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Grumbling over the Ghats
A skirmish between two Central committees on the definition of ecologically sensitive areas is one of the reasons why the hills are without any protection.
The mountainous stretch of the Western Ghats could be symbolic of a pressing challenge India encounters as she develops - the tussle for environmental conservation while pursuing rapid economic growth. One of India's most diverse landscapes, the Ghats traverse six states - Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) has been seeking to protect and rejuvenate the ecology of this region, but there remains a lack of consensus, even after two exhaustive committee reports over a span of three years.
The first committee to examine the state of the Ghats was headed by an ecologist, the second by a member of the Planning Commission - the choice of chairmen alone seems to illustrate the two ends of the conservation versus development debate. The first panel, the 14-member Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), was set up in March 2010 under the chairmanship of ecologist Professor Madhav Gadgil and it submitted its report a year later. Subsequently, the ministry set up a 10-member High Level Working Group under Planning Commission member and space scientist Dr K Kasturirangan in August 2012 to weigh the public response to the first report and map a way ahead. It submitted its report this April, but the ministry is yet to make a decision.
Thumb through the two reports and it's clear that both committees agree that the ecosystem is "in need of urgent action and attention". But they differ on issues as basic as what constitutes an "Ecologically Sensitive Area" (ESA) or how such zones can be monitored? The Gadgil report recommended that the entire Western Ghats be considered an ESA and suggested gradation into three zones for regulation, with active participation of local communities. It suggested that no special economic zones (SEZ) or new hill stations should be set up and no public land be converted to private land in the entire Ghats. Many state governments rejected these measures, fearing they would throttle growth.
In contrast, the second committee demarcated about 37 per cent of the Ghats, or 60, 000 sq km, as an ESA, recommending bans on mining, quarrying, thermal power plants or heavily polluting industries. It suggested that the Centre "immediately notify" this demarcation "in public interest". In the rest of the Ghats, it recommended policies that incentivise green growth and promote sustainable development, an approach that drew flak from environmentalists.
The issue isn't merely a bureaucratic skirmish between two committees;it's about the complexities involved in preserving the Ghats. There are concerns about whether such conservation diktats issued by the Centre infringe on the rights of individual states in a federal structure like India. What voice do local communities have in environmental policy making and implementation when pitted against powerful moneyed industrial lobbies? How can natural resources be effectively monitored in such vast and diverse stretches?
"Ultimately, the whole issue is about governance. We have adequate laws in terms of the Environment Protection Act, but we need honest and genuine implementation, " says Gadgil. Terming misgovernance the malady, he points out that when people protest, the government invokes the police to suppress agitations, but never invokes environmental laws to quell the abuse.
The WGEEP report documented such deficits in environmental governance. For instance, the committee observed overflow of untreated effluents from the Common Effluent Treatment Plant in Lote in Maharashtra's Ratnagiri district. Local communities have protested, but the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board has failed to act. Another example cited was the restricted presence of Biological Diversity Management Committees in states like Goa. Mandated under the Biological Diversity Act, 2002, these committees are meant to involve community members at local government levels (right down to the gram sabha) to document biodiversity resources and regulate their harvest.
WGEEP's stringent recommendations drew flak from state governments, which are gunning for economic growth. All the states except Karnataka (which has stopped the issue of mining permission in the Ghats) disagreed with the ban on mining in highlysensitive ESA with Maharashtra, Kerala and Gujarat opposing the restriction on transport infrastructure. The Maharashtra government even refused to stall the creation of new hill stations or SEZs.
It is precisely this environment versus development paradigm that needs to change, believes T R Shankar Raman, a scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation, who has been living and working in the Anamalai Hills of the southern Western Ghats for over a decade. "We tend to see environment and development as two separate things but the environment is a significant component of development. The development process should address social and environmental concerns as well as profit-making, " he says.
This is particularly significant for the Western Ghats. "Nearly three-fourth of the pristine forests is lost, with much of what is remaining being degraded or fragmented. This is an ecologically important region with several endemic species and it is extremely important to conserve what is left. As species disappear, ecosystems begin to change, which can have a cascading effect on grasslands, forests, watersheds, and ultimately human lives, " he says. The damage that this cascading effect could cause was witnessed during the recent floods in Uttarakhand. We need to save the Ghats now to prevent a similar tragedy.
The Western Ghats cuts across six states - Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
It is one of the country's most ecologically diverse landscapes, home to 4, 000 species of flowering plants and endemic fauna.
It has been acknowledged as one of the 34 biodiversity hotspots in the world by Conservation International.
It is inhabited by around 50 million people.
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