This is worrying, because India is at the point where further stripping away of ecosystems and ecological balance — as is happening in the Western Ghats — pushes us closer to a tipping point.
This will cause not just the loss of species and the degradation of unique biodiversity hotspots — the Ghats for, instance, have shrunk by 25% over the past decades — but will also affect rainfall patterns, river flow, water supply and climate across large swathes of the country.
Already, in the devastation that Uttarakhand faced last June, we got a preview of the impact that reckless development can pose not just to the environment — which might seem like an abstract concern compared to profit margins and rising Sensex levels — but to human settlements, cities, residents and families. And yes, to local economies too.
The Kasturirangan panel has sought to balance those two concerns, watering down the environmental regulation regime proposed by the Western Ghats Ecology Experts Panel’s Gadgil report in 2012, a year earlier.
What the Kasturirangan report proposed is a more realistic model — one that would not, by any means, protect all of the Western Ghats, or even all that is left unspoilt there, but that could mitigate some of the damage that unchecked development stands to cause.
It is a formula that could work, if the environment ministry stands firm behind it.
The Kasturirangan report seeks to bring just 37% of the Western Ghats under the Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA) zones — down from the 64% suggested by the Gadgil report. If enforced, this would protect thousands of endemic species.
It seeks to protect water sources that currently feed all of peninsular India, and green swathes that help control temperature and climate across southern India.
This area includes protected areas and UNESCO World Natural Heritage Sites, and excludes nearly all of the Ghats’ inhabited areas. Most of these areas are already protected by norms governing national parks and sanctuaries.
“There needs to be a healthy coexistence,” says VS Vijayan, biodiversity expert and member of the Madhav Gadgil panel. “But this will only be possible when we can discuss the issue of environment protection in a dispassionate and scientific manner.”
The report was met with howls of protest that began as misinformation campaigns started by local leaders and politicians with vested interests. Once the people had begun to panic, their leaders hid behind these protests.
In a crucial election year, the Centre buckled. And now we are back to square one, and running out of time.
‘Govts working with narrow, vested interests’
Madhav Gadgil, a former member of the National Advisory Council, headed the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel and gave recommendations for the protection of the pristine ecosystem, in what came to be known as the Gadgil report. Now he says he feels betrayed that the government has not done anything to protect one of the world’s finest ecosystems. Excerpts from an interview with Chetan Chauhan.
Why does India need to protect the Western Ghats?
The Western Ghats are very important to peninsular India. They are home to the sources of major rivers like the Krishna and Godavari. Most of the plant and animal species found only in India are found in the Western Ghats. It has important horticultural and agricultural species and rich bio-diversity that helps in climate-proofing the region.
Why are governments not interested in protecting the Western Ghats?
I think all governments, state and Centre, are working with narrow vested interests. There is clear evidence that they are trying to protect the interest of builders, quarry and mine owners and that their decisions are being controlled by them. The governments have refused to be responsive to the people, who have a Constitutional right to decide what kind of environment they want to live in.
The state governments say that the proposed regulations on the Western Ghats will stall development in the region. What is your view on this?
No recommendation made by any panel has been in violation of existing environmental laws such as the Environment Protection Act, or the overall framework of the Constitution. We just wanted that the existing laws be implemented in the right spirit, and the view of local bodies heard.
Do you think the government is not serious about environment protection?
The government is not working for the benefit of the people. By not implementing specific environmental protection regulations in the Western Ghats, it is curbing the democratic rights of the people by not allowing their say in deciding the projects that will enter this rich, bio-diverse area. As chairman of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, I have recommended the restoration of the people’s democratic right to question, a recommendation that was not accepted by the government.
Backtracking in Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu
Nachiappan, 46, a farmer in the Nilgiri biosphere, bought a 5-litre can of green paint last month, after hearing a rumour that all houses in the Ghats’ eco-sensitive zones would have to be painted green, in keeping with the recommendations of the Kasturirangan report.
He is now planning to return the paint, after hearing that the report is not likely to be implemented anyway.
Not far away, another farmer, Muthuvel, 54, sold three of his cows after hearing that forest officials would soon have to impose a ceiling on the number of grazing animals per household.
In reality, the report had recommended restrictions on quarrying, deforestation, mining and large-scale cattle-grazing.
