‘People must engage with govts to save environment’

Madhav Dhananjaya Gadgil. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Madhav Dhananjaya Gadgil, Indian ecologist and the founder of the Centre for Ecological Sciences, was the chairman of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), which later came to be known as the Gadgil Commission. He submitted a report (Madhav Gadgil Committee report) in 2011, marking around 64% of the Western Ghats region as an Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA). Excerpts from an interview are as follows:

Q. During the recent floods and landslides, people and media kept highlighting that takeaways from your report weren't followed which led to the disaster. What specific measure would have helped?

A. The whole environmental degradation that has been going on is likely to lead to increased erosion, landslides and it has been evident for a long time. And as part of our report we had suggested that in certain areas, certain kind of interferences would be undesirable. We had clearly mentioned that specific conservation and development measures and conservation programme should be decided upon by the people at the ground level. 

What they successfully did, not just the government but also many other vested interests, was suppress all mentions of any involvement of people in this kind of a democratic decision-making process. And they created the impression that we were giving a sort of rigid recommendations.

We had quoted the example of Mahabaleshwar in Maharashtra. Residents of this place declared as an eco-sensitive zone had given me a letter. In the letter, they had said, 'Once Mahabaleshwar is declared as an ecosensitive zone, groundwater has to be protected. What happens here is groundwater continues to be exploited. Earlier, if we had to dig well on our own land we could do so, now they would take a bribe of Rs 25,000 to be able to dig the wells. Groundwater is not protected. All we are suffering from is extortion.' We had quoted this very clearly in the report. Naturally, the bureaucracy and the government didn't want things to come to the notice of people.

So people were also persuaded to agitate against it. But it was clear that what we were recommending had considerable meaning, because if we want to halt the ongoing degradation and halt long-term damage such as that of this year, then one has to act with some restraint. Socially such restraint must be accepted but they must not be imposed from above but from people who are at the ground level. This is what our report said and it is clear that this is what is desirable.

People are now beginning to see. It is unfortunate that there had to be such large-scale disasters before people began accepting it. But that is the fact.  

Q. Has any govt come forward to implement these recommendations?

A. No. Governments are still in the grip of a number of vested interests. In Kerala, for example, there is a lot of anger against many of the stone quarries. But many of them are actually, as per the report of a Kerala legislature, illegal. All the government has done is to legalise them. In Kerala, there is enough people's pressure partly because there the Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishat has prepared a Malayalam translation of the report. Now people have access to it, they have been reading it, and that's one of the reasons they know what's actually in the report. Politicians are also now paying lip service. 

Goa also had huge problems with floods. Beginning from the Konkan region of Maharashtra till Kerala, we have had serious problems along the Western Ghats. 

Q. When this happens to such a crucial report, what is the need for forming committees if they can't act upon them? 

A. These are kind of whitewashing devices, delaying action so people will forget the sufferings by the time the committee report comes.

Unregulated tourism is partially blamed for the disaster in Kodagu in these two years...All things should be in moderation. Tourism is certainly an important sector of the economy. But allowing it to grow without any kind of restraint, especially in terms of how it is affecting the land and vegetation, water resources, and allowing unlimited, undisciplined growth is not feasible and it can't go on. 

Q. Are environment campaigns losing hope?

A. Many campaigns end up in protests and court cases. People should be involved in decision-making. We have a number of provisions for involving people in decision making. About decisions on development-related issues, the 73rd and 74th amendments to the constitution open up these possibilities. The Biological Diversity Act opens up further possibilities. The Forest Rights Act also allows for citizen initiative and constructive action. 

Q. Why are gramsabhas not able to exercise their role in decision-making?

A. There were attempts to make them aware and get them involved in Kerala, as the initiative of Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishat. But bureaucracy doesn't want to give up their hold and they didn't back it. People's leadership wasn't strong enough to take it forward. 

The problem is that the disparities between powers, both economic and political, in the hands of this minority, and common people have grown wide. When repeatedly people's constitutional right gets violated, they begin to lose heart. 

Q. What lessons we can learn from other parts of the world?

A. The Green Party (The Greens) being formed out of that environmental movement in Germany, which later became a major political force, and the country's drive towards doing away with nuclear energy and coal and moving to solar energy is an excellent process that we can consider. This has happened over a period of 50 years. There are also some important environmental measures followed in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland. 

Q. Has the ambitious Clean Ganga Mission delivered expected results?

A. Actually nothing has improved as far as Ganga River pollution is concerned. There is data to show that nothing much is done. Investments are made, there are effluent plants all over. But they are not being run, there is a shortage of electricity. It has actually not demonstrated any concrete effect on the ground as far as we are aware. 

Q. What is your view about the Yettinahole project? Why are governments now keen on water diversion projects?

A. Local people were against the Yettinahole project. Large-scale engineering projects generate a lot of money and unfortunately, there are many good evidences that there is a lot of mismanagement and corruption. Large projects allow this kind of misappropriation of funds. So they are very popular with governments.  

People should continusly get involved in the governance. 

Q. Has it become easy to get environmental clearance for projects now?

A. There's always been a serious compromise in the process. Our report also gives a lot of examples. But this is getting worse.

Q. Is GDP growth helping people?

A. This is false propaganda. There is good economic data to show that as the rate of growth of GDP, which is only a partial and improper measure, has increased, the growth of employment has drastically declined. Fewer people are getting employed with economic growth than before. It is not taking into account the adverse effects on nature, health and employment. All these other indices very clearly show that this may not be the right measure. But this measure is being continuously stressed because this is a very convenient way to push anything they (governments) want. 

Q. What role should scientists play in the current scenario?

A. Many scientists are also unfortunately not inclined to work with the people. Very few are proactive. Even courageous scientists don't get proper support. I am afraid the scientific community, except a few, are also not willing to take a stand and state the detailed ground-level truth courageously. That is what matters. Not just endorsing climate change, which is a very global development. They should expose what is happening at the ground level. 

Q. Is 'Make in India' draining our natural resources?

A. Yes, and it is also increasing pollution. One of my friends in Germany's Green Party said, "We have this debate. You control pollution very carefully in Germany. Why do you invest in polluting concerns in India?" Others said, "In Germany, we accept low levels of return while it is quite high in India. They don't care about pollution. When the government of India doesn't care about pollution, why should we care?" This is the problem. 

Q. What is the way forward for us now? Micro-level efforts or policy-level changes?

A. People, unfortunately, have to realise that there will be no policy-level initiatives in the direction they want. It has to be a gradual build-up of pressure from below. The governments will not respond positively. It has never done so far and increasingly less so now.  

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