Trouble in the hills

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Context:

The catastrophic monsoon floods in Kerala and parts of Karnataka have revived the debate on whether political profitability outshined science.

About Western Ghats:

  • Western Ghats is spread over 6 states (Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra, and Gujarat) and houses about 139 species of mammal, 508 species of birds and 179 species of amphibians.
  • UNESCO has globally acknowledged the Western Ghats as one among the 8 biodiversity hotspots in the World.
  • Many Rivers including Godavari, Kaveri and Krishna originate in the Western Ghats.

Details:

  • In the year 2010, Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) was constituted by the Central Government, under the chairmanship of Madhav Gadgil.
  • WGEEP issued recommendations for the preservation of the fragile western peninsular region.

Highlights of Gadgil Report

  • Recommended that the entire stretch of the Western Ghats should be declared as Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA).
  • It recommended the division of region into three zones – ESZ1, ESZ2, ESZ3 and gave a broad outline of certain restrictions for each zone.
  • The committee recommended the division of region into zones at the block/taluk level.
  • It recommended that no new polluting industries (red and orange) were to be permitted in ESZ1 and ESZ2 and gradual phasing out of such existing industries by 2016. Complete ban on mining in ESZ1 and regulation of mining in ESZ-2.
  • It was recommended that bottom to top approach be followed for conservation of Western Ghats.
  • Western Ghats Ecological Authority was proposed to be set up as a statutory body and given powers under the Environment protection Act 1986.
  • There were many criticisms of the Gadgil Committee Report. Some among them were that
    • The report was not prepared keeping in mind the ground realities. If the report is implemented, the development and the energy requirements in the states coming within the boundary of Western Ghats would be adversely affected.
    • There is no need to set up a new body while there are many such bodies for the protection of environment.
  • Madhav Gadgil has said the recent havoc in Kerala is a consequence of short-sighted policymaking, and warned that Goa may also be in the line of nature’s fury.

Following severe resistance to the implementation of Gadgil Committee report, Kasturirangan Panel was set up in 2012 to advise the government on Gadgil Committee Report.

Highlights of Kasturirangan Report:

  • Divide the western Ghats into Natural Landscape and Cultural Landscape
  • Of the natural landscape, it picked out 37% as “bioplogically rich” and with “some measure of contiguity”. Any restrictions were placed in this area.
  • It proposed the demarcation of ESZ be done at the village level.
  • Only red category (heavy polluting) industries were restricted.
  • Hydro power project would be given the green signal on a case to case basis, post assessment of its benefits and the possible damage it could cause.

Gadgil report laid too much importance to the environment, Kasturirangan report was biased towards development. Kasturi Rangan report was criticized by many as that it provided loopholes for mining, which if allowed would turn detrimental to the environment, in long-term will affect development too. Kasturirangan report got the tag as anti-environmental soon after its release. But this report was tagged anti-development too by many who fear that their livelihood and interests will be affected.

Way forward:

  • The evergreen topic of debate is between environment and development persists.
  • The State governments that are mainly responsible for the Western Ghats must go back to the drawing table with the reports of both the Gadgil Committee and the Kasturirangan Committee.
  • The task before them is to initiate correctives to environmental policy decisions.
  • Given the need to balance human development pressures with stronger protection of the Western Ghats ecology, this is not going to be easy.
  • The issue of allowing extractive industries such as quarrying and mining to operate is arguably the most contentious.
  • A way out could be to create the regulatory framework that was proposed by the Gadgil panel, in the form of an apex Western Ghats Ecology Authority and the State-level units, under the Environment (Protection) Act, and to adopt the zoning system that it proposed. This can keep incompatible activities out of the Ecologically Sensitive Zones (ESZs).
  • Other low-impact forms of green energy led by solar power are available. A moratorium on quarrying and mining in the identified sensitive zones, in Kerala and also other States, is necessary to assess their environmental impact.
  • The goal has to be sustainable development for the Ghats as a whole. The role of big hydroelectric dams, built during an era of rising power demand and deficits, must now be considered afresh and proposals for new ones dropped.
  • Public consultation on the expert reports that includes people’s representatives will find greater resonance now, and help chart a sustainable path ahead.

Source:TH