The Karnataka government must rethink its decision to reject the recommendations of the Kasturirangan Committee report on conservation of the Western Ghats. Forest Minister R Shankar, who heads the cabinet sub-committee that studied the feasibility of the report, told the Legislative Council recently that implementing the report’s recommendations would stand in the way of development and deny thousands of people living in the Western Ghats region of their livelihoods. This is short-sighted thinking. Worse, it’s false. The Western Ghats run from Gujarat in the north through Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka down to Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The timber and mining mafias, who are eyeing the wood and mineral wealth in the forests believe that implementation of the Kasturirangan report will restrict their exploitation of these resources. These mafias have close ties with ministers and officials and are said to have lobbied with them to reject the report. And to secure public support for their business interests, they have been spreading rumours that implementation of the report will result in unemployment and displacement of people from the region.
When the Gadgil report of 2011 called for declaring 64% of the Western Ghats as Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA), state governments rejected it, dismissing it as excessively pro-environment. Subsequently, the Kasturirangan report recommended declaring just 37% of the Western Ghats as ESA. Even this much-diluted recommendation is unacceptable to our politicians, who seem to be determined to strip the Western Ghats of their natural wealth. The forests of the Western Ghats are renowned for their rich biodiversity. Indeed, experts have described these mountains as among the eight “hottest biodiversity hotspots” in the world. Instead of preserving this natural heritage, our politicians are keen to make a fast buck by allowing unfettered mineral extraction and hacking down of trees.
The recent floods and landslides in Coorg and Karnataka provided us with a glimpse of what lies ahead if we persist with destroying vegetation and blasting mountains to lay roads or extract minerals. It is alarming that even these dire scenarios have failed to move our ministers to do the right thing and decide in favour of sustainable development. They claim to be worried about jobs for the locals. Of course, mining will provide employment for people. But what happens when the mineral wealth is gone? Of what use is the water and soil that is sullied by mining waste? Without tree cover, we will get no rains, which in turn will dry out our rivers. By rejecting the Kasturirangan report we are planting the seeds of our own future destruction. It is still not too late. The Karnataka government must accept and implement the Kasturirangan report. This is our last chance to save our natural heritage.