Dilemma over Western Ghats

The two reports came out within two years. Both had the objective of saving the ecology of Western Ghats, one of the world's biodiversity hot spots. They were written after wide consultation with environmentalists, academics and government officials.

But beginning with delineation, the report by the K Kasturirangan committee negated most of the recommendations of the Madhav Gadgil panel, which had, in 2011, advocated drastic measures and a centralised monitoring system to prevent destruction of the Ghats.

Let’s begin with the geography. In the absence of a universally accepted boundary for the Western Ghats, the two panels adopted different methodologies to determine the geography that extends over the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat.

The Western Ghat Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) under Gadgil describes it as 1,490 km-long “practically unbroken hill chain barring the Palakkad gap” with a width between 48-210 km and an area of 129, 037 sq km. The High Level Working Group (HLWG) chaired by Kasturirangan used a Planning Commission definition of 600 metre elevation as the lower limit to define the Ghat area “in the absence of geologically and geomorphologically sound criteria.” It defines the Ghats as a 1500 km-long and 10-200 km wide stretch with total area of 1,64,280 sq km.

The HLWG identified almost 60,000 sq km of natural landscape, which is about 37 per cent of the total geographical area of WG region – as Ecologically Sensitive Area representing a contiguous band of vegetation and includes protected areas and world heritage sites. This patch, including 4,156 villages (536 in Karnataka), needs protection at all cost. The Gadgil team, on the other hand, proposed protection for almost 75 per cent of the Ghat area. 

The WGEEP recommendations were unacceptable to the governments and political class in these states, which had their own developmental and political agenda. The Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) received 1,750 responses to the Gadgil report, 81 per cent of which were critical in nature. The negative responses, supporters of Gadgil argue, were propagated by the mining lobby. Other responses were against the three-tier zoning system the panel devised.

Using a scientific method, the veteran ecologist and his colleagues divided the Ghats into (1) regions of highest sensitivity or Ecologically Sensitive Zone 1 (ESZ1,) (2) regions of high sensitivity (ESZ2,) and (3) regions of moderate sensitivity (ESZ3.) They are outside the notified protected areas. Combined together, protected area along with ESZ1 and ESZ2 would cover about 75 per cent of the WG, where strict conservation measures were suggested.

Besides technical objections, the HLWG, which has three officials of the MoEF as its members, found that Gadgil's proposed zonation system did not take into account the human cultural component which is a part of biodiversity, livelihood and developmental needs of human populations, and disturbance regime.

“Management through prohibition and fiat is often detrimental to the interests of the very people the environment policy is aiming to protect. Western Ghats too is inhabited. It is not wilderness area, but the habitat of its people who share the landscape with biological diversity. It is not possible to plan for WG, only as a fenced-in zone, with no human influence,” Kasturirangan panel says. While industries under the environment ministry's “Red” category are banned in the ESA, there is no ban on the “orange” and “green” category though the aim is to promote industries with low ecological impact.

The first outcome of the second opinion is visible on the Konkan coast. The Gadgil panel called for moratorium, social audit and cumulative environment impact assessment for Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts where a number of mining and infrastructure projects were planned.

Last October, the environment ministry lifted the moratorium in four taluks of Ratnagiri and two taluks of Sindhudurg district on the basis of HLWG report. 

On the mining in Goa, the high level working group did not give any recommendation since the matter is before the Supreme Court. But the 2011 panel advocated stopping all new mining in ESZ1, ESZ2 and protected areas besides reducing the existing mining in ESZ1 by 25 per cent every year and halt it completely by 2016. It suggested a state-wise holistic review of all sand mining projects before fresh permissions were granted. 

The two panels  have distinctly different views on two controversial hydro-electric projects – 163 MW Athirapilly project on Chalakudy river in Trichur district and a 200 MW unit on the Gundia basin in Hassan and Dakshina Kannada districts. While the Gadgil panel maintained a strict no-no to both, the second committee suggested “reassessment” and “fresh studies” on both projects before they can be taken forward. The second report has not proposed complete ban on the construction of hydropower projects in the ESA, but recommended a balance between energy needs and environment.

The administrative structures conceived by the two groups are as different as chalk and cheese. The Gadgil committee's idea of having a centralised Western Ghats Ecology Authority was opposed tooth and nail by all the six states. The HLWG, on the other hand, has proposed strengthening the existing institutions and evolve a new structure involving the Ghat states to monitor its health. Moreover, it recommended financial incentives from the 14th Finance Commission and modifying the Concurrent List to ensure that developmental projects have essential green backgrounds.

Within days of the government notifying the Kasturirangan panel's recommendation in November, agitations began in several states as developmental activities were stopped in villages falling within the ESA, forcing the Centre to send the ball back to the states’ court once again.

What the states will do now is a million dollar question.

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