I first went to Kerala in 1993, in the company of the ecologist Madhav Gadgil. We had been asked to speak at a meeting organised by that remarkable peoples’ science organisation, the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad. We were received at Ernakulam Railway Station by the zoologist M. K. Prasad, a doyen of the KSSP. Despite his high status in society, Professor Prasad had come by bus, and he dressed very simply, in a bush shirt and rubber chappals.
I have been back to Kerala many times. As a historian, what has impressed me most is the state’s manifest egalitarianism. This was witnessed afresh in the response to the recent floods, when, regardless of caste or religion, all came forward to help with relief and rehabilitation. Ideologues from outside the state sought to pit Hindus against Christians and Muslims, but the Malayalis would have none of it. From the wealthy expatriate in the Gulf who opened up his chequebook to the fisherfolk who worked day and night to rescue victims, everyone set aside their social and political differences in this moment of tragedy.
The first lesson of the Kerala floods, therefore, is this; earthquakes and floods do not recognise distinctions invented by crafty humans to divide, and to rule. But there is a second lesson, which may be harder to comprehend and act on. This is that if we abuse nature and disregard the limits it sets on human behaviour (and especially human greed), it will take its revenge upon us.
If Kerala wishes to heed this second lesson, then the person they must listen to more attentively is the scientist I first went to that state with. Madhav Gadgil left the prospect of a dazzling career in the Western academia to join the Indian Institute of Science, where he established a Centre for Ecological Sciences. Through his own books and essays, and through the students he has nurtured and inspired, he has worked ceaselessly for ecological responsibility.
The contribution of Madhav Gadgil most relevant to the present context is the report of a committee he chaired. Commissioned by Jairam Ramesh when he was Union environment minister, this presented a comprehensive analysis of the threats posed to the Western Ghats by reckless resource extraction. The Gadgil Report noted that the Ghats had ‘been torn asunder by the greed of the elite and gnawed at by the poor, striving to eke out a subsistence. This is a great tragedy, for this hill range is the backbone of the ecology and economy of south India.’ Then it added: ‘Yet, on the positive side, the Western Ghats region has some of the highest levels of literacy in the country, and a high level of environmental awareness. Democratic institutions are well entrenched, and Kerala leads the country in capacity building and empowering of Panchayat Raj Institutions.
Drawing on many decades of field experience and the latest scientific studies, the Gadgil Report sought to harmonise economic growth with environmental sustainability. Development plans, it said, ‘should not be cast in a rigid framework, but ought to be tailored to prevalent locality and time-specific conditions with full participation of local communities, a process that has been termed adaptive co-management.’ This ‘would marry conservation to development, and not treat them as separate, incompatible objectives’.
The Gadgil Report underlined that ‘ecological sensitivity is not merely a scientific, but very much a human, concern.’ It argued that modern science must be enriched with the folk ecological knowledge of peasants, artisans, pastoralists, and fisherfolk. It pointed out that ‘excessive centralisation of regulatory control does not, and has not worked well…’. It advocated that the political system ‘strengthen resource and environmental federalism in the Western Ghats, and move towards more polycentric forms of governance, and many centres of decision-making, which will enable more innovative responses, learning, cooperation and better adaptation to ecosystem pressures and changes’.
The Gadgil Report closely examined different sectors of economic activity: agriculture, animal husbandry, forests, fisheries, power, industry, roads, etc. It looked at existing practices in each of these sectors, and how, with the aid both of cutting-edge science and participatory decision-making, they could be made more efficient and sustainable. There was a particularly telling section on mining, which had destroyed forests, degraded soils, polluted the atmosphere, and depleted water sources. Mining had also gravely damaged human health, and thrown farmers, pastoralists, and fisherfolk out of work.
All across India, unregulated mining runs rampant, with politicians collaborating with contractors to destroy nature and impoverish local communities. Field reports suggest that landslides, soil erosion, and deposits of debris caused by stone quarrying and sand mining had contributed substantially to the intensification of the floods in Kerala.
The Gadgil Report which was commissioned by Jairam Ramesh was junked by the person who succeeded him as environment minister. This minister even sought to have it banned from circulation; fortunately, an upright Information Commissioner made sure the report was uploaded online. In the wake of the recent tragedy, it deserves to be read afresh and widely discussed. For its lessons apply not only to Kerala, but also to Karnataka, Goa, and Maharashtra, whose own Western Ghats districts have been ravaged in recent decades.
Indeed, the ideas behind the Gadgil Report apply directly to that even more vulnerable mountain system, the Himalaya. Had it not been for deforestation, mining, careless road widening and construction on river banks, the loss of life and property in the 2013 Uttarakhand floods would have not been so substantial. In the Himalayas, as in the Ghats, wise and far-sighted resource use is absolutely imperative. To bring this about, corrupt politicians and greedy contractors must be contested, and checked; by citizens’ action and by scientific knowledge, working hand in hand.