Still, leaders declared that it was an attempt to displace and victimise farmers.
Following an uproar from politicians and community leaders ahead of a crucial election year, Kerala chief minister Oommen Chandy of the Congress party rushed to Delhi to meet the prime minister, soon after the report was released, saying his government would collapse if farmers were “victimised”.
Soon after, union environment minister Veerappa Moily put on hold all plans to implement the recommendations of the report.
“Come what may, we will not allow this,” says Bishop Remigiose Inchananiyil of Thamarassery, Kerala, a state where the inhabited portions of the Western Ghats are populated mainly by Christians. “In the name of ecological terrorism, poor farmers cannot be thrown out of their homes.”
In Tamil Nadu, the Western Ghats People’s Protection Forum has been among those leading protests. The Tamil Nadu government has also opposed the recommendations of the report, saying they intrude on the state’s authority and right to determine ecological governance.
For activists like N Badusha, who has been fighting to protect the Ghats for four decades, the campaign of misinformation and manipulation is troubling.
“It is worrying that even the Kasturirangan report, which is a far milder version of the earlier Gadgil report, has provoked this outrage,” he says. “Those with vested interests are spreading rumours of farmers being thrown out of their homes. In reality, the report sought to tackle, among other things, the more than 300 illegal mining units in the fringe areas of the Ghats, along Kerala-Karnataka border, and the land and wood mafias active here. Sadly, instead of taking them on, we are falling prey to their machinations.”
Meanwhile, for now, grazing and farming will continue to creep further into the Ghats; homes will continue to be built.
Some of these settlements are now nestled so deep in the forested Ghats that just a few metres away, in areas such as Bandipur in Karnataka, you can see wild elephants curling their trunks around their young ones, sambhar munching on leaves and lion-tailed macaques at their quarrelsome best.
Meanwhile, with both panel reports ignored, Kerala and Karnataka have further plans for development here.
Up next: Hydro-electric power projects at the Athirappalli waterfalls in Kerala and the Gundia river in Karnataka, both nestled within the Western Ghats.
By Ramesh Babu (With inputs from Shyam Sundar)
Fighting for status quo in Maharashtra, Goa and Gujarat
The implementation of the Kasturirangan report would mean large-scale destruction of forests for wind turbines and fancy hill stations in Maharashtra.
But that’s not a concern Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan raised during his meeting with Veerappa Moily, soon after the latter took additional charge as union environment minister in December.
Instead, Chavan opposed the recommendations of a ban on mining, quarrying, thermal power projects and red-category industries within sections of the Ghats. The recommendations had, in fact, caused an uproar within his government, with industries minister Narayan Rane threatening to bar all forest officers from entering his home district of Sindhudurg.
“The Kasturirangan report tried to strike a balance between the wishes of the government, ministers and corporations, and yet even this report has caused a backlash,” said an environmental scientist, requesting anonymity. “In Maharashtra, politicians who bought land to develop them as hill stations and have identified potential sites for tourism here are determined that the report be quashed,” he added.
In Maharashtra, the Ghats cover 55,345 sq km across 11 districts. In its recommendations, the Kasturirangan report suggested that 17,340 sq km, home to 2,159 villages, be declared ecologically sensitive.
With the government intent on maintaining the state’s image as industry-friendly at any cost, environmentalists say further development will see the Ghats shrink further, affecting rainfall patterns across the country and placing endangered species in further danger.
Environmentalists are also concerned that the Kasturirangan report omitted Dodamarg taluka, a hotbed of iron-ore mining and an integral part of the Sahyadri-Konkan wildlife corridor for the endangered Asiatic elephant and the critically endangered tiger.
“Projects in these corridors will drive away wildlife and increase the incidences of man-animal conflict,” says Stalin D, project director of environmental NGO Vanashakti.
In Goa, an area of 1,461 sq km has been proposed as eco-sensitive, which would lead to the closing of 38 mines — a recommendation that the BJP-led Manohar Parrikar government has stridently opposed.
In Gujarat, home to just two protected areas in the northern tip of Western Ghats, with 449 sq km proposed as eco-sensitive areas, there have been no concerns raised by either the Narendra Modi government, the opposition or the environmentalists in that state.
By Snehal Rebello