Commercial interests fuelled people's fears

After two reports by the expert panels set up by the Centre and another by a Kerala government-appointed committee, environment conservation in the Western Ghats continues to be a contentious and often political issue in Kerala.

The Madhav Gadgil and Kasturirangan reports ran into violent opposition in Idukki, Wayanad and Kozhikode districts. Fears of displacement coupled with backing from the opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Catholic Church led to widespread protests even as environmentalists maintained that the fears were unfounded. For them, the idea of conservation stands diluted in a maze of expert recommendations.

According to Oomen V Oommen, chairman of the Kerala State Biodiversity Board (KSBB) and convenor of the state-appointed committee that studied the Kasturirangan report, “confusion” and a lack of understanding of the report triggered extreme responses during the agitation that peaked in November, last year. “I’m not sure how it unfolded but it’s true that what should have been a purely scientific debate turned into a socio-political issue that led to passionate responses from the high-range districts,” Oommen told Deccan Herald.

Interestingly, the Kasturirangan panel – which identified 123 villages in Kerala with Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESAs) leading protests from farmers – is also criticised by environmentalists for recommendations that exposed areas outside of ESAs to unchecked development. The Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government has assured that no recommendations would be implemented without addressing the state’s concerns. There are pressure groups within the Congress that insist on a balance between protection of environment and people’s concerns.

T N Prathapan, Congress MLA and a prominent presence in debates on environment conservation, says people’s fears about the two reports were fuelled by vested commercial interests. The powerful quarry mafia operating in the Ghats managed to spread stories on how the recommendations would lead to human displacement.

Environmentalists have slammed a key recommendation by the Kerala panel: repealing of the Kerala Forest (vesting and management of Ecologically Fragile Lands) Act. The Act facilitates takeover of privately-owned EFLs. According to Prathapan, the Gadgil panel report struck the right balance but was not pursued earnestly. “The protestors or the Church that spearheaded the agitation didn’t seem to have an understanding of the recommendations,” he said.

The techniques used by the Kasturirangan panel in identifying ESAs have also come under criticism. Experts say the use of satellite imagery had its inherent pitfalls in a densely populated state like Kerala where accurate demarcation of human settlements from plantations becomes a tough ask.

V S Sunil Kumar, CPI MLA and staunch critic of the Kasturirangan panel report, is of the opinion the government had “missed” a chance by letting the Gadgil panel report “hijacked”. “The Gadgil report extended provisions for people to be stakeholders; it recommended that people living in the Ghats could themselves work together in identifying ESAs. The Kasturirangan report went against the spirit of these recommendations.”

After holding sittings attended by about 30,000 people and receiving 8,976 suggestions and complaints, the state-appointed committee has submitted its report. Government sources said committees formed by local bodies were carrying out physical verification in the 123 villages. The state is set to send its report to the Centre shortly.

Oommen feels that once people are taken into confidence, apprehensions over contents of the report would be addressed. People who live on the Ghat slopes are also custodians of their environment and they have to be involved in conservation processes. “The Gadgil committee had recommended discussions at the gram panchayat level. Now, after the government initiated such discussions, there is more clarity. There are signs that concerns over the report are finally settling.”

The government has said that irrespective of the Kasturirangan panel recommendations, ESAs in Kerala would be determined only after on-ground physical verification, as recommended by the Oommen committee. Kerala Congress (M), one of Congress’ major allies with traditional support in the high-range districts, will watch the government course for the report closely. Sunil Kumar calls the Oommen committee a face-saving ‘stunt’ by the government, indicating that the opposition ceasefire is temporary. In an election year, it will take more than assurances to settle political debates.

Biodiversity of Western Ghats

Flowering Plants 4000 species
Evergreen Trees 645 species   
Bryophytes (low order 
plants such as mosses 
and hornworts) 850-1000 species   
Ants350 species
Butterflies       330 species   
Dragonflies & Damselflies174 species   
Molluscs (land snail) 269 species   
Fish fauna       288 species   
Amphibian fauna220 species   
Birds                   500 species   
Mammals          120 species 

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Dilemma over Western Ghats

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