Why the Western Ghats Keep Conservationists at Loggerheads With Policymakers

The landscape needs to be viewed in its entirety – and this is exactly what conservationists working in the region hoped ecological reports on landscape-based conservation efforts in the Western Ghats would bring forth.

“The Western Ghats area is very fragile,” says K.M. Chinnappa, a forest officer who has worked extensively in the Nagarahole National Park and is now the president of Wildlife First, a conservation NGO working to preserve biodiversity in the Western Ghats region.

The rolling hills of this area run parallel to the western coast of the Indian peninsula and span six states: Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The area is an important biological landscape. It hosts a variety of endemic species of flora and fauna.

Alongside such biodiversity, the ghats also support about 50 million people. Their activities, together with rainfall and features of the soil, have increased the incidence of landslides.

“Like the Himachal area, there are a lot of boulders in the Western Ghats region and the soil is loamy… This is the reason it is prone movement,” Chinnappa says.

Rainfall-triggered slope failures usually occur as the soil’s integrity deteriorates due to changes in land-use.

As a result, conservation efforts ought to be carefully balanced with developmental activities. The landscape needs to be viewed in its entirety – and this is exactly what conservationists working in the region hoped ecological reports on landscape-based conservation efforts in the Western Ghats would bring forth.

Sadly, reality is yet to catch up.

The Gadgil panel report

Many parts of Kerala and Karnataka that were affected by floods earlier this year, such as Idukki, Wayanad and Madikeri, were classified as ecologically sensitive areas (ESAs) by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP). It is commonly called the Gadgil panel for its head, Madhav Gadgil, an ecologist who founded the Centre for Ecological Sciences, a research forum at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. He submitted a report to the environment ministry in 2011 tagging 64% of the Western Ghats region as an ESA. Gadgil went on to classify the area into separate zones depending on their ecological sensitivity, called ESZ 1, ESZ 2 and ESZ 3.

The panel recommended that no new dams with large storage capacities were to be permitted in ESZ 1. Its report also called for “an indefinite moratorium” on new environmental clearances for mining in ESZ 1 and ESZ 2 and for phasing out mining in ESZ 1 by 2016 and the continuation of existing mining in ESZ 2 under strict regulations plus social audit. Finally, the report asked the state to regulate polluting industries and recommended that no new units, including coal-based power plants, should be setup and that the existing ones ought to be regulated with social audits.

However, there was one particular recommendation that was more contentious than the rest. As Praveen Bhargav, co-founder of the Wildlife First and who represented the organisation on the National Board for Wildlife, explained, “The Gadgil report recommended that all decision-making activities should be handed over to a Western Ghats [Ecological] Authority which would be headed by a retired Supreme Court judge or an ecologist with 25 years of experience.”

And this is where a majority of the political opposition to the report came from.

“No elected chief minister of any state will handover control over taluks – it was a ludicrous proposition and it fell apart,” Bhargav said, noting the need to be careful about how a report like this could be pitched without turning politicians away.

“There were worries among the Western Ghats states, especially Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka, that environmental regulations will hamper developmental activities,” Siddhartha Krishnan, a fellow of the Suri Sehgal Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bengaluru, said.

The Kasturirangan committee report

But the report couldn’t be pushed aside completely. “The National Green Tribunal was following the developments over the Gadgil report along with the progressive media and citizens and so, they appointed the Kasturirangan committee,” Krishnan said.

The Kasturirangan committee was headed by Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan, former chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation. This committee’s report watered down the focus on preserving the environment and recommended that only 37% of the Western Ghats region be classified as an ESA.

“The Kasturirangan report essentially split the the Ghats into two landscapes – cultural and ecological, with the percentage of ecological landscape standing at 37%,” Bhargav said. “The report recommended that certain villages be identified and notified as ecologically sensitive zones.”

The Kasturirangan report removed the system of gradation recommended by the Gadgil commission. Instead, the former banked on an existing system of ‘red’, ‘orange’ and ‘green’ categorisation of activities according to their polluting effects. Kasturirangan et al recommended that ‘red’ category industries (like mining and quarrying) be banned, ‘orange’ ones (like food processing, hotels and restaurants, automobile servicing) be regulated and ‘green’ (like processing of grains, apparel-making) be allowed to function as usual.

“Most of the activities being carried on in ESAs currently fall in the green and orange categories” Bhargav said.

With respect to activities like sand-mining and quarrying, which fall in the ‘red’ category, he noted that the Kasturirangan report provided some relief: existing operations would be allowed to continue until their lease expired but that the lease would not be renewed.

According to Bhargav, “The recommendations were reasonable.”

However, conservationists had issues with the dilutions in the Kasturirangan report. Because only 37% of the Western Ghats were to be regarded as an ESA, the threat posed to the region by developmental activities like hydropower projects remained because they could be setup in the remaining 63%, and still fragment and degrade the landscape.

The Kasturirangan report was submitted to the environment ministry in 2013 and was quickly met with resistance from politicians as well as members of local communities. There was also a lot of misinformation spread about the report’s recommendations.

For example, Bhargav recalled, “The Environment Protection Act does not empower the central or state Government to take over people’s lands, but many were lead to believe that they would be evicted and their lands would be taken over.”

Hampered communication efforts

Considering that the Kasturirangan report was strong on the science as well as policy, the government could have spread some awareness about it and its recommendations by commissioning a people-friendly version, Krishnan said. At the same time, the growing hostility from state governments’ officials and district administrators never allowed any room for such measures.

Finally, thanks to a lack of official communication and position papers that could have clarified the environment ministry’s stand, misinformation as well as resentment poisoned any and all interactions between the cabinet sub-committee formed to review the report and the locals.

Today, the Kasturirangan report remains  under consideration by the National Green Tribunal (NGT).

In February 2017, the environment ministry had issued a draft notification accepting certain recommendations of the Kasturirangan report and called on the governments of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu to oversee their implementation.

On August 24 this year, NGT directed the environment ministry to finalise the notification of ESAs in the Western Ghats within six months.

The Western Ghats ESA notification is effectively one of various safeguards that already exist, like the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 and the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980. As a result, many of the ESAs identified in the notification are already tagged ‘national park’, ‘sanctuary’, ‘reserved forest’ and ‘deemed forest’.

The notification will go on to recognise residual areas – parts of the Western Ghats region that don’t already have the aforementioned tags – to form a continuous band of protected areas. This is provide added coverage to the Western Ghats as a landscape and make legal recourse available in case of infringements.

The NGT has also stated that the size of ESAs can’t be reduced without its approval, that no environmental clearance is to be granted for any activities in the region and that no activities that could adversely impact the ESAs are to be permitted in the area specified in the draft notification until the notification is finalised.

According to Bhargav, the environment ministry has the power to finalise the draft notification, so any delay points to a lack of intent and, possibly, to a wariness of the public resistance it continues to face. In the meantime, conservationists must ensure that the notification isn’t diluted any further.

Rishika Pardikar is a freelance journalist in Bengaluru.