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NDA govt's new initiatives will destroy the Western Ghats

Deccan Herald, Delhi, 8th September, 2014

 

Malin is a tiny village in the midst of Western Ghats in Ambegaon taluk in Pune district. Heavy rainfall during the last days of July led to a massive landslide that brought down the entire hillock. The debris fell on the hamlet, taking a toll of 154 people, including 21 children. The enormity of the situation can be gauged from the fact that it took one week to remove the dead bodies from the site of the disaster. The state and Central governments have washed their hands off the tragedy after announcing relief to the survivors. Home minister Rajnath Singh announced in the Lok Sabha that “the Central government would conduct in depth study of the entire Western Ghats to ascertain the causes that led to such ‘natural’ disaster and would take action to prevent such disasters in future.” However, some of the major policy decisions taken by the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) during the last one week indicate that instead of learning from Malin tragedy, it is drawing the road map for multiplying such disasters in the fragile mountain ranges of Western Ghats.

 

In an affidavit filed with the National Green Tribunal the MoEF clarified that the reports submitted by Western Ghat expert ecology panel (WGEEP) chaired by Prof Madhav Gadgil will not the basis for action. It promised to take action on the report of the working group headed by Dr Kasturirangan. As a result a large area of the Western Ghats is left open for exploitation, at the mercy of developers, land and mining mafia. The ecologically sensitive area got reduced from 1.29 lakh sq km to just 56,825 sq km as suggested by the Kasturirangan report. While celebrating 100 days of the BJP led NDA government, environment minister Prakash Javdekar announced another policy decision on Western Ghats. He said that the six state governments that are part of Western Ghats would be given an opportunity to conduct fresh ‘ground level’ surveys to determine the area that is to be declared as ecologically sensitive. In his opinion this will resolve the conflict between conservation and development. Obviously, by giving mandate to conduct these surveys through the state governments, he has jettisoned both the reports of Prof Gadgil and Kasturirangan! In reality it throws open all the caution and allows political and vested interest groups to further plunder the precious natural resources of the Western Ghats.

 

The third major policy shift at MoEF was the decision to constitute a high level committee under the chairmanship of T S R Subramanian to specifically recommend amendments to the entire range of environmental, forest and wild life laws. Of them the most important are the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 and The Environment Protection Act of 1986. These Acts are the foundation for implementing the environment governance in the country that aim to protect the natural resources and provide ecological security. Weakening these laws will have disastrous consequences. It is unfortunate that the MoEF has shelved the WGEEP which emphasised the need to evolve bottom up conservation policies instead of top down approach followed by the governments and scientists. It categorically recommended that the ground level village institution the gram panchayats should be empowered to determine the level of ecological sensitivity, as their knowledge of resource management is rooted to their needs. Too many vested interests However, this democratic process came in conflict with the vested political groups that benefit through the ongoing development projects that bring windfall financial rewards.

 

The dream project of Lavasa, near Pune is a classic example of how the powerful political class is willing to sacrifice the ecological and social costs. The nexus between developers, politicians and bureaucrats is playing havoc in the entire hill region of Western Ghats from Kanayakumari to Gujarat. They have systematically fuelled the opposition against implementing the WGEEP report. Irrespective of political affiliations all the six state governments that are part of Western Ghats have opposed to the reports of Gadgil and Kasturirangan. In the post independence history of environment governance in India, for the first time a comprehensive analysis of the fragile ecosystem was carried out through democratic process involving large number of stakeholders. This pioneering work of WGEEP should have been the basis for formulating the policies to prevent tragedies like Malin. Ignoring these scientific recommendations would lead to innumerable loss of human lives and destruction of fragile mountains of Western Ghats. With just 7 per cent of the primary vegetation of Ghats remaining, policies that lead to further degradation would lead to sacrificing the water and climate security of the region.

 

The Western Ghats is also called Sahyadri, meaning the mountain range that has resilience towards the changes. The ongoing developmental projects in this region have taken toll of this character of resilience. The obsession of ‘growth at any cost’ that benefits financial and economic interest of few powerful interest groups is the driving force behind the decisions of the environment minister. Like Amazon, the tropical forests of Western Ghats are a natural carbon sink. It has the potential to mitigate the adverse impact of climate change. It is also the gateway to the monsoons that helps in maintaining the ecological balance that supports the life of millions in six states. The presence of high biodiversity has earned the tag of ‘hot spots’ and ‘world heritage sites’ as a repository of unique ecosystem. It is high time that the political leaders realised the importance of these mountain ranges and evolved policies based on long term sustainability. Any negligence will lead us to ecocide, destroying the survival base of life systems in the region.