact, and whose population is vulnerable because of poverty, exclusion or socially disadvantaged in some way”. (Mizutori, 2020) To put in perspective, the Kerala rains become a disaster at the point where those affected by it fails to efficiently cope with the calamity. This inability is otherwise called vulnerability. This can have different shades as it could be induced by various factors. And, the capacity to deal with a disaster is called resilience.
Thus, when it comes to ‘disasters’, it is significant to look at how exactly it occurred at the confluence of multiple causes and what made the local community vulnerable to deal effectively with it. To read along the memories of the 2019 floods which hit Kavalappara the worst, the unscientific excavations in more than 30 quarries in the area had been cited as playing a major role in making the region vulnerable to landslides. (Vishnuprasad K P, New Indian Express) Zeroing down to the 2021 Kerala rains, what factors caused the worst affected areas of Kottayam and Idukki most susceptible, and who should have the highest stake in taking decisions over the local landscapes emerge as the most pertinent questions to be taken up.
Call for a more participatory model
The role of climate change and heavy rains in constituting the disasters of Kerala, which of late have been recurring at less frequent intervals, gets much focus in news highlights. Though these are real, they reflect a more general or immediate cause. But environmentalists have agreed upon the need to shift attention to more concrete causes as changing land-use patterns ignoring ecological concerns. In particular, in the case of the October rains of 2021, the quarries working in the region have been blamed. Deplorably, it had been brought out that even as Koottikkal was hit by landslides, the quarries continued to be operational, and the local people heard the noise of explosions from the mines at the same time. The lamentable state of affairs and the working condition of the labourers in the quarry seem equally disturbing. As more authentic reports on what caused the landslides and flash floods is awaited, hopefully, the factors that lead to these regions’ vulnerability will become more certain in the days ahead..
Further, a more participatory model on environmental usage need be devised. This is crucial as it is the local communities that get most affected by disasters. Disaster management isn’t merely a bunch of rescue operations post its occurrence. Instead, it begins much before the disaster manifests. Its crux lies in the ability to foresee and manage a crisis without letting it translate into a disaster itself. This is possible only with the empowerment of the local populace. They need to be involved effectively in making decisions over land-use patterns. They must be not only aware of what is happening to the landscapes. But, their consent and participation in making decisions over the same are crucial. Their say is paramount precisely because the altering land-use patterns directly influences their vulnerability.
Be it about the upsetting rains of October 2021, or of the migration of local communities from Kuttanadu, or of the devastations from Kavalappara, it is nothing but unfair that people who have got relatively less to do with climate change, be it in terms of their carbon footprints or their stake in the larger processes leading to climate change, become the ones to bear the brunt. As we are coming to terms with the reality that rains are going to remain more unpredictable than before, and developmental projects look forth to taking up more land and resources, the lives and livelihoods of local communities need to be more protected. As agreed upon by experts as Madhav Gadgil, more participatory model of environmental usage need be devised, along with better strategies of resilience.