Madhav Gadgil writes: Pettimudi landslide was a disaster waiting to happen

Madhav Gadgil writes: Pettimudi landslide was a disaster waiting to happen
Rescue workers at the Pettimudi site in Munnar where a landslide killed over 50 people on Thursday.

Last Friday's landslide at Pettimudi in Rajamala near Munnar in Idukki distrcit had a lot of similarities with the 2019 landslide in Puthumala. I understand that a big rock overtopping the tea plantations slipped down over the settlements of Tamil Dalit labourers, leading to the tragedy.

I am afraid that this was a disaster waiting in the wings to happen. As early as 2011, the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) had designated this locality as a region of highest ecological sensitivity, ESZ-1. (WGEEP was headed by Madhav Gadgil).

Rainfall increases steeply with elevation in Kerala. High rainfall and steep slopes render localities susceptible to landslides; hence ESZ-1 areas are susceptible to landslides.

The extent of intact natural vegetation is the third component for assignment of ESZ-1. Landslides are under check in areas with intact natural vegetation because of the binding of the soil by roots. However, any disturbance to natural vegetation renders a locality with high rainfall and with steep slopes susceptible to landslides. Such disturbances may include the construction of buildings and roads. quarrying or mining, replacement of natural vegetation by plantations, or levelling of the land using heavy machinery. Therefore, we expect that in the ESZ-1 areas such as disturbance of natural vegetation and soil would mean the greater danger of landslides.

The panel strongly recommended avoiding these kinds of disturbing activities and had our recommendations been accepted, there is no doubt that the extent and intensity of landslides in Kerala in 2019 and 2020 would have been much lower.

Unfortunately, not only have our recommendation to bring such disturbing activities to a halt been ignored, instead the pace at which these disturbances are taking place has increased over the last 9 years.

There are other compounding factors as well. There are a now a large number of rock quarries afflicting the hilly regions of Kerala, and it is likely that some of them lie in the vicinity of Pettimudi. Even if they are not close to the landslide site shock waves from the blasting of rocks in quarries slowly weaken the rocks in the surrounding areas enhancing chances of landslides. So, regrettably, the Pettimudi landslide tragedy is no surprise.

A hot and angry earth

Pettimudi landslide could have been avoided, says Madhav Gadgil
NDRF personnel searching for survivours at the landslide-hit area at Pettimudi near Rajamala in Kerala's Idukki district. Photo: Manorama

All these changes are taking place on an earth that is getting warmer and warmer. The last 40 years have been warmer than the average for the 20th century; 12 of the warmest years all occurred after 1998. The world is already warmer by 1-degree celsius.

There is a broad scientific consensus that this climate change would lead to an increasing frequency of extreme events such as heat or cold waves or intense rainfall. As the world gets warmer there is more water vapour in the air leading to more frequent intense rainfall events. This is a global trend; even more significant are the local effects.

Vapour in the air condenses when there is an updraft.  Western Ghats force moisture-laden winds coming from the Arabian Sea to rise resulting in high levels of rainfall on the western slopes and the crestline of the Ghats. Elsewhere air may rise if the ground below is locally heated. This happens wherever the original vegetation cover of the land is replaced by the cement-concrete jungles of cities, highways and rocks exposed due to mining and quarrying.

Moreover, India is characterized by the world's highest levels of aerosols, minute particles emanating from automobile emissions and dust from construction, mining and quarrying, especially pulverizing rocks to produce mechanical sand. As water vapour in air laden with aerosols begins to condense, it initially forms myriads of small water droplets. These then coalesce to form larger heavy water drops that lead to intense rain over shorter periods. So, what would otherwise have constituted a gentle drizzle lasting 6 hours, now pours down 3 hours later in 30 minutes as an intense lashing of rain. The result is more intense floods as well as increased chances of landslides, of breaching of bunds, and collapse of buildings.

A warmer Arabian sea

Pettimudi landslide could have been avoided, says Madhav Gadgil
High waves lash the Chellanam beach in Kochi on Monday.

Water heats up more slowly than the air; moreover, there is an enormous store of water in the oceans that cover 70% of earth's surface with trenches that are deeper than Mount Everest. Nevertheless, ocean waters have now warmed enough to drive major changes.

The frequency of cyclones over the Arabian Sea has been consistently increasing over the last few years but all these were going west towards Oman.

In an unprecedented development, a severe cyclonic storm has made landfall on the west coast of India for the very first time, at least since reliable satellite-based observations became available since 1980.

This time, it was Maharashtra’s Konkan coast that was hit by the cyclonic storm Nisarg. While Nisarg is thus the first-ever severe cyclonic storm to make landfall on the West Coast of India, it will surely not be the last one since the Arabian Sea is bound to continue getting warmer and warmer.

So, many more severe cyclones will hit the West Coast, perhaps of Goa or Karnataka or Kerala in the coming years and inflict colossal economic damage.

All over the world, the sea level has been rising more rapidly than had been expected. This rise is particularly notable in the tropics.

At the same time, the ground is sinking in cities like Ernakulam due to the weight of construction and the lowering of groundwater level consequent on overuse. The shallowing of the rivers, estuaries and coastal waters due to deforestation and mining and quarrying is further adding to the woes.

In fact, the entire West Coast is today plagued by blatant violations of the coastal regulatory zone, construction of highways that destroy the remaining tree cover and environmentally degradative projects like the Vasco Da Gama Coal Port in Goa, Tadadi Coal Port in Karnataka and Vizhingjam Coal Port in Kerala.

Way ahead

Pettimudi landslide could have been avoided, says Madhav Gadgil

All these so-called development projects are bound to be seriously impacted by the cyclonic storms expected to hit the West Coast in the coming years. What such development is accomplishing is merely lining the pockets of a small number of already immensely rich people.

If this were not so, and economic development was genuinely benefiting all segments of the society,  why is it that poorly paid tea garden labourers forced to live in shacks, not on level ground, but in the ravines are getting crushed under landslides year after year?

In Switzerland, one can see on the banks of Lake Geneva palaces of Arab Sheikhs and other wealthy people from all over the world. These same people have stashed their black money in the vaults of Bank of Switzerland. The masses of people in their own countries remain poor fueling increasing social discord. So, to call this development is bizarre to say the least. 

What then is the way ahead? It lies in the pursuit of genuine democratic decentralization and empowering local communities whether they be in villages or in city mohallas. This what Mahatma Gandhi had so eloquently pleaded for in his “Hind Swaraj” with his vision of the country as a republic of self-reliant villages.

India's great strength lies in its democracy and its largely free media such as newspapers and TV channels. But these have their own limitations and it is the powerful tool of the new knowledge age, the social media, that are now serving as a genuinely democratizing force.

If we can build on this widely accessible democratizing force, then one day India can come to resemble Switzerland with its verdure and its direct democracy. The extensive forest cover of Switzerland has developed only over the last 160 years.

Prior to that only about 4% of that country’s lands had retained forest and there were disastrous landslides. This led to a public awakening and a restoration of the tree cover. But this regeneration was all managed by local communities – not by any Government department. Working together, communities of Switzerland, practising genuine participatory democracy, have revived the country’s ecology.

Such participatory democracy is the only way forward. Our honourable Prime Narendra Modiji delivered an inspiring speech on the day he emerged victorious in the general elections in May 2014. In that speech he gave us two mantras: “Sabka sath, sabka vikas”, - We will take everybody along in our development, and “Vikas ko Jan-Aandolan banaenge” - We will make development a people's campaign. There is no option but to genuinely implement what has been promised with these mantras.

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