In the second consecutive year, monsoon landslides and flash floods across Raigad, Kolhapur, and Sangli districts, amongst others, have created havoc in terms of human deaths and destruction of property and land. While the cloudburst and climate are definitely part of the problem, activists have been crying hoarse over issues such as mindless sand mining permissions, excavation of soil by cutting hills, massive tree felling, to the tune of over a lakh of them, for the purpose of four-laning of the 438-km long Panvel-Zarap section of the Mumbai-Goa highway and, giving building permissions within the flood lines of the rivers. These are the larger part of the horrendous problem that is killing people, deluging, and flattening villages—factors that are responsible for climate change, they assert.
While political leaders, including Maharashtra’s chief minister, leader of the opposition, and a host of others are making a dash to the tragedy-struck areas, it is just an eye-wash to keep the voters happy and show them carrots through measly financial compensations and promise of building retaining walls along with water bodies!
A Right to Information (RTI) query revealed that Kolhapur floods were caused due to 1,250 acres of red and blue flood-line area, a no-development zone, being used for construction activity along the banks of the Panchganga River.
This was followed by a letter by Kolhapur activist Balkrishna Shelar to the National Green Tribunal (NGT), Delhi, which suo motu converted it into a petition and ordered the irrigation department of the Maharashtra government to carry out a fresh survey to demarcate new red and blue flood-lines due to the changing behaviour of rains as the 2005 flood-line demarcation was no more relevant. The NGT gave the third reminder in 2020 as the task was not done. Finally, it has now completed 70% of the work.
Says Mr Shelar, “The irrigation department has finished redrawing only 70% of the flood lines so far. What is shocking is that, in the 70% revised flood line that they have marked, the flood water in last week’s torrential rains, has gone much beyond that line, thus showing that their markings are incorrect. They have yet to draw the line for the remaining 30% of the riverbank, which has seen even worse flooding in those areas, than the 70%.”
The increased threat of flooding during monsoon for Kolhapur citizens is mainly due to permission given on the low-lying areas of the Panchganga River.
Mr Shelar says, “During the 2019 floods, the release of water from the Almatti Dam was blamed. Strangely this year, the water from that dam saw a steady, regular release so there was no sudden opening of the floodgates. The Radhanagari dam is still not filled to its capacity so there was no question of releasing water from it. Then why did the floods become so catastrophic? It’s obvious that giving permissions to build in low-lying areas of the river is responsible for it.”
Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray, who visited Kolhapur, has directed the officials not to allow anymore construction in the river catchment area but Mr Shelar doubts, ``how far it is going to be implemented.”
As for the present modern constructions that not only stand out like sore thumbs but have become a threat of life and limbs of the citizens, the CM’s solution is to build a retaining wall!
For the Raigad district, Naseer Jalal, who has championed the cause of the environment in this region, has been fighting relentlessly for 25 years to halt indiscriminate mechanised sand mining, which also leads to small and big mangroves on river banks being eroded, amongst other ecological fallouts.
He has used RTI over the years to procure information on tenders and proposals for sanctioning sand mining in ecologically sensitive river bodies but has finally knocked at the doors of the judiciary as a fresh tender just last month has been floated for the mechanised sand mining work predominantly in the Savitri river and Waghotan river on the border of Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts for facilitating boating in these regions. This, he says, is violative of the provisions of the Coastal Regulation Zones (CRZ) notification of 2011.
The horrendous floods in Raigad district are more severe because of man-made destruction than nature’s fury. “Sand mining, indiscriminate soil excavation from the tops of the hills to widen the Mumbai-Goa highway, felling of trees—over one lakh of them—to build this highway and construction atop the hills are the reasons why rainwater gushes in a fury as all-natural stoppages for the erosion of soil and containing water along the slopes have been tampered with.”
Sumaira Abdulali, a Mumbai-based environmental activist and founder of Awaaz Foundation, has been consistently sending letters to the divisional commissioner and collector of Raigad district. One of her recent letters’ states, “In spite of sand being carted away in large volumes and consequent drop of the level of the beach by almost 10 feet, land erosion and felling of trees, there appears to be no will to implement long term action against illegal beach sand mining in Raigad District.”
While Jaleel and a team of activists propelled the state government in 2010 to bring in stringent laws for sand mining, a resolution of the Maharashtra government in 2013 made it easier to get mining clearances. Ms Abdulali had stated then in an interview to Down to Earth magazine that, “this new criterion is a blow to sustainable sand mining. The amount of sand generated by waterway clearing will never be sufficient for the construction industry, and additional mining permits will have to be given, which will simply continue to damage the environment.”
Sunita Narain, an internationally acclaimed environmentalist has been consistently warning about wrong developmental policies in urban areas as well. She has stated that “on the one hand, we are getting our water management wrong—we are building in floodplains, destroying our water-bodies and filling up our water channels. Mumbai or Chandigarh or Bengaluru did not drown only because of extreme rain. They drowned also because all drainage systems have been wilfully destroyed. Our city developers only see land for building; not land for water. Now, the changing climate will make this mismanagement even more deadly.”
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.