Saturday, 30 August 2014

By trashing the Gadgil report recommendations, did we just kill the Western Ghats?

Older than the Himalaya, the Western Ghats, 1,600 km long stretch, makes its way through 6 states. Its ecosystem plays a critical role in influencing the monsoon and weather patterns in the subcontinent. Known for its exceptionally high biodiversity and endemism, unique only to this part of the world, it is home to Tiger Reserves, National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries, and Reserved Forests. It is the source of thousands of medicinal plants. What makes the Western Ghats special is that while its total area is less than 6 % of the land area of India, the Western Ghats contains more than 30%  of all plant, fish, bird, and mammal species found in India. It contains genetic resources of numerous spices, grains and fruits. More importantly, the Ghats and its forests sustain the livelihoods of approximately 245 million people who live in the Indian states that receive most of their water supply from rivers originating in the region.

When Jairam Ramesh was the Minister for Environment and Forest, he commissioned renowned ecologist Madhav Gadgil to study the Western Ghats and offer recommendations for its conservation. The report, when ready, was neither shared and nor made public for over a year.

After PILs were filed, the Court ordered the MoEF to put the report in the public domain -  Gadgil called for the highest protection to the Ghats and marked the entire Ghats as eco sensitive. He classified the entire area into three zones, depending on how fragile it was. He also recommended a gradual phasing out of all existing mining activities over five years and no new licenses to be issued.

The then UPA Government squashed the report which was found to be inconvenient to the wants of industry. The Kerala government was the first to strongly oppose it claiming it is impractical and will come in the way of its “development”. Other states chanted the same mantra prompted by the mining and real estate lobbies.

Ramesh’s successor , Jayanti Natarajan, dismissed the report and sought a second opinion - that in itself was wrong and caused some amount of confusion .She commissioned  K Kasturirangan to do another study. When complete this study found that only 37% of the Western Ghats is eco-sensitive and that mining, construction, dam-building and other destructive activities can be allowed in the rest of the area of the Ghats. Kasturirangan diluted the Gadgil report to favour industry and appease the crony capitalists in all the states through which the Ghats and its spurs run. Till now no decision has been taken in favour of either report.

Madhav Gadgil is better placed than Kasturirangan to recommend to the MoEFCC about  protecting the Western Ghats - one is an ecologist who knows the Western Ghats better than anyone else, the other a scientist, and ex planning commission member.

Sadly the decision to reject the report was communicated on August 27 by the NDA government to the National Green Tribunal. Once again, the debate is cast as a split: if you support Gadgil, you are called anti-development, anti-growth, regressive etc. But the evidence has been gathering all along the Ghats for decades - in an era of climate instability, fast-changing monsoon patterns and the pressures of urbanisation and resource extraction, the destruction of the Western Ghats as is now being sanctioned by the BJP-led NDA government will dangerously affect the climate of peninsular India and further endanger the livelihoods and well-being of millions in the river basins whose streams originate in these lush hills.

Those who support full and non-negotiable protection of the entire Western Ghats are not idealists; they are amongst those Indians who keep our connection with nature current, a connection that goes back to the Vedas. It is capitalist forces and growth-obsessed policies that will, if unchecked, brutally destroy that relationship – a relationship that was celebrated in the hymns of the Rig Vedas.

It is in our long-term interest to protect every hillside and valley and stream of the Western Ghats and not open up the fragile region to senseless "development". If we do not, generations to come will pay a huge price.

This article first appeared in DNA on 29th August 2014

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