Other States

Waiting for the worst

An elderly Indian woman cries as she searches for surviving family members in the debris of her home, destroyed by landslide in Malin village, in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, Wednesday, July 30, 2014. The landslide that hit early Wednesday morning killed more than a dozen and possibly trapping many more people under debris, officials said. With 70 homes buried and reports of another 158 hit by the landslide, rescuers anticipated more dead in the village, home to 704 people in the foothills of the Sahyadri Mountains. (AP Photo/Press Trust of India)  

In his controversial 1971 classic The Lorax, the inimitable Dr. Seuss chronicles the tragedy of the natural world through the eyes of his strikingly innovative creation, ‘the Lorax’. This wise but ineffectual sage looks on as the rapacious, polluting ‘Once-ler’ goes about destroying the environment, only to repent later.

When a lethal mudslide obliterated the verdant mountain village of Malin in Pune’s Ambegaon Taluk in late July last year, killing more than 150 men, women and children of the Mahadeo Koli tribal community, the tragedy was an ecological catastrophe without parallel in Maharashtra’s recent history.

A year later, nothing much seems to have changed. With rehabilitation yet to be completed and the kin of a dozen victims still running from pillar to post, environmentalists have cast themselves in the role of Dr. Seuss’s ‘Lorax’ while concerning the government and the political class to the role of the unthinking ‘Once-ler’.

The reverberations of the Malin tragedy continue to make themselves felt in the form of the Mumbai-Pune Expressway landslides, the most recent which resulted in the tragic death of three people.

Last month, a police probe exonerated the Maharashtra Agriculture Department of any culpability in the landslide. The probe was triggered by a complaint filed by Right to Information (RTI) activists Suresh Talekar and Dhananjay Kokane soon after the tragedy.

The duo had urged that State agriculture authorities be booked for culpable homicide as they had allotted close to 20 plots to the villagers on the other side of the hill, which was the reason why the hill came crashing down.

The plots were allotted to villagers for the ‘Padkai’ (land-levelling) system of farming which, many environmentalists have alleged, rendered the soil weak and highly susceptible to erosion as the Sahyadri mountain was prone to heavy rains.

“Allotting plots to the villagers was suicidal. The Mahadeo Koli community should have been made aware of the tragedy that awaited them. It shows that the government is not interested in engaging with the problem seriously,” said Mr. Talekar.

Shadow of Malin

The surrounding villages of Kondre and Panchale continue to live in the shadow of Malin even today. The underlying issue is the loss of public faith in Maharashtra’s governing class, irrespective of whether the Congress- Nationalist Congress Party or the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena is in power.

A case in point is the ‘official’ explanation for the 2005 deluge which threw Mumbai off-kilter like never before, killing more than 1,000 people. While the State’s politicians conveniently dubbed the floods a ‘freak cloudburst’, the explanation found little takers among the long-suffering public of the maximum city. Experts blamed the indiscriminate construction that ruptured the city’s natural drainage patterns as the chief cause.

“It is interesting that the old Mumbai-Pune highway, a mere 150 metres away from the Expressway, has continued to weather rockfalls after more than four decades, but the much-serenaded Expressway is always prone to landslides,” says RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar, pointing to endemic corruption in contracts awarded during the construction of the Mumbai-Pune Expressway.

Reports on risk assessment and biodiversity concerns, notably detailed studies by IIT-Powai and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), which pinpointed more than 15 vulnerable locations on the Expressway, have been gathering dust for over a decade.

The WII reports clearly show that the Panvel flexure (curve) along the Expressway was a geologically sensitive zone where the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) process was blatantly flouted.

“At a time when the monsoon is following an erratic pattern, it is astonishing that the State has no coherent preventive mechanism in place. The method of dealing with ecological cataclysms is overwhelmingly curative. Often, governmental agencies ‘welcome’ suggestions from independent research groups once the tragedy has occurred,” observes Saili Palande Datar, an ecologist and historian.

Till today, despite the Gadgil Commission report and the High Level Working Group Report (HLWGR) classifying Malin and adjoining villages in the ecologically fragile Bhimashankar area under the labels, ‘Ecologically Sensitive Zone I’ and ‘Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA)’, the zone has to be formally termed an ‘eco-sensitive’ one by the Centre.

Dangers of landscape modification

Even prior to the Malin catastrophe, environmentalists and forest department authorities had pointed to the dangers of landscape modification and the hazards of unscientific mechanised terracing. A litany of past disasters bears testament.

In July 1989, 39 people were killed in a massive earth slip in the village Bhaja in Maval Taluk, 60 km from Pune. Two persons were killed in 2004 when a landslide struck the village of Male. The same year, a worker died due to landslide while working to cut a tunnel for a lift irrigation scheme.

In June 2005, four workers died due to a landslide at a tunnel of the Ghatghar Hydroelectric project.

In December last year, barely five months after the Malin catastrophe, a three-member State Expert Appraisal Committee had warned that indiscriminate hill cutting along the scenic Lonavala-Khandala belt could have catastrophic consequences for the region.

“There is great scepticism about governmental action despite repeated warnings. No one knows where the buck ought to stop in the case of ecological cataclysms: the Government or research groups like the Geological Survey of India (GSI),” says Ms. Datar.

Ideally, awareness initiatives should be taken up at the Tehsildar and the Collector level as the job of research bodies like the GSI is merely to submit reports, says Sunil Limaye, Chief Conservator of Forests (Pune Wildlife Wing).

According to Mr. Limaye, compounding the issue is the fact that a number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), especially those working for the uplift of tribal communities like the Mahadeo Koli, often end up pursuing utopian agrarian schemes like terrace farming without impressing upon them the hazards of the same.

“So, it is not always a one-sided administrative oversight as is made out to be. At the same time, there is a need for consultation between the Collector and the Forest Department authorities to prevent such cataclysms in the future,” he says.

But for environmentalists, even a year after the tragedy, the refrain, however clichéd, is that there are many more Malins waiting to happen.

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