Western Ghats is a mountain range that runs along the western side of India. Six states are blessed to be a part of this great treasure trove of biodiversity. “Western Ghats harbour many endemic species of flowering plants, endemic fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and invertebrates” (Notification dated 13 November 2013). UNESCO recognized this mountain range as a World Heritage Site and one of the eight ‘hottest spots’ of biological diversity. In order to protect this ecologically sensitive region.
The unchecked encroachment by human population and unbridled activities in the name of development have become a serious threat to the survival of Western Ghats. Human beings are a curse on this earth, with their attitude that they have some divine right to exploit and damage this earth, no matter how much it affects other flora and fauna or even the earth. We do not even know what is in the long-term interests of ourselves and our future generations. Let me not get into those aspects of human vs. nature debate here. Suffice to say, Government of India was forced to appoint a panel under the leadership of Prof. Madhav Gadgil. The report of this Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP Report dated 31st August 2011) was lauded by the environmentalists, but opposed by various other stakeholders including state governments as something that affects an unacceptably large number of people.
“The mandate of WGEEP was to demarcate ecologically sensitive zones and suggest measures to conserve, protect and rejuvenate the ecology of Western Ghats region. Taking into account the comments and suggestions made by different stakeholders including State Governments and Central Ministries on WGEEP Report, the MoEF constituted a High Level Working Group (HLWG) to suggest an all-round and holistic approach for sustainable and equitable development while keeping in focus the preservation and conservation of ecological systems in Western Ghats” (HLWG Report). In effect, the task of HLWG headed by Dr Kasturirangan was to water down the proposals of WGEEP in order to make it palatable to state governments and other stakeholders.
However, as usual, even this watered down report of the HLWG did not find favour with all sections of the society. These watered down recommendations also were opposed on the ground that it affects the lives and rights of people from those areas. The Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) of Central Government did invite public comments on the report. The report was also forwarded to concerned state governments for their feedback.
While this process in under progress, MoEF has gone ahead and accepted the report ‘in principle, and notified certain specific recommendations of the report in a draft form (possibly under pressure from the ongoing cases in the Supreme Court, on the issue). Whether it is WGEEP, HLWG, or any other report on the Western Ghats, they are not binding on the people of governments. They are mere recommendations to the concerned governments, even when the governments accept those reports. Only when the concerned government passes a law or issues a notification under any of the existing laws, these recommendations attain legal validity and become enforceable against people. Therefore, while people have all the right to discuss the validity or otherwise of the contents of the reports, they have no reason to be aggrieved against them so as to resort to non-democratic means like forced and violent bandhs disguised as hartals, or torching of government offices and public properties.
Let us not look at the Office Memorandum of the MoEF (OM dated 16 November 2013) which accepts certain selected points of the HLWG report. I quote from the OM:
“The Ministry has accepted the HLWG Report ‘in principle’ subject to the following:
(i) The definition of the extent of Western Ghats as demarcated by the HLWG is accepted.
(ii) The Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA) as identified and delineated by the HLWG is Western Ghats is accepted.
(iii) The HLWG has identified approximately 37% of the Western Ghats as ecologically sensitive. The identified Ecologically Sensitive Area covers about 60,000 sq, km. of natural landscape of Western Ghats and represents a continuous band of natural vegetation extending over a horizontal distance of 1,500 km. The Ecologically Sensitive Area is spread across six states of Western Ghats region viz. Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. The ESA also includes Protected Areas and World Heritage Sites of Western Ghats.
(iv) The recommendations of the HLWG to completely ban mining, quarrying, and sand mining as also thermal power plants and Red category of industries in the Ecologically Sensitive Area are also accepted.
(v) Hydro power being a relatively clean source of energy has been recommended to be allowed in the ESA by the HLWG subject to stringent conditions. This recommendation is accepted by the Ministry.
(vi) Wind energy is permitted in the Ecologically Sensitive Area subject to applicable regulations.
(vii) The following category of new and/or expansion projects/ activities shall be prohibited in the identified Ecologically Sensitive Area except those cases which have been received by EACs/ MoEF or SEACs/SEIAAs before the date of putting HLWG report on the website of eth Ministry, i.e., 17.4.2013 and which are pending with EACs/ MoEF or SEACs/SEIAAs. Such projects will be dealt under the guidelines and rules applicable at the time of application before the respective EACs/ MoEF or SEACs/SEIAAs.
(a) Mining, quarrying and sand mining
(b) Thermal power plants
(c) Building and constructions projects of 20,000 sq. m. area and above
(d) Township and area development projects with an area of 50 ha and above and/or with built up are of 1,50,000 sq. m and above
(e) Red category industries
(viii) Projects/activities which are not specifically prohibited under the ESA shall be scrutinized and assessed for cumulative impacts and development needs, before granting environment clearance.
