When in June, the early rain, Poured upon the earth,— Folk song of Coorg
Sweet as honey from the bee . . .
The day before they lost their land and homes, Kaveri Amma heard a sound similar to thousands of coins moving under the ground. She was almost sure that it was a treasure buried by their ancestors flowing into the stream. As they kept their ears to the ground, literally, the sound increased manifold. Kaveri Amma became so excited that she wanted to leave the house in the rain and check the small stream that passed through their modest one-acre coffee farm.
Her husband KS Uthappa asked her to wait till the next day as they had just come back after working hard in the hills. “I told my wife, let’s sacrifice a hen in the morning, as we do during auspicious occasions, in order to appease the gods so that the treasure remains with us,” recalls the seventy-three-year-old farmer.
The old farmer couple did not have to wait till the morning to learn the cause for this gurgling sound beneath their home. By seven in the evening, they heard a huge blast up the hill. The belly of the hill, filled with water, burst open like a volcano. The water gushed down, devastating everything along its path, uprooting trees, boulders and red earth in the downpour.
“Even though I saw my neighbour’s shattered home, my home was intact as we fled the place. I thanked god for that small mercy,” Uthappa recounts. When they came back the next day, the gods seemed to have rescinded their mercy as nothing was left except a shaved hill, with debris strewn all around. The house had disappeared, and so had the coffee plantation. Instead of the green patch, red and yellow earth shone in the sun. The perennial stream had turned into a dry gorge. The auspicious sound of the coins turned out to be the biggest disaster in their lives.
Like numerous homestead coffee farmers in Coorg, the old couple had cultivated coffee for the past fifteen years on their own, tending the plants and plucking the berries after they appeared every season, without fail. The verdant farm provided them good annual yields of thirty-five sacks of coffee and 4.5 kilograms of chillies. They also had two cows which gave them 16 litres of milk every day.
“More than the land that we have lost forever, I cannot forget the terrible death of the two cows buried under the debris. I used to take care of them like my daughters,” Uthappa says, with tears rolling down his suntanned cheeks.
He used to walk 3 kilometres every day to collect grass for the cows. “This was a green paradise. It has turned into a desert now,” he says. Out of the 445 coffee plants, only thirty remain, hanging on to the fringes of the muddy slopes. “My wife is still inside the farm tending to the remaining ones, more out of sheer habit than any hope,” he says, pointing to a pocket-sized green patch around the huge debris that was once their farm.
In one of the biggest calamities to hit Coorg, twenty people were killed and over 200 villages were badly affected. Nearly half of Coorg’s population of 5.9 lakh had to bear the brunt of nature’s fury. Besides Madikeri, the district capital and tourism hub, fourteen other villages were devastated after coffee plantations, paddy fields, homes, shops, roads and bridges vanished in the downpour and landslides.
The worst-hit villages were Kaloor, Aivathoklu, Muvathoklu, Tantipala, Mukkodlu, Hatti, Meghathala, Yemmethala, Haleri, Jodupala, Suralabbi, Hebbattageri, Hammiyala and Monnangeri. Landslides have occurred at places that suffered large-scale deforestation with the rise in the number of buildings, cottages and resorts to cater to the increase in tourist inflow. The devastating floods have dented Coorg’s reputation as a safe and peaceful retreat.
Coorg or Kodagu is known as the “coffee cup of India”, with its numerous scenic, verdant coffee plantations along the Western Ghats.
Some are run by large plantation firms while others are homestead farms, like the one owned by Uthappa. Spread over 4102 kilometres along the Western Ghats in south-western Karnataka, Kodagu district varies in altitude from 390 metres above mean sea level to 1750 metres above mean sea level, its temperature ranging from 11 to 28 degrees Celsius, making it the ideal location for coffee cultivation. The coffee produced here is known to be the world’s best mild variety of coffee, with a lucrative export market in Europe, Australia and the United Arab Emirates.
In fact, Karnataka tops in coffee production, with a whopping 71 per cent of the total coffee production in the country. The plantations are in the Kodagu-Chickmagalur-Hasan belt; Kodagu district alone produces 53 per cent of the coffee in the state, as per the data with the Coffee Board of India.
As I travel through the interiors of Coorg, the devastation of coffee estates, houses and roads after the August floods and landslides are visible all around. The woes of the district never really came to the limelight as the media coverage was restricted largely to floods in Kerala, where almost every district suffered massive damage. The under-reporting was also maybe because this ecologically sensitive region is the smallest district in Karnataka in terms of population, with a density of just 135 people per kilometre compared to Bengaluru, which has 4381 people per kilometre, as per the 2011 census.
The landslides in Kodugu virtually wiped out coffee plantations over kilometres, starting from the top of the hills. Rajini PK Kusha, a resident, had a miraculous escape as she had gone to her neighbour’s house when it started raining heavily. “Within five minutes, my house collapsed as huge boulders fell over it,” she says.
Kodagu has been witnessing unregulated development, large-scale deforestation, cutting of hilly slopes for construction of homestays and expansion of roads in the last twenty years, factors that destroyed soil stability. In the heavy August rains, everything came tumbling down. But unlike the government of Kerala, which has not undertaken any detailed soil study to understand the causative factors for landslides, one year post floods, the Karnataka government asked the Geological Survey of India (GSI) to probe the reasons for the landslides in Kodagu.
Their findings were in tune with what environmentalists have been saying for many years: A majority of the landslides occurred due to unscientific human intervention in the natural landscape.
Excerpted with permission from Flood And Fury: Ecological Devastation In The Western Ghats, Viju B, Penguin Books.