KOCHI: South India had not experienced a major natural calamity for many decades until the Tsunami of 2004. South Kerala was badly hit by cyclone Ockhi in 2017. Thereafter, in 2018 and 2019, Kerala experienced unprecedented rains, floods and landslides in Nelliyampathy, Idukki, Wayanad, Malappuram and other places in North Malabar. People lost their personal belongings and many more were stripped of their lands, agricultural fields and crops. While there are many studies and reports pointing fingers at different causal aspects of these disasters, no comprehensive or effective solution has been suggested to mitigate the same.
Plantations in Kerala, like Harrisons Malayalam Ltd (HML), have been operational for over 150 years. HML grows tea and rubber as its main crops and engages around 11,000 employees most of whom reside within the estate premises. Cyclone Ockhi which wreaked havoc in 2017, caused damage of R3.5 crore to HML. Similarly, capital and infrastructure loss in the last two years due to floods and landslides from neighbouring forests into tea fields is estimated as R11 crore. In the wake of these continued forfeitures, it will be difficult for us at HML to rebuild infrastructure and carry on operations without Government support.
Plantations in Kerala employ around 3.5 lakh rural population (over 50 per cent being women). The challenges posed by natural calamities, change in weather patterns and rising temperature levels are serious threats to the very existence of plantation business. Post-economic liberalisation, plantation crops in India have been exposed to severe global competition. Estates in India and particularly Kerala which is a major producer of tea, rubber, coffee and cardamom are reeling under severe losses as competing players abroad are able to cultivate these crops at a much lower cost. Recent natural calamities are only adding to the woes.
Considering the landscape of Kerala, a ministry for environment, health and sustainability should be configured to co-ordinate activities in forest or agricultural lands, urban settlements and industrial areas. A detailed study is essential on sustainable practices followed in other ecologically fragile countries. The government should frame a sustainable plantation policy–enlarging the scope of plantation crops and encouraging the cultivation of perennial crops.
Further, a ban on economic activities that are detrimental to the Western Ghats and rivers of Kerala is required. Short-term and long-term plans are to be bolstered to rehabilitate the displaced. Projects which come under the purview of infrastructure development, information technology, hospitality, education and healthcare should mandate a sustainability clearance.
A reasonable restriction on the ownership of houses and vehicles in Kerala needs to be enforced. Every organisation should be required to appoint a sustainability officer to ensure compliance. Although the proposed measures may not help in resisting cloud bursts, floods, tsunamis or earthquakes, they will certainly help in reducing the impact of natural calamities on human lives. It is high time we got together and created a new order that is responsible and committed to environmental sustainability.(The author is the chief executive officer and director of Harrisons Malayalam Ltd. The views expressed are of his own)