Save the Ghats

The draft notification of the ministry of environment and forests on the Kasturirangan committee report on the Western Ghats, which has been cleared by the Election Commission, is a setback for the efforts to protect the environment of the endangered ranges.

The commission had to clear the notification as the code of conduct for elections has come into operation and the office memorandum which had been issued earlier had not satisfied those who were protesting the recommendations of the committee. The UDF government of Kerala was almost blackmailed by an alliance partner into putting pressure on the Centre to dilute the recommendations. The government has got a reprieve now because the threats to pull out of the coalition over the issue of the recommendation may no longer be there. But it is another unfortunate instance of political and electoral considerations prevailing over environmental concerns.

The Kasturirangan committee had proposed notification of over 4,000 villages in six states covering the Ghats as ecologically sensitive areas and recommended regulation of activities there which are detrimental to environment. The committee itself had watered down the more restrictive recommendations of an earlier committee headed by environmentalist Madhav Gadgil. Even these are now going for a toss in the face of protests and pressure tactics.

The draft notification has now reduced the environmentally sensitive areas in Kerala from 13,108 sq km to 9998 sq km and has accepted the right of the states to demarcate such areas. The Kerala government has even prepared a map of such areas.  Human habitations, plantations and farmlands have also been exempted from the purview of the recommendations.  It will not be a surprise if the environmentally sensitive areas shrink further as it is claimed that the boundaries will be finalised only later.

Kerala saw a major agitation, mainly prompted and led by parties which had political interests in the region covered by the panel’s recommendations. While the state has got its way, other states can similarly make demands to reduce the scope and impact of the recommendations, citing the concessions for Kerala as a precedent. This will  make the entire exercise, which was meant to preserve the environment of the Western Ghats,  a farce. A few Lok Sabha seats and the stability of a government were considered more important than the survival of the mountain ranges. It may be unrealistic to expect that the final notification, to be issued after two months, will be any different.

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