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Kerala floods are man-made, they happened because we ignored the experts

Sadly, the past 25 years have seen India make heroes out of those who talk big on growth while dismissing environmentalists as 'anti-development'.

Updated: Aug 21, 2018, 19:07 PM IST

As Kerala recovers from its worst floods in a century, there is plenty to celebrate in the way various groups in India and abroad have come together to help God's Own Country bounce back from what seems like the devil's doing. But both God and Devil seem to be in human form.

On the one hand, we have everybody from poor but heroic local fishermen to Sikh volunteers from the UK, corporate groups and a Sheikh from the United Arab Emirates coming to help flood victims as the local government and the army lead rescue and relief work.

On the other hand, there are those who superficially link the tragedy to the attempt by women to enter the Sabarimala shrine. And there are others who "advise" on Twitter that Hindus must send aid only to help Hindus.

There you have it: the good, the bad and the ugly side of the Kerala floods. The gods are amongst us and so is the devil, it seems. 

But I prefer to focus on the good side, and even better, try and see if such disasters can be averted, prevented or better managed in future. 

Two things stand out.

First is the moment of truth, when we finally begin to take seriously environmentalists like Madhav Gadgil, who would go down in history as the man who woke us up to the consequences of a horrible cocktail of mindless economic growth and crony capitalism in which easy permits to use sensitive ecological zones for industries, quarrying and tourist resorts increases the threat of calamities.

Second, even as Karnataka's Kodagu (Coorg), Tamil Nadu's Cauvery delta and a large swathe of Kerala reeled under floods or landslides of varying degrees, there was a part of Tamil Nadu where waters finally reached a belt where river waters are noticed more in their absence than in their blessed presence. The Vaigai river dam near Madurai was opened up with a call to farmers to use its waters "judiciously"

While Tamil Nadu quibbles and squabbles with Karnataka to get water from the Cauvery, it quibbles and squabbles with Kerala over the Mullaperiyar dam situated in Kerala from where waters reach the Vaigai dam -- and here the dispute has a strange twist: Kerala is happy to give water to Tamil Nadu but wants its neighbour that administers the 122-year-old dam under a colonial-era arrangement to keep the water levels in the dam low because water pressure endangers Kerala. Clearly, too much water is as bad as too little!

We need to harness our rivers better and also stop the reckless plundering of nature. The answers clearly lie in a creative use of natural as well as financial resources with proper long-term planning while keeping in mind the concerns of ecologists like Gadgil. Sadly, the past 25 years have seen India make heroes out of those who talk big on growth while dismissing environmentalists as "anti-development" and ignoring policy experts who look beyond narrow politics or business lobbying.

Even as the nation mulled on what could be done on the floods, Union Water Resources Minister Nitin Gadkari pressed for linking of rivers in a special committee meeting largely away from the media glare.

Andhra Pradesh has successfully linked the Krishna and Godavari rivers with record speed, though there have been concerns over displacement of people. The Centre is finalising agreements for the Ken-Betwa link project, Damanganga-Pinjal link project, Par-Tapi-Narmada link project, Godavari-Cauvery (Grand Anicut) link project and Parvati-Kali Sindhu-Chambal link. But river-linking projects also involve environmental consequences, and that has to be borne in mind. Most of the discussions often involve financial and land-related aspects, while other issues matter as well.

We need a combination of inspired project management and human and environmental care to make things work in a way that benefits all. For this, we need to look beyond industrial lobbies and smart alec politicians and take independent experts seriously. Or we will have to moan about droughts, floods or displaced people without much forethought.

(Madhavan Narayanan is a senior journalist who has covered politics, diplomacy, business, technology and other subjects in a long career that has spanned organisations including Reuters, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He is currently an independent columnist, editor and commentator. He is listed among the top 200 Indian influencers on Twitter. He tweets as @madversity)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)