The Madhav Gadgil report imposed restrictions on quarrying in Kerala while the Kasturirangan Committee allowed it; now Kerala faces death & destruction
Abundance of quarries in ecological sensitive zones marked by ecologist Madhav Gadgil and soil piping phenomenon in northern Kerala can be cited as two major reasons for the flood disaster, experts said.
“Our research data reveals that there are 21 quarries within the 10 km range in Kavalappara where a massive landslide levelled at least 40 houses killing scores. We strongly believe that it’s the abundance of quarries and their operations, which would have led to such a kind a disaster,” TV Sajeev, a scientist at Kerala Forest Research Institute, told The Lede.
Since August 07, Kerala has been hit by heavy rain leading to landslides and flooding, claiming 103 lives so far.
The massive landslide in Kavalappara, which is marked as Ecologically Sensitive Zone 3 by Gadgil, happened on August 08 evening.
And as of Wednesday, 24 bodies buried in landslide were recovered and there are reports that 34 missing bodies must be found from the disaster area.
Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) headed by Madhav Gadgil was formed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2010 to study the impact of population pressure, climate change and development activities on the Western Ghats.
In 2011, following the study, the Gadgil Panel recommended to turn the entire Western Ghats region into an Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA) and three Ecological Sensitive Zones (ESZ) viz. ESZ-1, ESZ-2 and ESZ-3, with varying degrees of protection.
It recommended that the government should put an indefinite moratorium on new environmental clearances for mining in ESZ-1 and ESZ-2, phasing out mining from ESZ-1 by 2015 and continuation of existing mining in ESZ-2 under strict regulation with an effective system of social audit.
However, the Gadgil panel recommendations were indigestible to politicians and businesses.
And in 2013, the Ministry of Environment and Forests entrusted space scientist K Kasturirangan, to “examine” the Gadgil committee report in a “holistic and multidisciplinary” fashion, while considering the objections raised by the state governments and responses received from others.
The Kasturirangan committee, which submitted its report in 2013, severely watered down the recommendations of the Gadgil panel, effectively suggesting that only a third of the Western Ghats be identified as being ecologically sensitive.
After consultations with the state governments, the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2017 notified some 57,000 sq km of the Western Ghats as an ecologically sensitive area, in which all mining activities, large constructions, thermal power plants, and highly polluting industries were banned.
The area that was finally notified, only 9993.7 sq km was in Kerala, after the state government objected to the 13,108 sq km that the Kasturirangan committee had identified as ecologically sensitive in the state.
“Kasturirangan’s 10-member High Level Working Group categorised quarrying as a red category industry and banned it in the ecologically sensitive areas identiﬁed by them. In 2017, we checked the status of quarrying activity in each of the above said zones and interestingly, we found that there are 655 quarries operating in ESAs marked by HLWG,” Sajeev added.
“Interestingly, in the 5 km range of Kavalappara, there are nine quarries. The presence of quarries cannot be ignored in causing flood disasters,” Sajeev added.
In 2017, the current Kerala government issued an order reducing the minimum permissible distance limit for quarrying to 50 metres from roads, canals, rivers, and residential buildings.
Interestingly, in 2015 itself, the distance of 100 metres was replaced through an amendment stating that distance can be determined by the Pollution Control Board.
Commenting on the government’s pro-quarry attitude, CR Neelakantan, a green activist, told The Lede that after the 2018 floods, he expected that the government would learn lessons from that experience and rectify the wrong actions.
“But unfortunately it didn’t happen. Despite the Kerala High Court directing to stop quarrying in the land assigned to dwelling, cultivation in the reserve forest, the quarrying activities continue unabashed,” Neelakantan alleged.
Meanwhile, talking to The Lede, K Biju, the Director at Department of Mining and Geology, said that ban has been put in place on working quarries.
“Considering the flood situation, we have put a ban on operation of 750 working quarries and mining allied activities have been stopped. We have not fixed a time. But the ban will continue till the flood situation betters and we analyse the situation,” Biju said.
The Kerala Online Mining Permit Awarding Services (KOMPAS) data shows that in Malappuram there are 429 mines.
Meanwhile, G Shankar, a soil expert and senior scientist at National Centre for Earth and Science Studies, told The Lede that soil piping may also be one of the reasons for this flood disaster in northern Kerala because the soil there is laterite which is mined to build buildings.
Soil piping (tunnel erosion) is the formation of underground tunnels due to subsurface soil erosion. When the tunnel grows bigger and bigger the roof collapses and subsidence or sinking of the ground occurs.
“Soil piping usually occurs in the lateritic terrains in northern Kerala, especially in the Western Ghats,” Shankar said.
“During rain, laterite quarries become a water reservoir. And the water drips into sub surface where there are clays. Along with clay, the water will make a tunnel and start flow in the subsurface. The "pipes" may lie very close to the ground surface or extend several meters below ground. Once initiated they become cumulative with time, the conduits expand due to subsurface erosion leading to roof collapse and subsidence features on the surface,” Shankar said.
According to Shankar, tunnel erosion due to soil piping is a serious problem in the Western Ghats and soil piping is the main reason for the land subsidence in the Western Ghats and its foothills in Kerala.
Scientists believe that soil piping is the reason behind Kavalappara landslide.
“Most of the tunnelling occurs where deforestation has taken place and except districts of Alappuzha, Kollam and Trivandrum all other districts in Kerala are affected by the soil piping problem,” he said adding that without changing the land use pattern such incidents will repeat.