There is no use beating around the bush, so lets come to the point straight. Drought in a water blessed state like Kerala, is not a situation, nor is it a calamity, its a Shame.
This year we have had deficit rains, the IMD Director says it is 34% less from the South-West Monsoon, and if the North-East also fails us, we would have a “drought-like” situation. Infact, the Kerala Assembly even discussed this, and declared Kerala as drought hit. But what does this deficit mean in actual numbers – 1352.3 mm of rain instead of the predicted 2039.7 mm. Now, Kerala with an annual average rainfall of 3107 mm actually has a mind-boggling quantity of water pouring down on it as rain. That is estimated to be 7030 crore cubic metre (7030,00,00,000 cubic metre), which is actually on an average more than 20 lakh litre per head per year. On an average each person need about 100 litres per day, and that would mean just 36,500 litres per capita per year. This actually comes to less that 2% of the available rain water. Put in simple terms, we only need to trap and store about 2% of the total rain poured down on us every year for direct human household use. The rest goes for all the other purposes, the natural world, industrial, agriculture, power, institutional and other socio-cultural-environmental needs, as well as future storage. And this year we are still probably getting 70% of the total rains and yet we have a drought like condition.
A study on the incidence of droughts showed that during the period 1871– 2000, Kerala experienced 66 drought years, out of which, twelve were moderate and twelve were severe droughts. This means drought, simply understood as a shortfall of rains, and hence shortage of water availability, has been here for a very very long time. Yet, we have not yet learnt to manage and cope with it, neither as households, communities or collectively as a state. This is why, the situation is a matter of shame.
Traditionally, all the water storage and conservation structures, some natural, some pre-historic, some evolved over time, and some man-made – from the grasslands of our western ghats, the shola forests, the rocky granite as well as the laterite mountains and hills, the mid-land hills, lakes, ponds, rivers, paddy and wetlands, backwaters, and at the micro-level man made structures of wells, and local systems such as surangas, kokkarnis etc, all of them served its purpose of trapping water, so bountifully fed to us by the monsoons.
What have we done with it? Today, thanks to the rush to develop our state, to upgrade our luxuries to standards as in Gulf or in the West, or even the hyped up Gujarath ! we have systematically done away with these structures. And this we have done it at the State level, at the LSG level and even at household level !!
So, in the time of this years drought, lets “talk” about two debates in the State – the protection of the Western Ghats, and the protection of paddy/wetlands.
Today, a state, whose very survival depends on the Western Ghats, fought and rejected, suicidedly so, its lifeline, the Dr Madhav Gadgil chaired Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) report. Simply because a few political leaders from all parties, a few community leaders from some religious outfits, campaigned against it, even going to the extent of violent reactions. If we had the common sense to let this panel report be implemented, the biggest benificiaries would have been Kerala's environment, its water bodies and the farmers and people living in these ecologically sensitive areas. And better still, there was immense potential in actually getting paid, in terms of ecological services cost, to conserve this as a community landscape. Thanks to very narrow minded leaderships, we missed that bus. Now, we, especially those living in the sensitive bounds of the Western Ghats, would forever be forced to live in droughts, landslides, floods, man-animal conflicts, seasonal crop losses, and unremunerative, unsustainable livelihood options. Unless otherwise, we learn from the mistake, and decide collectively, that the WGEEP report is actually a lifeline for the State. So, for a sustainable, drought-free state, we need to revive the WGEEP report and see how sensibly and sensitively we can implement it.
Kerala's paddy and wetlands during the years 1955-56 was 7.68 lakh ha which increased to 8.74 lakh ha in 1970-71 thanks to intensive efforts from Government to bring more fallow wetlands into cultivation. Since then, the State got caught into a blind “developmental” complex, and paddy lands faced the biggest onslaught. While, the genuine needs of the farmers for a house, whose only source of land was paddy land was justifiable, what Kerala saw was an unprecedented destruction of its paddy and wetlands, mostly for non-agricultural and commercial purposes, resulting in more than 75% of it being destroyed. In 2008, the then State Government recognising the need to protect food and water security, promulgated the Kerala Paddy and Wetland Conservation Act. But the ensuing 8 years saw systematic attempts to sabotage the Act. Today, the State is trying its best to bring the unpardonably pending Data Bank, that is critical to the protection of the lands. Still, as a people, we are not convinced about the need to protect paddy and wetland. Every day, hundreds of acres of such lands face destruction. Here, even the genuine needs of those who dont have land to build a house is also subversed, in the rush by the land and construction groups to violate all laws to build on and destroy the most effective water conservation bodies of the State. If we were to really want to cope with the ever increasing threat of drought – we better decide to conserve our paddy lands, bring all that was filled and reclaimed back to its natural form, and compensate the farmers with a good package that will incentivise them to protect this for posterity.
The debate around protection of the Western Ghats, and the Paddy and Wetlands in no way speaks about a so called environmentally conscious society. The debate is simply a reflection of our mental attitudes, to “develop” at any cost, and collapse. The present Kerala mindset is one that seems to have lost its memories of its rich homesteads, vast terrains of green fields, forests, water filled landscapes and are walking into a future that is mostly about airports, seaports, hospitals, roads, malls, parking, lots, diseases and morbidity management !
And in such a situation, what can we do but only “talk” about the drought, in meetings, seminars, channels, and even in the State Assembly, and that too only when it actually draws into us. This has become a habit. During the rain, we forget the water, we forget the earth and its structures that need to store the water, and when the drought comes, we lament the scarcity of it. Atleast this year, lets learn, and invest on policies and activities that a State must take up to ensure drought-proofing for the years to come. Lets hope that the Haritha Keralam efforts of the State Government would address this. And in such an effort, the protection of the Western Ghats and the Paddy/Wetlands should play a critical role.
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(The article first appeared in the Kerala Calling November 2016, a PRD, GoK publication)