By Samuel Mathai
The great deluge and massive landslides in almost all the districts of Kerala are more of a man-made disaster than a natural calamity. Illegal constructions on the river beds, unauthorised stone-quarrying and human intervention contributed to the catastrophe. Had the State and the Central authorities paid attention to the alarm bells sounded by the ecologists, the environmental scientists and the Meteorological Department, heavy casualties could have been avoided.
The deluge has left hundreds of people dead, rendered lakhs homeless, destroyed large number of livestock and wildlife. Intense rain and landslides have left Kerala, the ‘God’s Own Country’, in ruins.
The magnitude of rainfall witnessed this season was not unprecedented. But the flooding seen this time was never experienced before. Experts fear the toll could rise exponentially. The casualty is yet to be ascertained.
The floods destroyed roughly 10 lakh hectares of crops. The preliminary assessment says the cost of damage to the state and its people stands at over Rs 20,000 crore.
The last flood of this magnitude in Kerala was in 1924. Then the monsoon pelted the state with 3,368 mm of rain. And over 1,000 people are said to have lost their lives.
The government and its agencies, and the humanity across the world, are extending their support in cash and kind. Yet, the restoration of the marooned state remains a far cry.
Besides government machineries, the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), the Coast Guards and voluntary organisations have been working round-the-clock to rescue people stranded in flood-hit areas.
The services rendered by the fishermen community from coastal areas are commendable. As soon as the news of the devastating floods and the plight of stranded people came out, 600 odd fishermen immediately turned up with their country and mechanised boats to rescue those marooned in various parts in the state.
When death and devastation have driven Kerala into despair, the kind-hearted men and women across the state, and everywhere else, have gone out of their way to kindle hope by helping those in distress. Those in safer locations have offered shelter and food to those who were less lucky. The young and the old alike have volunteered for relief operations.
Seven years ago, ecologists’ panel -- the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) – headed by Madhav Gadgil had warned Kerala of more than heavy rainfall. The reasons the panel cited were existence of illegal stone quarries, large number of unauthorised constructions on river beds and illegal felling of trees.
Ecologist Gadgil claimed, that the floods that marooned Kerala, were more of a man-made disaster than a natural calamity. He said the WGEEP, in its 2011 report, had recommended, that several areas in Kerala, which come under the Western Ghats should be classified as ecologically sensitive. “There are two components to it. One is the intense rainfall of a higher level than normal and the other is human intervention,” the 76-year-old ecologist said.
The flooding has definitely brought to light existence of illegal stone-quarries and large number of unauthorised constructions on river beds, he said, adding, “In this sense, it is definitely a man-made calamity where intense rainfall and human intervention have made it a serious disaster. The truth is that while we blame nature’s fury for wreaking havoc, most such calamities turn out to be a result of unhindered human interference with nature.”
Gadgil, the founder of the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, in his report had recommended strict restrictions on mining and quarrying and on use of land for non-forest purposes.
Several other environmentalists have pointed fingers at the extensive quarrying, mushrooming of high-rises as part of tourism and illegal forest land acquisition by private parties as major reasons for the calamity.
VS Vijayan, an environmental scientist and a member of the expert panel on Western Ghats, said, "Kerala is going through a man-made calamity. The impact should have been limited if the Gadgil committee report, aimed at protecting ecologically fragile mountain ranges, was implemented."
A few regions which have borne the brunt of the Kerala flood fury had been declared as ecologically-sensitive zones by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel. The panel had strongly recommended stopping of quarrying in certain areas to avoid a disaster. The committee also recommended restrictions on deforestation and unhindered use of land for construction.
The Chennai floods of 2015 were also a result of people who fiddled with nature. A report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, recently tabled in the Tamil Nadu Assembly, categorised the 2015 floods as a ‘man-made disaster’. A similar story is currently unfolding in Kerala.
Beyond the weather, leading experts suggest a heavy, artificial hand in this latest deluge. The state was forced to throw open the gates of 35 of its 39 dams, knowing well what was to come. The intensity of the rain meant that two dozen more dams in states nearby were forced to follow suit. The dam gates were opened and a torrent of hell was unleashed on Kerala.
“Heavy rainfall used to occur in Kerala, but not with such continuity,” Dr DS Pai, Climate Change scientist and analyst at Indian Meteorological Department said. “This time, there has been widespread rain continually for a long time, which has not been seen in recent years.”
One of the most severely affected areas is Ernakulum, along the Periyar River, into which excess water from the Idamalayar dam was drained. Dam-safety expert N Sasidharan claimed that authorities waited till the water level in the Idamalayar reservoir reached its capacity of 169 feet, and had it been opened sooner, would likely have spared the massive evacuation efforts in the vicinity. “This is the result of poor planning by the disaster management authority,” Sasidharan added.
Despite having an integrated administrative machinery for disaster management at National, State, District and Sub-District levels, why the state of Kerala and the country failed to save the precious innocent lives of its people from the devastating flood. Had the government paid attention to the alarm bells, sounded by the ecologists, environmental scientists and the Meteorological Department, the catastrophe could have been avoided to a large extent.
What has happened in Kerala is thus also a lesson for the rest of the country to not exploit nature. Hope, some lessons will be learnt at least now.
IAF officer winches up toddler to safety
Braving inclement weather and risky conditions, a young Air Force officer dramatically winched up a toddler to safety from the roof-top of a marooned house. Wing Commander Prashanth slid down a rope to the terrace of the two-storey house which seemed from above like a toy floating on the yellowish murky waters.
TV visuals showed the officer airlifting the two-year-old boy with care, pressed him to his body and winched him to safety. The proud officer later handed over the baby to his anxious mother waiting inside the chopper. The woman, who was almost in tears, was all gratitude and smiles as she received her bundle of joy in her hands.
