Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Too late too little

In March 2010, 'Forests and Environment Ministry' of the federal Government of India appointed a committee of experts headed by Dr. Madhav Gadgil, an eminent scientist and an environment expert. This committee was asked to study the situation in the Western Ghats and find, What is the real effect of encroachments on the ecology of Western ghats? and recommend to the Government, how best to reconcile the sometimes competing claims of environment and development. The Appointment of Dr. Madhav Gadgil as chairman of this committee can be thought as the best choice for the post. Dr. Gadgil is from Pune, a city located near foothills of Sahyadri ranges and was a professor of environmental sciences in the renowned Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. He has spent major part of his professional life studying Western Ghat mountain ecology. He is well known for his views about deriving benefits from environment without disturbing the ecology of any terrain.

From March 2010 to August 2011, this committee studied thoroughly the subject matter referred to them by Government. The members toured Western Ghat mountains extensively to gather first hand information and discussed the matter with all stake holders. The committee met for 14 times during this period, had 8 sittings with various Government officers and 40 sittings with civil society groups. Committee also commissioned 42 research papers by experts in the field. Finally in September 2012, Gadgil committee submitted it's report and recommendations to the Environment ministry.

The ministry, after receiving the report, precisely did nothing but sat on it for next 8 or 9 months. It is fairly easy to imagine, how accurately, Gadgil committee report must have hit certain interests, which were well protected by the Ministry so far and now stood exposed with the report. Many civil society members immediately suspected some foul play and challenged the ministry and requested to publish the report. Their requests were flatly refused. Finally an activist from Kerala, appealed to Central Information Commissioner (CIC) that the report may be released. During inquiry, the ministry gave an extremely evasive reason for not publishing the report as “ scientific or economic interests of the State would be adversely affected if the report was made public”. A ministry official even said that “Ministry was worried that if the Gadgil Committee report was released, there would be an influx of proposals for declaration of eco-sensitive zones in the Western Ghats” by various individuals and organisations”.

In April 2012, CIC completely rejected environment ministry's arguments and ordered immediate publication of the report. In his order, CIC ,quoting a judgment of Justice Mathew in a case of 1975: said that “ The people of this country have a right to know every public act, everything that is done in a public way by their public functionaries. The environment ministry after receiving orders from CIC again appealed to it against publication of report. In May 2012, CIC completely rejected the appeal of the environment ministry and ordered that a xerox copy of the report should be handed over to the complainant by May 5 and the full report should be published on Ministry's website by 10th May 2012.
After receiving such a slap from CIC, everyone thought that the ministry would now be forced to publish the report. However ministry now appealed in the court of law against the order of CIC. The high court has rejected the appeal and has withheld the order of the CIC and directed the ministry to immediately publish the report.

With no choice now left, ministry finally published the report in May 2012. In the report, the committee has analyzed the entire Western Ghat mountain region and had classified it into 3 Ecologically sensitive zones (ESZ.) The most sensitive region was called as ESZ 1 and it was recommended that no developmental activity of any kind should take place in this zone. Many important places from three states of Maharashtra, Kerala and Karnataka were included this zone. It was obvious to everyone that the report was least likely to be implemented because it trampled just too many interests of big businesses and political bosses.

The environment ministry then decided to appoint another committee headed by their own man, Planning Commission member K. Kasturirangan. As expected, Kasturirangan committee came out with a report diluting most of the stringent recommendations of the Gadgil committee, though it claimed that it proposes to protect 90 per cent of the region's 'natural landscape' as ecological sensitive area.
Dr. Madhav Gadgil, chairman of Gadgil committee has rightly remarked: "Kasturirangan has ended up essentially protecting reserve forests, wildlife sanctuaries and national parks already protected and very little else beyond that."

Promptly, environment ministry accepted the report and has decided to notify the same with about 37% of the Western Ghats under the Environment Protection Act, 1986. The ministry has decided to turn approximately 60,000 square kilometres of the Western Ghats across six States into an Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA), banning mining, quarrying, thermal power plants and polluting industries over the entire range. All other projects would be allowed only with the prior consent of gram sabhas (village councils) in the zone.

However, within few days of notifying the ban on development, Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), has already diluted the notification. It now says that notification of last month declaring about 60,000 sq km area of the Western Ghats as an eco-sensitive area (ESA) has been further amended to allow townships and area development projects of up to 50 hectare in the demarcated zone. So we are back to square one.

The new amended notification would not be adequate to safeguard the only remaining nature reserve on the west coast of India. It would actually trigger commercial development in this beautiful region. I can add only one thing about this whole exercise, not only it is too late, it also happens to be too little.

19 November 2013

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