Ernakulam (Kerala): Submitted seven years ago on 31 August 2011, ecologist Madhav Gadgil’s report on the biodiverse Western Ghats—a portion of which falls in Kerala—had warned that the combination of massive ecological destruction and extreme weather events trigger disaster. His words proved prophetic in the second half of August when the century’s worst flood unleashed destruction in Kerala. As the state searches for an appropriate way to rebuild itself, the man who penned several key reports on ecological hotspots and founded the Centre for Earth Science Studies in Bengaluru, is back in the limelight.

After the floods, the Kerala government has barred rebuilding houses in places where landslides have happened, pending a study to decide such fragile areas could withstand fresh construction. This is exactly one of the things your report wanted the government to do seven years ago, to prepare a map of landslide-prone areas and ban construction in at least some of those zones. Do you feel vindicated, finally?

It is not a question of vindication but I’m very happy. We submitted a very honest and carefully documented report, both in terms of facts and the framework of our Constitution laws and so on. Actually, I was amazed when my colleagues and Government of India officials also said, fine let’s go ahead and submit such a report. That it would be accepted in some full sense was out of question. But it should promote some positive action was certainly my intention. It has taken time. At least now these factors are taken into account, it is a good sign.

Do you have a theory on what caused the Kerala floods?

This is, of course, not based on any kind of in-depth understanding or study. But from what I understand, probably the most serious cause was the very bad reservoir management and the sudden release of so much water. Compounding that was all sorts of constructions that have come up where it certainly should not have come up. And then, quarries and so on. Today, somebody was mentioning that the Pampa river water apparently has a lot of crushed stone powder in it, which obviously stone quarries must have contributed. All of these should be examined. As I have been saying, there is no justification why the information on how the reservoirs are supposed to be managed (has been) kept hidden. There must be some operating procedure, when it should be released, in what quanta it should be released. These operation manuals should be available for the public to see and for experts outside the system to examine and comment upon.

You are concurring with Madhavan Rajeevan, earth science ministry’s secretary, who remarked last week that India does not have a policy to manage water in reservoirs while commenting on Kerala floods. Why is it that such a policy has not been evolved?

I think there is every intention not to get away from mismanagement. Mismanagement means large gains which then are shared widely. This sort of favouring mismanagement is not compatible with good development of policies, openness of information. Once, I had to spent three days in a tribal village near Tapi river. I really wanted to understand how they live; so I lived in their huts and ate what they ate—millet bread and garlic chutney. But soon, I realised it was a bit too much and the villagers out of sympathy promised to feed me melon from their fields. When we went to the melon farm, we saw an engineer collecting hafta (bribe). So, every year, when the melon farms are ripe, the engineer would threaten them of suddenly releasing the water from the dam. That was the great Tapi river water release policy. This is just one possible way, a lot of such things are going on—probably favouring some people with irrigation water going to their fields than a more broader sharing. If there is a clear operating manual and a clear record, it will become evident and people will question.

In your speech on 31 August, you said: Kerala needs to turn over a new leaf and start safeguarding and rebuilding not only the lost man-made capital, but the natural, human and social capital as well. Please elaborate.

Building human capital means building an informed society, for which no investment is needed except the government obeying its own Right To Information Act and uploading all the information they keep hidden on the web. Social capital is seeing an end to social disharmony. You must take actions to respect the rights of people, and violation of those rights by all sorts of mafias operating is an ingredient of increasing social disharmony. Natural capital would be rebuilding and proper management of water streams and so on. Let’s say making water of rivers clean once again.

On the social and natural capital, Kerala is presented with an immediate problem: there would be a major demand for stones and minerals for reconstruction, but a need to restrain quarrying given ecological sensitiveness. How much quarrying is good enough?

Stone quarries cannot be halted altogether, fully agreed. But why not do it in cooperative sector like Kudumbashree (Kerala’s four-million strong women’s cooperative network). I’ve seen those women for 20 years and they did a very good job. They would operate it in careful fashion, without imposing undue damage on nature. They themselves will become competent in handling business and in turn, enhance their capability. Because of their gram sabhas and all, they are protected against the violence that the stone quarry operator would have liked to launch on them, improving social capital. So, all will be simultaneously achieved.

You spoke about development by exclusion as the existing dharma. Do you think it has reached a point where it cannot be reversed?

This is something for which I can only give answer as a student of Buddha’s philosophy. Buddha advocates that never lose heart. You cannot allow yourself to immerse in despondency and think nothing can happen, so you should keep trying.

How can it be reversed?

The government must implement the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution and give gram panchayats the right to reject some development projects if they do not want it. It should set up biodiversity management committees in preparation of environmental impact assessment instead of uniformly fraudulent documents submitted today. Kerala is actually well placed to do such sustainable development. The democratic devolution here has progressed more than any other state. Panchayat-level resource mapping was done here followed by people’s planning campaign. Now if you ask me is it practical, is it practical to go on flouting laws? Is it impractical to create a law abiding democratic society?

In every development project, especially in the causes underlying Kerala floods, there is a vexing trade-off between development and environment. How does a democratic society go about resolving this trade-off? What should be the metric that should be employed?

Metric can be developed and worked at. Firstly, the statistics on livelihoods and how they are dependent on various resources, including natural resources—that has to be carefully collected. One ends up only making vague estimates because there isn’t enough very sound statistics made readily available. Unfortunately, academic people are scared shitless, if I may say so, of coming to conclusions which would be against the whole lot of vested interests. When Goa high court banned mining in Goa some years ago, I said this is a wonderful academic opportunity. You can do some research on the ecological effects in the aftermath of mining, studies on how employment is being affected by this ban, and so on. Instead of doing some imitative research imitating some western studies, here is a natural experiment you can take advantage of. They were all scared of taking up any study which will draw any conclusions and the wrath of those in power.

Sustainable development entails costs, similar to projects that ignore the environment risks. How does this cost get justified and underwritten? Especially in a less developed economy like India where the challenge of poverty alleviation can be overwhelming and invites risky short cuts?

The question is how the poverty alleviation programmes are actually operating. You should have among other things, say an employment audit. It should look at not only the organized sector but livelihoods in the unorganized sector which is the vast majority of livelihoods of Indians. Suppose a chemical industry will generate employment which is necessary for alleviating poverty. But what if you end up doing is destroying livelihoods of much larger number of fisherfolk, pollute rivers which provide water to large number of villages and affect their health, reduce the availability of fish proteins which people could afford and is no longer available. There should be a full audit of all these issues and then the mis-justification of many schemes fronted as to alleviate poverty will come out.

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