Vested interests harm Western Ghats
Dissenting against the interim order of the Supreme Court of India last week to implement the important facets of the Gadgil committee report, the districts of Idukki and Wayanad in Kerala observed one day bundh. The genesis of the protest can be traced to the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church which has referred to the Gadgil committee’s Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) report as a “conspiracy”. A pastoral letter from a bishop addresses priests and people in the area and was read out on a Sunday service at churches in Idukki district. It states: “In the name of environment, this is nothing but a sort of ‘terrorist activity’. This WGEEP report means that a huge section of the farmers in this district will have to move out of their farm land. This report is part of an international conspiracy.”
TheWestern Ghats Ecology Expert Panel is a committee appointed by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests to assess the biodiversity and environmental issues of the Western Ghats spread across six states-Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat. The panel which was set up on March 14, 2010, submitted its report to the government on August 31, 2011.
A major issue with the report is that it recommends zoning of 75 per cent of the Western Ghats into three different grades of ecological sensitivity. For this grading, Gadgil committee divided the 1,29,037 sq km of Western Ghats into 2200 rectangles of 9x9km. A total of 142 taluks of 44 districts of the six states come under this report. While this proves highly controversial, it is absolutely necessary because the types of activities like farming, mining, hydro-electric projects and tourism in different zones need to be in tune with the wild life conservation practices.
The WGEEP report recommends that the Western Ghats cannot be used for large scale non-agricultural purposes or forest land should not be exploited for commercial activity. Kerala’s main opposition, Communist Party of India (Marxist) concurs with the Gadgil report in principle that it highlights pressing environmental concerns. Yet Leftist leadership opines that most recommendations are not viable considering the state’s high population density. The CPM challenges the WGEEP report on the grounds that normal life would hereafter be impossible in Idukki and Wayanad districts even if only some recommendations are adopted.
Acting on the panel’s report, the Centre has recently issued instructions to the state governments to take time-bound action for the eviction of encroachment of forest lands. In the case of Kerala, a Western Ghats region state, the forests are also under threat of human encroachments. Around 44,420 hectares of forest lands have been illegally occupied in the state. The demographic profile of residents in the human settlements in the Western Ghats needs to clearly distinguish between original inhabitants or tribals and recent migrants who have entered over the last couple of decades.
While protests may act as pressure points on the government against implementation of the Gadgil report and gain politicians and religious leaders brownie points with their respective constituencies, they also need to take note of the writing on the wall. The impacts of massive destruction of virgin forests to accommodate unauthorised human settlements, tourist resorts, hydroelectric projects and stone quarries in sensitive bio-diversity spheres are creating catastrophe in various parts of the country.
Destruction of pristine forests sparks man-animal conflicts. It may be recalled that the recent killing of a tiger which strayed into the farm lands bordering the Wayanad Wild Life Sanctuary highlights such trends. This incident encouraged the Church and the political parties to come together and mobilise public opinion and street power against forest management policies. The irony is that the protestors’ attempt to highlight the problem of man-animal conflict, which is linked to weak forest management policies. At the same time they also agitate against the Gadgil report which makes recommendations to strengthen forest management policies.