(ix) The Forest Right Act shall be observed in letter and spirit. The consent of the Gram Sabha for projects in ESA will be mandatory as recommended by the HLWG.” (Emphasis supplied)
From the above, it is clear that the ‘in principle’ acceptance of an already watered down report of HLWG is nothing but further relaxation to the bare minimum, to protect the existence of the Western Ghats. It is also very clear that the prohibitions instituted are in respect of such large level activities, and not the basic needs or the people residing there. In fact these prohibitions will only help the inhabitants of the area from the onslaught of mining, tourism resort, and real estate mafia. 20,000 sq. m construction of 1,50,000 sq. m township are not the concerns of local populations but if builders and big businesses. Also, the mining and quarrying are not in the interest of the local farmers but the powerful mafia operating in the state.
There cannot be any dispute that the above activities can actually destroy the very existence of the Western Ghats. Can we allow such a situation? Will it not kill our Monsoons and the ecology? Shall we compromise our very existence for the profit of certain individuals? The increasing number of quarries coming up throughout the Western Ghats region will only tell sensible people about the need to adopt urgent measures to protect the ecology. This is also critical for the survival of the predominant farmer communities from those very areas.
The Western Ghats and its inhabitants will also benefit from the proposed incentives for green growth in the area. To quote the OM,
“All the other major recommendations made by the HLWG particularly with respect to the financial arrangements to incentivize green growth in Western Ghats, participation or and involvement of local communities in decision making, data monitoring systems especially the establishment of Decision Support and Monitoring Centre for Western Ghats are accepted”.
The OM also provides a mechanism for resolution of any grievances relating to declaration of ESAs. It states that “a draft notification declaring the identified region of the Western Ghats as an Ecologically sensitive Area along the lines accepted by the Ministry would be issued and put up on the website of the Ministry for input of the stakeholders”.
A Notification was issued on 13 November 2013, prohibiting all the activities listed in Clause (viii) of the above OM with immediate effect. This Notification also contained a list of all ESAs identified by HLWG, as an Annexure. The areas “having high biological richness, low forest fragmentation, low population density and containing Protected Areas (PAs), World Heritage Sites (WHSs) and Tiger and Elephant corridors were identified as ESAs by the HLWG. Even then if there are specific objections there is enough scope to successfully challenge the notification. This Notification is valid till further orders. The Minister of Environment and Forests has again clarified that the final notification on the report will be issued only after hearing the states and other stakeholders. Ministry has given 60 days tome for the stakeholders to respond to the draft notification.
Meanwhile, the hartals and violence occurred in Kerala against the implementation of the HLWG Report. Even the main opposition LDF decided to join the bandwagon of hartal against the implementation. Unlike more stringent supporters of unbridled rights of the people to exploit Western Ghats, LDF and CPM were seen struggling to balance between the supporting the need to protect Western Ghats and limiting the Hartal against the manner in which the report was implemented. Leaaders of CPM are on record stating the need to implement the report “by taking the people into confidence” and the Leader of Opposition has even demanded implementation of WGEEP report.
As usual, this hartal also will not serve any useful purpose. Most people considered a Monday hartal as an extended weekend, and celebrated it. Only the daily wage earners lost their earnings. Kerala Government has constituted a committee to interact with people and submit the final recommendations to the MoEF, by early January (as agreed between Govt of Kerala and MoEF). All the objections to the report and implementation could have been placed before this Committee. The Chief Minister had also called an all parties meeting to decide state’s response to be submitted to MoEF (which I understand LDF has boycotted). However, some parties seems to have lost faith in all negotiations and discussions, and consider hartals and violence as the only means of redressing grievances, which is not a good sign for the state.
Let me quote the HLWG report: “HLWG recognizes that the proposed non-permissible activities may not be enough to fully manage the environmental fallout of development. However, it is also clear that management through prohibition and fiat is often detrimental to the interests of the very people and environment policy is aiming to protect. Therefore, we need a balanced and nuanced approach to say no to the most damaging and high impact activities and at the same time working of systems to incentivize environmentally sound development that benefits local livelihoods and economies”. At least, the mainstream parties and people must support the governments in this endeavor to implement the prohibition of ‘the most damaging and high impact activities” in the Western Ghats instead of resorting to hartals and other anti-people measures. Remember Western Ghats do not have any votes, and it is easier for the governments to shelve such measures for its protection!
Hartal is forcing a group’s will on the entire population, through threat of violence. Agitations against Kasturirangan Report is forcing our greed on the entire Western Ghats ecology! Neither will help us in the long run.
PS: I confess, I am not an expert on these reports or their impact. I am merely sharing my thoughts on the issues as I understand them, to keep the discussion on. Any views, for or against the implementation of report, or Notification, are most welcome.