Western Ghats near Rajapalayam

Western Ghats near Rajapalayam (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Imagine most of the Western Ghats destroyed. Gadgil says this is the apocalypse

The move

  • Maharashtra wants two-thirds of Western Ghats ESA for ‘development’
  • The UPA regime cut the area down to half, NDA reduced it further

The danger

  • It’s a mockery of democracy as people’s views are being ignored
  • He claims it’s all being done ‘to benefit businesses and such interests’

The Western Ghats are among the world’s 10 “hottest biodiversity hotspots”. They are home to over 9,000 species of plants, 6,000 insects, 508 birds, over 300 fish and 138 mammals, including humans. Of these, 300 species are threatened by extinction.

Yet, Maharashtra, whose entire western edge consists of the Ghats, wants to dilute the environmental protection afforded the hills, and significantly.

Also read – Forest fight: Fadnavis’ toilets versus minister’s mangroves

The state has requested the central government that only a third of the Ghats in its territory be designated as an “ecologically sensitive area”, or ESA.

ESA is a legal provision that prohibits environmentally harmful activities such as mining and running of polluting industries in the designated areas. The central government alone is empowered to declare an ESA, but it has to do so “keeping in mind the state’s suggestions”.

So, if the central government agrees to the Devendra Fadnavis regime’s proposal, how would it affect the Ghats?

There is no better authority to answer this than Professor Madhav Gadgil. The renowned ecologist led the first expert panel that identified an ESA for the Western Ghats in 2011. The panel recommended that a massive 1.29 lakh sq km be designated as the ESA. It got the states all riled up; they denounced the ESA’s “anti-industry” provisions as “anti-development”.

The UPA government then set up another committee under the space scientist K Kasturirangan. It reduced the proposed ESA by half.

The NDA regime further pruned the ESA in a draft notification released on 4 September.

Gadgil is clearly unhappy with Maharashtra’s proposal to further cut the ESA by two-thirds. He argues the move is not only a heavy blow to the ecology of Western Ghats, but also a loss of democracy for its people.

NG: The Maharashtra government has recommended a big cut in the ESA for the Western Ghats. How big a loss is this?
MG: There are two aspects to this. One question is, of course, about how this decision impacts conservation of the region. But it is also important to ask how this decision itself was taken. This decision has been taken by completely ignoring the people.

I was speaking to some experts who are in touch with village heads in the region and are aware of what is happening on the ground. They are saying what the government is doing is a mockery of the people and the democratic process.

We had told the government to translate the [2011] report into Marathi, make sure that it reaches people on the ground, and then give them time to read it. But the government instead put a summary of the report on their website.

Madhav Gadgil’s panel wanted 1.29 lakh sq km of Western Ghats as ESA. Kasturirangan cut it by half

That summary was purposefully prepared to mislead the people. There were many important issues in our report that they purposefully hid in the summary.

Now they are taking the next step, of misleading people further and getting them on board with the government’s recommendations.

NG: How can you say the summary was purposefully misleading?

MG: The then environment secretary of the state had made this summary. Even he accepts that he purposefully made changes to the summary such that it ignored some of our recommendations and misled people.

In fact, I had offered to write the summary. But they deliberately ignored my request and put up their own version. And even now they are doing the same. This is a mockery of the democratic process.

NG: Has any government, at the Centre or in the state, approached you to help implement the ESA?

MG: After we submitted the report in 2011, neither the central government nor the state government has been willing to talk to us. I am a visiting researcher at Goa University. From there also, we had made some attempts to reach out to the governments.

It was said that the then Goa chief minister Manohar Parrikar and then Maharashtra CM Prithviraj Chavan were willing to talk. But none of that actually happened. They did not show any interest.

Western Ghats is home to 9,000 species of plants, 6,000 insects, 508 birds, 300 fish, 138 mammals

NG: What about the state’s concerns about development? Would you agree that some part of the Western Ghats has to be given up for development?

MG: What exactly is development? And who is it for? Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly given speeches on development. The things that people don’t want you are piling upon them for the benefit of businesses and such interests. That’s the development that is going on.

This is not development according to me. We must look at the options beyond this kind of development.

Before taking these decisions, why don’t they take people’s opinions and initiate discussions on them, like it should happen in a democracy? It is because they want to force decisions that are not wanted by people. There is no meaning in such development.