On the morning of October 16 this year, as the soft pitter-patter of the rain turned into a terrifying downpour within minutes, Fouziya, 28, filmed her two young children watching the floodwaters rising up in the courtyard of their small home on the slope of a hill. She sent the video to a relative on WhatsApp. Sometime later, when the rain showed no signs of relenting, Fouziya, now anxious, dialled a relative to convey her fears. Midway into that conversation, a loud roar was heard, the sound of giant boulders, slush and water hurtling down the hill. Seconds later, the call got disconnected as the home was crushed and swept away, killing Fouziya, her two children Ameen (10) and Amna (7), and the children of her brother, Afsara (8) and Afiyan (4). When rescue workers dug up the debris, the remains of two kids were found as if they had hugged each other towards the end.
“It’s a sight we can never forget. When we took out the bodies, we felt a great sense of pain,” a rescue worker told a local television channel.
The landslide at Poovanchi in Kokkayar panchayat of Idukki district, that claimed seven lives including five of Fouziya’s family, is the latest in Kerala’s tryst with natural disasters borne out of extreme weather events. The same day, just four kilometres away on the other side of the same hill, a similar landslide in Koottickal panchayat of Kottayam district killed 12, including six members of a family. A total of 42 people lost their lives between October 12 and October 20, said Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in the Assembly, as the state was pummelled by localised, short bursts of extremely heavy rainfall.
The India Meteorological Department (IMD), in its bulletins, attributed the rains to formation of a low-pressure area in the Arabian Sea as well as a fresh spell of an ‘easterly wave’. Even though, to its credit, it did put several districts on code orange alert ahead of October 16 warning of ‘isolated heavy to very heavy rainfall’, but the quick turn in the volume of rainfall, especially in a localised manner, in districts like Kottayam, Idukki and Pathanamthitta, some of the worst-affected, raises questions on the ability of the agency to make accurate micro-level predictions. The consequences were visible: by noon on October 16, several central Kerala districts were upgraded to red alert, pushing authorities to take up mass evacuations, opening relief camps and lifting dam shutters to empty out excess water. By then, several small and big landslides had already taken place in the hills and entire towns like Kanjirappally and Mundakayam were under water.
For those living on the margins of rivers and streams and atop hills and slopes in Kerala, whose daily routines are intertwined with nature, the sequence of events that played out last week is eerily familiar. In 2018, the state was plagued by the worst floods in a century, killing over 480 people and incurring property damage to the tune of ₹4 lakh crore. The next year, two major landslides in Puthumala in Wayanad district and Kavalappara in Malappuram district in the Western Ghats accounted for a majority of the over 120 deaths in rain-related incidents. And in August 2020, Pettimudi, a small tea-growing settlement in Idukki district, was ravaged by the worst landslide in Kerala’s history, killing 70 people. In short, the past three years have borne testimony to a pattern of extraordinary weather events, putting the state directly on the crossroads of climate change, and leaving ecologists to wonder: is Kerala, fragile as it is, equipped to deal with what’s yet to come?
‘Kerala no longer a safe haven’
Viju B, the author of the doggedly-researched ‘Flood and Fury: Ecological Devastation in the Western Ghats’ published in 2019, has argued that the 2018 floods were no isolated freak phenomenon, but a wake-up call for politicians, policy-makers and the public to make urgent amends before it’s too late.
Fire Brigade personnel shift flood-effected people from Moodiyoor area of Pathanamthitta district, Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021, after release of water from dams. (PTI Photo)
In a recent conversation over the phone, he said, “This is a new normal and we have to brace up to the fact that climate change has struck us with great certainty. There’s no doubt about it anymore. But the saddest part is that the State still hasn’t accepted it. Imagine the kind of rainfall (this month), it’s so scary. We should be able to say that this is a climate emergency. Kerala is no longer the safe haven it used to be and people are uncertain.”
The gradual warming of the Arabian Sea and the increasing incidence of cyclonic formations in it are indicators, he pointed out. The key question, he said, is whether the state government has the political will to work on a development agenda in tune with the current realities of climate change. “The government still hasn’t addressed it. It needs to urgently have discussions with experts to prepare long-term solutions. But all it talks about is compensation (for victims after disasters),” he said.
Dr Salom Gnana Thanga V, head of the department of environmental science at Kerala University, added, “We are not serious about (implementing) climate-resilient solutions. While designing short-term or long-term developmental projects, there must be (climate-friendly) components.” She called for greater scientific involvement in development schemes and a thrust on ensuring a good drainage system. “Follow nature’s way,” she advised.
‘Need a scientific land-use policy’
The grave threats posed by landslides occurring due to extreme, localised rainfall is accentuated by the human fatality figures, said S Sreekumar, retired professor of geology who has undertaken extensive hazard studies on landslides in Kerala.
“We have to divide the period into pre-2018 and post-2018 sections. In the 50 years till 2018, we had about 229 deaths due to landslides. But from 2018 till 2021 (including last week’s figures), we have had about 170 deaths. The risk has increased as more and more people build homes in vulnerable, high-hazard areas,” he said.
Commuters wade through a waterlogged street after heavy rain in Thiruvananthapuram, Monday, Oct. 18, 2021. (PTI Photo)
To mitigate this threat, Kerala urgently needs to adopt a scientific, efficient land-use practice which can shape and govern human interventions in fragile and ecologically-vulnerable areas, he stressed. “In Munnar and other parts of Idukki for example, the way we are building houses, it’s disastrous. We need a building code that can determine the height, area of the structure and the kind of sewage system needed. In states like Uttarakhand, (improper) sewage systems have been known to cause landslides,” he said.
