Restoring Kerala’s Natural Infrastructure (Disaster Management,Rehabilitation,GS 3 UPSC IAS Mains)

What is the issue?

  • Kerala’s post-flood reconstruction programme named ‘the creation of new Kerala’ requires rebuilding of manmade infrastructure.
  • But restoration of ‘natural infrastructure’ lost due to human interventions is equally pivotal to ensuring Kerala’s future security.

How is Kerala’s natural infrastructure at present?

  • Forest cover – When united Kerala was created in 1957, 36% of it’s land area constituted forests, which was reduced to 12% by 1990.
  • The Kerala Government’s 2016 Economic Survey claimed that it had 19,230 of forests – around 50% of the total land area.
  • But out of the above, only 1,523 is classified as ‘dense’ forests, which is only 3.9% of the State’s land area.
  • Kerala is an ecologically fragile State where 75% of the land has a gradient of above 20%.
  • So the loss of dense forest cover of this magnitude is an invitation to disaster.
  • Riverbeds – Excessive sand mining, to feed constructions, has led to reduction in the water absorption/retention capacity of the river beds.
  • Based on sand audits conducted in 14 major rivers, it is found that sand extraction is up to 85 times in excess of the sand deposition.
  • River basins – The entire land mass of Kerala is the catchment area or drainage basin of its 44 rivers and their 900 tributaries.
  • Many tributaries have been done to death and thousands of flood paths consisting of small streams, rivulets, etc., have been levelled for construction.
  • Wetland – Though not strictly classified as wetland, the once extensive network of 7.6 lakh hectares of paddy fields have played flood plains’ role in Kerala.
  • About 80% of this has been levelled or converted for construction and commercial cultivation, and only 1.9 lakh hectares remain.
  • After 1980, uncontrolled tourism development has also contributed to this disruption.

How did forest destruction evolve?

  • Colonialism – Major ecological destruction began in Kerala during the British colonial period, especially after the industrial revolution.
  • Notably, colonialism was also a period of ‘green imperialism’.
  • Since the beginning of the 19th century, there have been attempts to clear forests.
  • Plantations – Forest clearance was in line with establishing commercial plantations of coffee, cinchona and tea.
  • Thus began the massive destruction of these structures called by the Madhav Gadgil Committee as ‘water towers’ of the Southern-Western Ghats.
  • In the beginning of the 20th century, rubber arrived in Kerala and spread like a parasite through the low-lying areas of the Western Ghats and the midlands.
  • Rubber also contributed to forest and biodiversity loss across Kerala, occupying 28% of the cropped area in the State today.
  • Migration – There was large-scale internal migration from coastal and midland areas to the Western Ghats in Kerala.
  • Beginning in the first half of the 20th century and lasting till 1980, this also contributed to forest destruction.
  • This was widespread in the Idukki region of Travancore and Wayanad region of Malabar.
  • Urbanisation – The state witnessed rapid urbanisation and is today a suburban or ‘rurban’ (rural + urban = rurban) State.
  • Urbanisation made major demands on resources for construction and infrastructure projects.
  • Stone quarries – The explosion of stone quarries in the State after 1980 has been phenomenal.
  • Today, Kerala has over 5,000 quarries, out of which over 2,000 are in the Western Ghats.
  • Hydro-power – Yet another factor contributing to forest destruction is the over-dependence on hydro-power.
  • Out of the 58 small and big dams in Kerala, 35 are hydro-electric projects.
  • Together, they have contributed to destruction of over 350 of evergreen forests in the reservoir area alone.
  • Three major rivers have over a dozen dams each, which have altered the riverine ecosystem in many ways.
  • Besides, in many dams commissioned before 1971, the reservoir capacity has been significantly reduced due to silting.
  • So in extreme rain events, they are unable to hold water as per their designed capacity.

How can ecological restoration happen?

  • The first crucial step would be the adoption of the Madhav Gadgil Committee report and its implementation.
  • Kerala desperately needs a River Restoration Authority to rejuvenate the network of 44 rivers and their 900 tributaries, rivulets and countless streams.
  • In those rivers, a ‘mining holiday’ should be declared till the sandy riverbeds of about 12 feet each is restored in the respective rivers.
  • Sand obtained by de-silting of the dams could replace the quantity lost during this mining holiday. Pit mining should be totally banned.
  • ‘Bar skimming’, wherein every year only the surface two feet of the sandy riverbed is allowed to be removed manually should be legally mandated.
  • Currently, mining is done using earth-removing machines and jet pumps.
  • Restoration of the riverside flood plains lost to encroachment should be taken up.
  • This should be coupled with establishment of ‘bio-shields’ using local plant species, instead of cement and stone construction on the edges.
  • Equally important is the protection and preservation of Kerala’s wetlands.
  • The programme to revive thousands of village ponds should be expanded to cover restoration of inland streams, canals and rivulets lost to human intervention.
  • Ecological restoration cannot prevent the recurrence of extreme rain events but can certainly ameliorate their impacts considerably.

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