Flood and Fury: Ecological Devastation in the Western Ghats
Penguin eBury Press
“It was scary. The river had never behaved like this in my lifetime,” recollects Girija Karambayan in Flood and Fury, Ecological Devastation in the Western Ghats. Girija’s tribal hamlet at Vazachal is on the banks of the Chalakudy river. Last year in July-August, the river, the fifth largest in Kerala, was among those that went into spate. So did several of the 43 other rivers in the state. Nearly 500 people lost their lives, nearly 1.5 lakh people were evacuated from their houses. A large number of people, actually, lost their lives because boulders came rolling down the Western Ghats hills. This year too, the raging waters claimed more than 90 people, a large number of them again the victims of landslides. “Why did the mountains turn hostile,” asks Biju V, the author of Flood and Fury.
The book is an indictment of the human activities in modern times that have made the monsoons, loved almost universally across Kerala, a bane in the past two years.
Implicated in this account are rice cultivation, plantation development, mass migrations, hydro-electric projects, dams, large-scale quarrying, pilgrimages and tourism. Viju also surveys the other Western Ghats states of Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra. This is necessary because, as Biju writes, the Ghats are one ecosystem. Floods in one part of the region are inextricably linked to droughts in another.
It’s also a story narrated very gently, and with enormous sensitivity to the economic aspirations and cultural leanings of the different social groups in the affected regions of the Ghats. “The first step towards the conservation of the Western Ghats should be empathising with the concerns and aspirations of the communities inhabiting, and understanding their centuries-old culture sub-cultures that are rooted in the mountains… The settlers of Idukki and the tribals of Attapady are two ends of a social spectrum. The aspirations of both need to be taken into account before implementing any regulation,” writes Biju.
His account is a combination of a travelogue and sympathetic reportage, suffused with an ethnographer’s sensitivity, to unravel the processes that have brought the Western Ghats to their current state. And he has a diverse range of interlocutors — tribal people, migrants, plantation labourers, government officials, political party representatives, ecologists and academics, ordinary people engaged in conservation, singers, pilgrims, even bikers. It reiterates certain eco-truths. But times are such that these truths needs to be told over and over again. For instance, at one point, Biju writes, “The tribals were once kings of forests but they never thought of owning the land in order to exploit it. Their worldview was thought to be anti-development and primitive till the beginning of the 20th century and concepts like community rights were considered to be outdated, socialist approach to development. But in the era of climate change and diminishing natural resources, these concepts assume real significance, especially when the exploitation of large tracts of eco-sensitive lands need to be regulated”.
How have regulations and measures to protect the fragile ecosystem of the Western Ghats fared? It’s a story of EIAs not always following the laid-down procedures and miners conniving with officials to circumvent rules. Biju, in fact, is at his sternest in referring to the real estate lobby and the mining industry. “There is no such thing as sustainable mining,” he says.
Flood and Fury is also about governments taking up issues with ecologists. It’s now well-known that political resistance is behind the Kerala government riding roughshod over the Madhav Gadgil report to conserve the Western Ghats. Even the much diluted Kasturirangan Committee Report on the conservation of the Ghats remains largely on paper.
Though Biju doesn’t do so directly, Flood and Fury is also an indictment of the developmentalist Left politics in Kerala that pays scant regard to eco-reasoning. The Left Front that holds office in the state had dismissed any links between the floods and the destruction of the Western Ghats with the argument that the deluge was a once-in-a hundred years-affair.
Even more pertinently, at the heart of Flood and Fury lies a critique of the lifestyle choices of modern civilisation. What happens to rivers and mountains are, after all, fallouts of our energy use options, food choices and the ways in which we construct our homes, workplaces, towns and cities. As Biju warns, “The Kerala floods might be a trailer of the grimmer things to come. We have pushed too many boulders down the hills and the next big disaster might leave us with nothing but ruins”