Renowned ecologist and writer Madhav Gadgil said Friday that there seems to be prima-facie evidence of unscientific methods having been adopted while opening and closing the shutters of major dams in Kerala with respect to the recent floods and landslides that killed more than 480 people in the state. Gadgil was speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a lecture he gave on the sustainable rebuilding of Kerala.
On the question of whether the simultaneous opening of dam shutters led to the tragedy, he said, “Prima facie from what people tell me, that seems to be so. But I understand there’s going to be a lot of evidence. A friend of mine from Kochi sent me a long list of statements by Kerala state electricity board officials who said that ‘Oh, we will store all water, we will never open the gates.’ Now, there is a scientific regime of arranging reservoir flow. Water resource engineers tell me that the policy should be the dam should be full only at the end of the monsoon, not midway through like this. And then there was rain and they suddenly opened. This seems to have been completely improper, unscientific management. This should be examined in detail.”
There has been a severe criticism of the manner in which the gates of major dams like Cheruthoni, Mullaperiyar and Idamalayar were opened simultaneously to release massive amounts of water into rivers like the Periyar which subsequently inundated regions like Aluva and Paravur. The government, however, has stuck behind officials of the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB), which operates the Idukki reservoir. Preliminary estimates by the government suggest more than 50,000 houses have been completely damaged and 57,000 hectares of cropped land ravaged by the floods.
The comments of 76-year-old Gadgil are significant as his expert panel report on the conservation of the ecologically-fragile Western Ghats was considered path-breaking by many and had touched a raw nerve with several governments of southern states including Kerala. The committee he led proposed suspension of certain industrial and mining activities in areas under the Western Ghats and called for more engagement with locals and grassroot-level leaders. The recommendations were seen to have been later diluted by the Kasturirangan commission.
In the backdrop of the recent floods, counted as the most severe in nearly a century, the ruling LDF government gave directions to local bodies to restrict all construction activities in vulnerable areas and those affected by landslides. Until a scientific study is done to determine appropriate zones for construction in landslip-prone areas, such activities will have to be completely stopped, the government ordered.
Gadgil stressed that the process of rebuilding of Kerala must be inclusive and not turn into another bureaucratic exercise.
“There’s abundant evidence that the so-called scientific expertise which bureaucracy exercises is actually fraudulent. Athirapally (proposed hydroelectric project on the Athirapally waterfalls) was one example. Even the Silent Valley (project) where I talked to Kerala electricity board people trying to understand what scientific reason they had for saying that this would be a good project. They were just insisting that the project should go through. So it should not be a bureaucratically managed so-called scientific exercise. Bureaucracy and scientific experts can give inputs, but it should be opened up, made transparent. We should have a grassroot, bottom-up approach to take final decisions, This may take a little time, but it is the appropriate method.”
In his lecture, organized in a jam-packed room by the Kerala HC unit of the Indian Association of Lawyers in Kochi, Gadgil talked at length on the dangers of exclusive methods of development at the cost of conservation. He impressed upon the Kerala government to reassure people that they will stop development by exclusion. He cited various measures the government could take such as implementing the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments, setting up Biodiversity Management Committees of citizens and empowering them to document the status of local ecosystem, accord Biodiversity Management Committee a central place in preparation of environmental impact assessments, stop distortion and suppression of all environment and development related information, empowering tribals and traditional forest dwellers to control and manage nontimber forest produce and continually ask local bodies for suggestions.
“Kerala, of all states, is capable of doing this. It is better-placed than any other states to undertake this paradigm shift,” he said.