Madhav Gadgil Panel and Kasturirangan Panel for protection of western ghats

Western Ghats are home to over 5000 species of flowering plants, 139 mammal species, 508 bird species and 179 amphibian species, many undiscovered species lives. At least 325 globally threatened species occur in the Western Ghats. In recent times, we have seen two panels under Madhav Gadgil and Kasturirangan for protection of the Western Ghats.

Madhav Gadgil Panel (WGEEP)

Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) headed by Madhav Gadgil was formed by MoEF in 2010 to study the impact of population pressure, climate change and development activities on the Western Ghats. The Panel was asked to perform the following functions:

  • To assess the current status of ecology of the Western Ghats region.
  • To demarcate areas which need to be notified as ecologically sensitive and to recommend for notification of such areas as ecologically sensitive zones under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.
  • In doing so, the Panel shall review the existing reports such as the Mohan Ram Committee Report, Hon’ble Supreme Court’s decisions, recommendations of the National Board for Wildlife and consult all concerned State Governments.
  • To make recommendations for the conservation, protection and rejuvenation of the Western Ghats Region.
  • To suggest measures for effective implementation for declaring specific areas in the Western Ghats Region as eco-sensitive zones under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.

Recommendations of Madhav Gadgil Panel

The Madhav Gadgil Panel recommendations can be summarized in the following:

  • Turn entire Western Ghats region into an Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA); it should be called Western Ghats ESA. This area should be divided into two parts:
    • Protected areas which would contain Wildlife Sanctuaries and National Parks
    • Three Ecological Sensitive Zones (ESZ) viz. ESZ-1, ESZ-2 and ESZ-3, with varying degrees of protection. These are outside the existing protected areas.
  • Divide the entire Western Ghats ESA into 2200 grids and each grid assigned ESZ on the basis of composite scores of ecological significance derived from the database generated by WGEEP.
  • Since Western Ghats is spread in six states, treat Western Ghats regions of each state separately.
  • Final demarcation of the ESZs and the final regulatory regime should be based on extensive inputs from local communities and local bodies viz. Gram Panchayats, Taluk Panchayats, Zill Parishats, and Nagar Palikas, under the overall supervision of a Western Ghats Ecology Authority (WGEA), State level Ecology Authorities and the District Ecology Committees.
  • A Western Ghats Ecology Authority (WGEA) should be established as a statutory authority appointed by the Ministry of Environment and Forest, GOI under Environment (Protection) Act 1986 to focus on promoting transparency, openness and participation in every way for development and sustainability of these areas.
  • The panel recommended highest degree of protection in ESZ-1 and ESZ-2 categories. It recommended that the government should put
    • An indefinite moratorium on new environmental clearances for mining in ESZ-1 and ESZ-2
    • Phasing out of mining from ESZ-1 by 2015
    • Continuation of existing mining in ESZ-2 under strict regulation with an effective system of social audit.
    • In ESA-1 and ESA-2, no new red and orange category industries (click here to know about Red, Orange and Green), should be allowed.
    • Development plans should not be cast in a rigid framework, but ought to be tailored to prevalent locality and time specific conditions with full participation of local communities; a process that has been termed adaptive co-management.
    • Ecological sensitivity is not merely a scientific, but very much a human concern. In particular, a great deal of locality specific understanding of what has been happening and what is desirable, is simply not part of any scientific databases and resides with local communities. Hence, set of regulations tailored to the needs of the locality should be put in place if the area were to be formally declared as being ecologically sensitive

The above description makes it clear that Gadgil panel recommended something which was indigestible to politicians and businesses although it was supported by ecologists. The report was first not released in public by central government and once it appeared in public domain, it was also criticized by states where the mountain range stretches along with politicians and farmers’ organisations that feared it would hamper development.

Kasturirangan Panel (HLWG)

The next problem solving committee was K. Kasturirangan-led 10-member High-Level Working Group (HLWG). The panel was tasked with finding a “holistic” way of protecting the biodiversity of the Ghats and addressing the “rightful aspirations for inclusive growth and sustainable development” of the “indigenous residents”.