Granting approvals to quarries and mining activities is another policy decision that needs to be made after careful, scientific inspection of the area, said Sreekumar. “I was a member of the State Environmental Appraisal Committee. We have to inspect the geological conditions of the site such as the kind of drainage, the type of slope etc. In Koottickal panchayat (where a landslide took place on Oct 16), we had denied (permission for) some quarry projects (in previous years).”
If there’s one area where there has been flagrant violation of rules and guidelines, it’s mining. The powerful politician-miner nexus has ensured that hundreds of illegal quarries and blasting sites operate in Kerala with impunity, often at the cost of the environment and the lives of the people in those areas. For example, Kokkayar panchayat, where Fouziya and her family died in the landslide on October16, fell in a hazard zone with moderate risk and a quarry mapping programme by the department of geology and mining listed two granite stone quarries in the same panchayat. That’s not all. A report in the Times of India said that the Kerala government issued permits for 223 new quarries after the 2018 floods citing a reply by the then Industries Minister EP Jayarajan on the floor of the Assembly in October, 2019. In 2018-19 alone, Kerala mined a whopping 3.53 crore tonnes of granite, the highest-ever in the state’s history.
In a Facebook post on October 20, Harish Vasudevan, a lawyer practicing at the Kerala High Court and the National Green Tribunal (NGT), pointed out that in high and moderate landslide susceptible areas, quarry blasting has been banned and regulated, respectively, as per the 2016 state disaster management plan. Digital maps of such areas are in the public domain. A plea arguing that the study is incorrect was even thrown out by the Kerala HC. “Why then is the industries department not amending the Kerala Minor Mineral Concession (KMMC) rules? Who are they trying to help? And why is the local self-government (LSG) department not amending the building rules?” he asked.
A woman breaks down as her house damaged in landslide due to heavy rain at Plappally pandalam in Kottayam District, Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021. (PTI Photo)
An ambitious railway project in the offing
Even as Kerala suffered loss of hundreds of lives and extensive property damage in the last three years, environmental activists say alarm bells still haven’t rung in the government corridors in Thiruvananthapuram. There’s heightened criticism that the CPM-led government, in power since 2016 under Vijayan, has willy-nilly authorised big-ticket infrastructure projects with scant regard about likely impact for the state’s fragile ecosystem. Examples include a 8-km road tunnel project through the heart of the Western Ghats linking Kozhikode and Wayanad districts, a hydroelectric project in Athirappilly on the Chalakudy river (now abandoned) and a greenfield airport in Kottayam district for Sabarimala pilgrims.
The newest entry on that list is an ambitious semi high-speed railway corridor connecting the state’s northern end of Kasaragod with Thiruvananthapuram in the south. Designed as an alternative to the state’s highly clogged roads and highways and slow movement of trains on existing lines, the project, named SilverLine, envisages trains running at 200 km/ph, reducing travel time between Kasaragod and Thiruvananthapuram from 12 hours to under four hours. But the project, land acquisition for which has been given cabinet nod, is bitterly opposed by environmental groups including the Left-leaning Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) as they allege it will cut through acres of paddy fields, wetlands and numerous rivers and streams. The holding capacity of water sources will further diminish, they say, leading to more floods and landslides in the future.
“If this project is implemented, Kerala will be ruined,” said S Rajeevan, state convenor of the Samsthana K-Rail Silverline Viruddha Janakeeya Samithi, an outfit mounting resistance to the project.
He alleged the railway track, in elevated and at-ground level segments, will slice through paddy fields, wetlands, tunnels drilled into hills and atop bridges over major rivers. “They plan to build 293-kms of the stretch using embankments which are at least 1-metre higher than the floods levels recorded in the last 100 years. Underpasses are designed every 500-metres. And on top of the embankments, they plan to build a 4.5 metres-high protective wall for the rail track. Officials are proudly claiming that the rail-track will be protected (from the floods), but what about protection for the lives of ordinary people of Kerala?” he asked. “The embankment will look like a 12.5 metres-high fort cutting through the heart of Kerala.”
Such a style of construction, he said, will alter the geography of the state, change the course of rivers and result in rapid flooding of low-level areas. “Already, in regions like Kuttanad, there’s no way for the water to flow out. Roads are being built on higher ground, preventing the natural flow of water.”
NDRF team during rescue operation after a landslide due to heavy rain, at Poovanchi hill in Kottayam District, Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021. (PTI Photo)
In fact, to address the problem of shrinking floodplains of rivers, the Kerala government in 2019 had announced a project modelled on the ‘Room for the River’ plan implemented in the Netherlands. It was announced after CM Vijayan visited a project site at Noordward and held extensive consultations with Dutch water experts on how space can be created for a river to expand itself during floods and thus cause minimal damage to people living on its banks. The government, which spoke of replicating it in Kuttanad and other parts of Alappuzha, is under fire from the Opposition for doing little on the project front.
When asked about the status of the project by reporters recently, Vijayan said the river clean-up measures and restoring water flow by removing silt are underway at many places and linked to the ‘Room for the River’ project. “The target will be met incrementally. We are not saying everything has been done, there’s still lots to be done. People’s cooperation is important,” he said.
In Kottayam, worst-affected by the rains this time, the KSSP, an influential progressive outfit, plans to take the lessons from the tragedy at Koottickal to the public, especially youngsters. “Arivu undu, pakshe thiricharivu illa (They have the knowledge, but they lack common sense),” explained Rajeev SA, the KSSP district secretary.
“This is a matter of the survival of our people. There can’t be any compromises on it,” he said.