Lessons after the great deluge -Anjith Augustine, Shyama Kuriakose, Rajesh George & Monolita Chatterjee
Kerala needs to adopt watershed-based master planning and review building byelaws
The unique geography of Kerala, with its steep climbdown from 900m high elevations of the Western Ghats to the coast of Malabar, has resulted in a land with a vast riverine network. There are no less than 44 fast flowing rivers that drain the rainwater Kerala is blessed with into the Arabian Sea. It is a lifeline that supports a very fertile land, some of the most singular flora, fauna and also a people and their lives in a symbiotic way.
However, this drainage basin has seen massive urbanisation over the last two decades with the erstwhile wisdom of coexistence with the State’s waterways beginning to fade away. This linear development which has been along major road networks, has completely ignored the varying and ecologically sensitive landscape. Substantial portions of revenue lands in the State are wetlands and forests, which has resulted in a shortage of buildable land parcels. This in turn is creating huge pressure on these ecologically fragile areas for conversion to government-supported infrastructure projects as well as private profit-making enterprises.
Not surprisingly, all landslide and flood-affected areas in the State are in Ecologically Sensitive Zones (ESZ-1), as categorised by the Madhav Gadgil report. The Post Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA) report that was prepared by the UN for Kerala following the massive flooding of 2018 looks at some of the gaps in law and policy. The State Action Plans on Climate Change elucidate measures for disaster-risk reduction in the wake of an increasing frequency of heavy rainfall in turn leading to more flooding and landslides. Though plans and laws such as Integrated Water Resources Management or Coastal Regulation Zone Notification hold key solutions to natural disasters that are linked to water management, most of them are not implemented or followed to the letter. A lack of holistic and coordinated measures within planning departments has resulted in further problems. Also missing are key pieces of legislation for housing and land use in fragile zones which allow buildability but with sensitive development.
Dilution of laws
The need of the hour is for a review and revision of building bye-laws for urban and rural areas in accordance with bettering environmental sustainability. In 2017, a judgment of the High Court of Kerala mandating the inclusion of a clause in building rules, and which said that ‘natural drains and streams shall not be obstructed by this development/ building permit’, has yet to come into effect. Further, the Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act, 2008 — it has immense potential to preserve such land as natural watershed buffers — has suffered too many dilutions even as rampant reclamation of paddy lands continues. The absence of a databank on paddy lands and wetlands as mandated by the law, has only exacerbated the issue.
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