Recommendations of Kasturirangan Panel

The panel concluded that:

  • The Kasturirangan panel had the advantage of using a finer remote-sensing technology to make a distinction between the so called ‘cultural landscape’ and ‘natural landscape’. According to this distinction:
    • 41 per cent of the Western Ghats is “natural landscape”, having low population impact and rich biodiversity.
    • But the remaining 59 per cent is “cultural landscape” dominated by human settlements and agricultural fields
  • Thus, instead of declaring entire Western Ghats as ESA, the panel said that 90 per cent of the “natural landscape” should be protected. The identification of ESA was based on the fragmentation of the forests, population density of villages and the richness of the biodiversity in villages. This would be around 60,000 Km² ecologically sensitive area spread over six states. Thus, it diluted the protection of 137000 Km² areas as stipulated in the Gadgil report. This implies that according to Kasturirangan committee, around 37.5 % of the total area of the Western Ghats is ecologically sensitive.
  • This committee said that economic options (Businesses and Livelihood) should not be forbade (i.e. allowed to continue), but answer to protection of the Western Ghats lies in providing better incentives to move businesses / livelihoods towards greener and more sustainable practices”. For this it made a case for:
    • Supervising forests and bettering their productivity to ascertain inclusive growth and economical gains for local communities. The committee recommended removing the cash crop plantations such as rubber, agricultural fields and settlements should be from the protection regime.
    • Integrating forest accounts into state and national economic assessments
    • Initiating an ecosystem service fund to help villages around the forests
    • Promoting sustainable agriculture
    • Encouraging ecotourism for local benefits.
  • Establish a Decision Support and Monitoring Centre for Geospatial Analysis and Policy Support in the Western Ghats, which will supervise changes and propose state government on policy reform and all such reports must be in the public domain.
  • High-resolution map, delimiting ecologically sensitive areas, down to each village settlement, must be put in the public domain so that people can be involved in taking decisions about environment.
  • A ban on all polluting industries (including mining) categorised as most hazardous in the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, and Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.
  • The Forest Rights Act, 2006, that recognises the rights of dwellers on forest resources, will be implemented in letter and spirit and the consent of Gram Sabhas concerned will be mandatory for any project.
  • Strict regime for Hydro-power projects. These include cumulative impact assessment of such projects and ensuring minimum water flow in the rivers in the lean season.
  • Set up a body to assess and report on the ecology of the region and to support the implementation of ESA to be set up.
  • The Kasturirangan report recommended ban on mining, quarrying, thermal power plants and highly polluting industries within 60,000 sq km of the Ghats.
  • Projects will be allowed only after the approval of the gram Sabhas concerned.

Comparison of the two panels

The above description makes it clear that there are three key differences between the Gadgil report and the Kasturirangan report.

  • Firstly, both differ in the extent of the area that should be brought under protection. While the Gadgil panel identified the entire Ghats as an ESA, it created three categories of protection regimes (ESZ-1, 2 and 3) and listed activities that would be allowed in each based on the level of ecological richness and land use. On the other hand, the Kasturirangan panel used a different method. It recommended removing the cash crop plantations such as rubber, agricultural fields and settlements from the ESZ. Moreover, Kasturirangan panel also removed already modified areas under private control from the protection regime. This was to avoid any sort of conflict between government (licensor) and private parties (licensees).
  • Secondly, the Gadgil panel puts in place a blanket ban on all such activities which may have harmed or will harm the environment including ban of pesticide use, ban on GM crops, decommissioning the hydropower projects and gradual shift from plantation to the natural forests. On the other hand, the Kasturirangan panel removed all such modifications from the protection regime and looked forward on how to protect what is still left and untouched by human activities. It recommended restrictions on highly damaging activities including mining (and quarrying), red-category industries, construction in around 20,000 Km² area.
  • Thirdly, the two committees differ on governance framework. While the Gadgil panel recommended a national level Western Ghats Ecology Authority (WGEA), the Kasturirangan panel recommended strengthening the existing framework of environmental clearances and setting up of a state-of-the-art monitoring agency.

Concluding Remarks

Western Ghats are a victim of neo-liberalism where the level of environmental degradation due to reckless exploitation of natural resources by corporate houses has increased manifold. The above description makes it clear that both Gadgil Committee and its successor Kasturirangan Committee ran into controversy and were not implemented. Gadgil report was criticised for being too environment-friendly and not in tune with the ground realities. The Kasturirangan Committee tried to balance development and environment, but was labelled as being anti-environmental.

As soon as the Gadgil report was in public, various peasant organisations, socio-political movements and all the six state governments started widespread criticism that certain recommendations for conservation of nature and environment were against the fundamental rights and livelihood of the local residents, and would impede local development. Under pressure, the central government hastily established the HLWG to revisit the WGEEP report. Once the HLWG report was out, government hastily initiated steps to implement its recommendations and declared 4,156 villages in six States (99 in Goa, 64 in Gujarat, 1576 in Karnataka, 123 in Kerala, 2159 in Maharashtra and 135 in Tamil Nadu) as Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESA). The intention was to impose the Indian Environment (Protection) Act on all these villages. This bureaucratic step invited widespread resistance and protest actions from the local population, which are still continuing.

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