Prashanth is one among many unsung heroes who have brought smiles to the faces of anxious and panic-stricken people of Kerala, reeling under the worst floods of a century.
Winched woman in labour gives birth to a baby boy
Commander Vijay Varma, who saved a pregnant woman in labour by winching her up in a helicopter from a stranded building, was later happy to hear that she had successfully delivered a baby boy.
"This was a very challenging task. We got an SOS and we traced them out... There is tremendous satisfaction, both professionally and personally," the officer said later.
The woman, Sajitha Jabeel (25) was in the final stretches of her pregnancy when her house at Aluva in Kochi was flooded due to heavy rains that have been battering entire Kerala for more than a week.
Hours after she was shifted to the Navy hospital, Sanjivani, in Kochi, Sajitha gave birth to a baby boy. The mother and the baby are doing well.
Before rescuing Sajitha from the rooftop, the Navy had lowered a doctor to examine the woman. Navy has released the video of the rescue operation and pictures of the woman and the new-born baby.
Man kneels down to help women step on to him to get into rescue boat
The visual of a man kneeling down in muddy waters to help women step on to him to get into rescue boats went viral on Sunday.
The man in a blue shirt was seen kneeling with his face hardly a few inches above the flood waters and women stepping onto his back to climb up to a rescue boat.
IAS officers unload rice sacks at relief camps
The act of IAS officers MG Rajamanikyam and NS Umesh who unloaded rice sacks at the Wayanad Collectorate for distribution at relief camps was also celebrated by netizens.
Children, women participate in rescue work
Thousands of people, including women, children and college students are tediously working at various centres across the state free of cost to gather essential materials, including food, medicines, and cloths to send to relief camps.
Hate-mongers, national media neglect
While the state has been battling floods and landslides on one side, it was also forced to fight the callous few who spewed venom, a less than sympathetic 'national media' and the hostile lot who fabricated news.
There were the innocuous many who, with all good intentions, passed on the forwards they received on their WhatsApp groups and saw on Facebook walls—the pleas of people who needed rescue and of those willing to offer food and other materials. There were the noxious few who spread messages that caused immense panic too. Some of these rumours included false reports of cracks on Mullaperiyar dam, reports of scarcity of fuel and imminent state-wide power outage. These 'news' forwards did their part to further panic.
Much more grievous were the hate messages spread around. While some chest-thumping, puny-brained ‘Sanghis’ asked people in Kerala to be grateful for the help ‘India’ is offering and asked them to realise that Kerala needs to turn to ‘Indian Union’ when tragedy befalls, others pinned the blame on the food habits of Keralites, saying “Your love for beef caused it.”
While one man asked people to donate to organisations helping only Hindus, there were others who credited the deluge to Lord Ayyappa who was upset that the government and the liberal lot in the state were fighting for the rights of women to enter Sabarimala temple.
Moreover, the persons in newsrooms across the 'national media' deigned to swoop down on the state only after the customary but belated cameo from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. There were tributes to a deceased leader (he deserves it) and other trivial things and panel discussions on possibly everything under the north Indian sun.
However, the same newsrooms that dotted on every move of the rescue teams that were trying to save a coach and 12 kids of a football team who were trapped in a Thai cave and had hordes of panellists bragging about their expertise, had little time and resources to report the pleas of those trapped in their own homes and marooned in their own hometowns.
Was the bravado of the fearless folks who waded into the adverse waters to rescue their friends, neighbours and strangers not worthy of a good 'bite' in your prime time?
Declaring Kerala floods as a national disaster
As the Congress and the Left parties demand from the Union government declare the Kerala floods as a 'national disaster', government officials said declaring Kerala floods as a ‘national disaster' on paper is not going to help the distressed people any more than what is already being extended to the state in terms of financial aid and deployment of relief and rescue forces on the ground. Depending on the extent of damages and relief and rehabilitation required in the coming days, the Centre will continue to pump in financial assistance and other relief material, they added.
According to the Disaster Management Act, a ‘disaster’ means ‘a catastrophe, mishap, calamity or grave occurrence in any area, arising from natural or man-made causes, or by accident or negligence which results in substantial loss of life or human suffering or damage to, and destruction of, property, or damage to, or degradation of, environment, and is of such a nature or magnitude as to be beyond the coping capacity of the community of the affected area.''
The Act in no way differentiates between local or national disasters; and the definition given in the Act itself means that any ‘disaster’ in the country is a ‘national disaster’.
In India, there is no need for a government notification to move central forces like the Army or the NDRF to assist states for disaster relief and rescue works. As soon as the state sends a requisition to the central government, the central forces are dispatched. Multiple agencies—Army, Navy, Air Force and the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF)—have deployed extensive manpower on the ground in Kerala on the requisition of the state government.
Now Kerala has to assess the damages to life and property, after the situation is under control, and send a memorandum to the Central government for additional assistance on various counts to bring the state on its feet again. Based on the state government's memorandum, the Centre will dispatch a team to the state to study the situation and prepare a report. If the State Disaster Response Funds fall short, the Centre will help the state further to recover its losses. Administratively and legally, that responsibility lies with the central government irrespective of whether it labels it a national disaster or not.
‘Goa to face same fate’
As Kerala is battling the worst flood in a century which killed hundreds of people, ecologist Madhav Gadgil rang an alarm bell for Goa which, he said, might face the same fate if proper precautions were not taken.
“Goa, of course, does not have the Western Ghats which are as high as in Kerala, but I am sure Goa will also experience all sorts of problems," he said.
Gadgil had done extensive study on Goa’s environment based on the data provided by iron ore mining companies in their Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) reports in 2011.
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