Hectic building and quarrying, illegally or by illegal permission, has resulted in the catastrophe at Malin, which may not be the last one
The killer wet landslide at Malin, which has literally flattened the once-alive village in a few minutes, on Thursday morning, continues to have at least 200 persons trapped under it, with bleak hope of survival. The village, about 110kms from Pune and tucked in the fragile ecological Bhima Shankar area and ensconced in the valley of the Sahyadri Hills, has been the victim of callousness of netas and babus.
The Pune administration continues to look the other way, despite experts and activists pointing out to hectic construction activity in the form of farm houses, roads, hotels, quarrying and other such activities, detrimental to environment. The Google imagery of this village (shown in this article) clearly shows digging/construction activity on the hill slopes under which lies Malin. Being only a few kilometres away from Bhima Shankar, renowned as one of the 12 important Jyotirlinga pilgrimages, road construction and hotel tourism activity is in full boom here, thus facilitating seepage of water into the bosom of the hills, and making the soil soft, that gradually leads to such a disaster.
More importantly, the village Malin has been spelt in bold letters in the list of those villages which are ecologically fragile and are needed to be urgently preserved and have no human interference as per a notification issued by the Ministry of Environment & Forests in 2013 under list of State-wise, District-wise and Taluk-wise villages in ESA (Ecologically Sensitive Area). It has been identified by the HL WG (High Level committee of Western Ghats) at Annexure - A (copy of the notification here).
The notification states: “And whereas, because of unprecedented threats to natural landscape of Western Ghats region by development projects and urban growth, the Working Group has recommended a non-tolerance policy with respect to highly interventionist and environmentally damaging activities like mining or polluting industries. HL WG has highlighted the need for urgent action for protection of biologically rich, diverse and natural landscape of Western Ghats;’’. The notification has ordered immediate halting of activity of mining, quarrying and sand mining; Thermal Power Plants ; building and construction projects of 20,000 sq. m. area and; township and area development projects with an area of 50 ha and above and/or with built up area of 1,50,000 sq.m. and above. Malin along with a list of villages falls into this category. (see list in the notification order).
RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar is one of the several crusaders who have been questioning the Pune district administration on the senseless digging and construction on the hills and hill slopes in and around Pune. In a letter to the then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh in 2011, Kumbhar had lamented that the Pune district collector is keeping information on illegal/ legal activity on hills and hill slopes a secret and not providing information under Section 4 of the RTI Act. He had pointed out that, “The vast number of illegal quarrying and excavation is going on in and around Pune, on large number of hills, mountains; and lands are being excavated without any necessary permission…In Wagholi near Pune around 10 to 12 kilometres area is being excavated for quarrying. Each quarry depth is around more than 100 metres. These quarries are visible from satellite also. Most of these quarries are running illegally.
“In Ghotawade near Paud, the Sahyadri hill is being excavated. Sahyadri hill (Malin is in the foot of the Sahyadri hill, my addition) is the pride of India and is also a heritage site. Sahyadri belongs to history of Maharashtra and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj…Katraj hill in Pune has already been destroyed.” While some information was provided, all of it is still not updated on the website.
In 2013, citizens were shocked when a young mother and her infant daughter, sitting in the car, were suddenly washed away by sudden floods at the Katraj ghat and died. The reason was a series of illegal constructions on top of the ghat. At that time, Kumbhar had demanded the revamping of eight anti-encroachment squads to halt illegal construction on hill tops and hill slopes all over Pune district. Such squads, 12 in number which were set up by Pune collectorate in 2011, after Kumbhar’s complaint, were withdrawn pointing out to lack of human resources. Although two lives were washed away, nothing has been done to book the culprits that are creating havoc with environment and lives of people.
The Maharashtra government has suddenly become active, as leaders of various political parties, including those from the centre, have been visiting Malin. However, this is just an attempt to be in the limelight, if one goes by the fact that the comprehensive Western Ecology Report by Madhav Gadgil is being pushed under the carpet. The Report has come out hard on hill cutting in the fragile Western Ghats, but it has been denounced by the government. Here is the Moneylife article written after the earlier government refused to make the Western Ecology Report public.
The scary part is that Malin may be just one in the several tragedies that can potentially happen in the near future. Hope political leaders and bureaucrats who are visiting the Malin site, understand that the root cause of giving illegal permissions needs to be totally curbed and culprits allegedly responsible for this tragedy, be prosecuted.
(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”.)