In 2011, the Gadgil Committee led by Padmashri environmentalist Madhav Gadgil repeatedly warned the Kerala government to take immediate actions against gross violations of environmental laws in many parts of the state. The ruling party, as well as the opposition, had then refuted his recommendations and completely ignored his reports. Today, while Kerala reels under a disastrous flood, Prof Gadgil points out that the areas mentioned in his report are the worst-affected. He has also recently predicted a similar situation awaiting Goa and parts of Maharashtra. In an exclusive conversation with The Logical Indian, he reveals how an extensive network of power-hungry politicians and industrialists are operating hand in hand to destroy the ecological balance and inviting more disasters.
What were the states covered in the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel Reports in 2011?
We surveyed the entire stretch of the Western Ghats range, so, it included small parts of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, and parts of Tamil Nadu.
What were some of the major recommendations of your report?
The recommendations were mainly two-fold. Firstly, Western Ghats is a very ecologically sensitive and biodiversity-rich area. We have a series of good environmental protection laws which were uniformly being violated.
We also have a series of measures for empowering the local community (gram panchayat onwards) to make decisions about the natural resource management place that also should have been duly implemented.
Then we had also analysed the level of sensitivity in different parts of the Western Ghats including Kerala, where we demarcated three zones – more sensitive, moderately sensitive and less sensitive.
We proposed the suspension of quarrying and mining activities in the highly sensitive areas, like rainfall rich and steep-slope areas. We had suggested that most of the unchecked mining must be discontinued completely and others could be allowed on a very small scale.
Now one of the primary contributory causes of the devastating Kerala floods is stone quarrying which has widely proliferated in Kerala. They have led to landslides, blocking of streams and shallowing of rivers.
Had our recommendations been enacted in time, this environmental damage could have been prevented.
There was a lot of false propaganda against our report. To fuel their own unscrupulous agenda, the political powers created all sorts of wrong impressions about our report among the general public, especially in Idukki district, where common people severely protested our report. Now Idukki has faced the maximum number of landslides, mainly the places near quarries suffered extensive damage. Now everyone is beginning to feel that they have made a gross mistake by opposing the implementation of our report.
The second aspect that exacerbated the flood was probably the unnecessary construction of dams and poor management of water release from these dams. Our report had talked about water resource management in detail.
We were asked to examine the Athirappilly Hydel Power Project. The analysis by a River Research Centre revealed that the dam project was economically and technically flawed as well. In addition, the project would have stopped the water flow in the scenic Athirappilly Falls – a popular tourist attraction. In fact, the Athirappilly Gram Panchayat had also rejected the dam proposal as it would have submerged the habitations of the Kadars, a primitive tribal group. Our Forest Rights Act specifically disapproves dislocation of any aboriginal community without their explicit consent. However, the dam project was continued almost illegally flouting all these laws.
Our survey found that water management in the reservoirs was being practised in a very unscientific way. If water release has been done in a proper timely manner, the dams would not have overflowed only halfway through monsoon as happened in Kerala.
If transparent water management had been started in all reservoirs according to our report, it would have lessened the impact of this calamity, if not completely averted.
At that time, how did the Government and other political parties respond to your report?
Unfortunately, everywhere governments are controlled by the insatiable greed of some power-hungry individuals. In fact, I can say that all political parties were hand in gloves with the people who were carrying out the illegal stone quarrying. In India, today there is a huge criminalized segment of the economy involved in these kinds of activities.
For example, in Goa, the Justice Shah Commission has officially estimated that the mine operators have made illegal profits worth Rs 35,000 crores. Today Kerala has suffered damage worth Rs 26,000 crores but not a single paisa is going from the pockets of these people involved in the illegal mining towards supporting the flood relief, neither has any fine being imposed over them. They are walking scot-free. If the government can seize this illegal profit money and give it to Kerala, that would solve the whole problem amicably. But, no one is doing that.
Your committee had executed the Environmental Impact Assessment in Goa in 2011. But you previously pointed out falsifications in the published report.
There were plenty of falsifications. The Goa Government itself had asked me to look into their environmental situation. I can tell you how all 79 of our hydrological reports were altered to make false claims far from the truth, that many streams and tributaries of the Goan rivers were originating from the core mining areas. There was also a lot of wrong information related to biodiversity.
You have recently claimed that if Goa and Maharashtra Government does not take strict actions against the environmental violations in these states, there might be serious consequences like Kerala
Konkan region in Maharashtra, which may be prone to flooding, is today polluted way beyond the permissible limits by a lot of industries. The State Pollution Control Board is not taking any action at all, rather, they are falsely certifying that there is no such pollution and allowing more and more such industries to sprout there. There is one huge refinery on the cards, that might completely poison Konkan – mango orchards will be damaged, the fisheries will be destroyed. So, not exactly similar to Kerala, but a different kind of disaster might happen in Konkan.
Goa might face excess floods like Kerala in the Mandovi and Zuari rivers. Landslides are already going on a large scale, which is rarely reported, those might get worse.
A recent report has surfaced saying that on one side there is heavy flooding in Kerala and parts of Karnataka, on the other hand, many Southern districts are facing severe droughts. Do you think this imbalance is also a man-made situation?
Geographically the rainfall is not evenly distributed, the western side of the Western Ghats have very heavy rainfall and the leeward side is the rain-shadow area (area of low rainfall). Many drought-prone areas are located towards the eastern side. Traditionally, there was not so much agriculture in these areas, the main livelihood being nomadic animal rearing. Over the years, there has been an uncontrolled propagation of agriculture, without considering the insufficient availability of water. Another important aspect of the droughts is very bad water management.
Hiware Bazar village in Maharashtra has set an ideal model of efficient water management. The village community has come together to control the use of water wells and restricting the use of groundwater pumps – so they are not suffering from drought like the neighbouring villages.
So you can say the prudent use of water is completely in the hands of the community itself.
What, according to you is the solution to avert such devastating disasters like Kerala, in future? What do you think the role of the government should be in this context?
The State governments today are openly violating the environmental laws. In recent times the National Green Tribunal has been made toothless. So we are heading in a direction of greater and greater lawlessness in terms of environmental protection.
Secondly, we have a democratic devolution in our Constitution in the 73rd and 74th Amendments, which underlines the specific roles of local administration in executing these laws.
Let me share one incidence from 2002. The inhabitants of Plachimada village in Kerala were severely affected healthwise due to the drainage from the nearby Coca-Cola factory. Coca-Cola contested the Plachimada panchayat’s resolution to close the factory. Kerala government appointed an expert group which corroborated serious adverse effects of the effluents from the factory and estimated the loss of the gram panchayat at Rs 160 crores. Kerala legislature unanimously consented and ordered Coca-Cola to pay the compensation after closing their operations there even the Kerala HC upheld this resolution. Till date, Coca-Cola has not paid a single paisa of the compensation money to the villagers. Incidentally, the lawyer pleading for Coca-Cola was the wife of a senior Central minister, I do not wish to reveal the name.
Such brazen violation of people’s rights is still continuing. This is how a whole network operates to fulfil the vested interests of the politically powerful.
What message do you want to give to the citizens to take care of their environment and prevent such calamity in the future?
The citizens must make themselves aware of the existing laws. For example, a 2002 Biological Diversity Act empowers citizens at all levels of governance, to take all possible measures to protect the natural ecosystem of their areas. Citizens are also allowed to collect pollution-related information and protest illegal activities. The lapses on part of the government are not letting them know correctly about these laws.
In many rivers, there are large-scale fish deaths due to pollution that affects the local people, none of which is recorded. Pollution control boards are merely sitting there for whitewashing the grave reality. At least a proper public database should be created to consolidate all such reports and take necessary actions.
When the ruling parties are only there to nourish own greed, citizens should come forth to assert their rights and act responsibly to protect the environment.