Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 24 August 2023

Focus on Madhav Gadgil report

Source: By Srishti Kapoor: The Indian Express

landslide in Maharashtra’s Raigad district last week claimed 27 lives, flattened an entire village, and brought back into focus the 2011 Dr Madhav Gadgil report on conservation of the Western Ghats.

During a discussion in the Maharashtra Assembly, state congress chief Nana Patole asked what had happened to the Madhav Gadgil Committee report, on ecologically sensitive zones in the Western Ghats. Deputy chief minister Devendra Fadnavis said as per the recommendation of the report, the mapping of all the landslide-prone villages in the state, including those on the Western Ghats, was carried out during his tenure as the Chief Minister of the state between 2014 and 2019 and was submitted to the Union government.

The (landslide) vulnerability mapping of all the villages with their core and buffer zones was completed and a list of those villages, which are prone to landslides, was prepared, he said.

What does the report state?

In 2010, then Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh appointed the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), to be chaired by ecologist Dr Madhav Gadgil. The commission submitted its 552-page report to the Centre in August 2011.

The report recommended classifying 64 percent of the Western Ghats, spread over six states, into Ecologically Sensitive Zones called ESZ 1ESZ 2 and ESZ 3. It also recommended designating the entire region as an Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA).

Almost all developmental activities like miningconstruction of thermal power plantsdams were to stop along with the decommissioning of similar projects that have completed their shelf life in ESZ 1. It said that both the Athirappilly and Gundia hydel project sites should not be accorded environmental clearance as they fall in this zone.

For Goa, WGEEP recommended an indefinite moratorium on new environmental clearances for mining in ESZs 1 and 2, a phasing out of mining in Ecologically Sensitive Zone 1 by 2016, and continuation of existing mining in Ecologically Sensitive Zone 2 under strict regulation with an effective system of social audit.

In the Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts of Maharashtra, the panel advised that in ESZs 1 and 2no new polluting (red and orange category) industries, which would include coal-based power plants, should be permitted to be established, and the existing red and orange category industries should be asked to switch to zero pollution by 2016. Further, it found that plains and coastal tracts in these districts were under “severe environmental and social stress”.

In all the zonesgenetically modified crops should not be allowed, use of plastic bags be prohibited, Special Economic Zones should not be permitted, new hill stations should not be allowed, changing the land use from farmland to non-farm land and the stoppage of diversions of rivers to protect the ecology of the region, and public lands should not be converted into private lands.

The report also suggested a bottom-to-top approach instead of a top-to-bottom approach in governance of the environment, indicating decentralization and more powers to local authorities. It recommended the establishment of a Western Ghats Ecology Authority under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, as a professional body to manage the ecology of the region and to ensure its sustainable development.

Another major recommendation was a ban on growing single commercial crops like tea, coffee, cardamom, rubber, banana and pineapple, which have led to “fragmentation of forestsoil erosiondegradation of river ecosystems and toxic contamination of the environment”. “A policy shift is urgently warranted curtailing the environmentally disastrous practices and switching over to a more sustainable farming approach in the Western Ghats,” the report stated.

The panel had urged the Ministry of Environment and Forests to take critical steps to involve citizens, including proactive and sympathetic implementation of the provisions of the Community Forest Resources of the Forest Rights Act.

It stated that new settlement patterns and development are resulting in hill-cutting and physical changes in slope profile due to roads, terracing and construction.

What was the need for this report?

The Gadgil commission was formed by the Ministry of Environment in 2010 to study the impact of population pressureclimate change and development activities on the Western Ghats.

Accorded the World Heritage status by UNESCO, the Western Ghats are a 1,600-km-long mountain chain running the western coast of the country covering six states — GujaratMaharashtraGoaTamil NaduKarnataka and Kerala. These Ghats are home to high mountain forests, which moderate the tropical climate of the region and present one of the best examples of the monsoon system on the planet. They are home to 325 globally threatened flora, fauna, bird, amphibian, reptile and fish species. About 60 percent of the mountain range is in Karnataka.

What was said about its implementation?

Stakeholder states resisted the implementation of the recommendations of the Gadgil panel amid fears of hindrance to development and loss of livelihood.

In August 2012, then Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan constituted a High-Level Working Group on Western Ghats under former Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) chief Dr K Kasturirangan, which found that of the nearly 1,750 responses it had examined, 81% were not in favour of the Gadgil recommendations.

In particular, Kerala had objected to the proposed ban on sand mining and quarrying, restrictions on transport infrastructure and wind energy projects, embargos on hydroelectric projects and inter-basin transfer of river waters, and also the complete ban on new polluting industries.

When floods and landslides hit Kerala in 2018, and in the three consecutive years after that, Gadgil said following his report’s suggestions would have reduced the magnitude of events in the state. He had told The Indian Express that the report prepared by the WGEEP was a pro-naturepro-people report based on sound scientific information and feedback from central and state governments, zilla parishads, gram panchayats and people.

Kasturirangan-led panel formulates report to replace WGEEP

While the Gadgil panel recommended 64 percent area in the Western Ghats, a report by a panel led by Dr K Kasturirangan notified only 37 percent of the area as ecologically sensitive.

It also split the Western Ghats into cultural (human settlements) and natural (non-human settlements) regions. It was suggested that cultural lands be designated as an ecologically sensitive area (ESA). At the time, Gadgil lamented that the Kasturirangan panel had “destroyed the essence of his panel’s report.”

It also consisted of red, orange and green categories. The red list entailed a ban on miningstone quarryingthermal plans and certain construction and township projects. The orange category had activities that would be regulated and taken up with appropriate permissions, while the green category allows all agricultural and horticultural activities and commercial activities.

In an affidavit filed before the National Green Tribunal in 2014, the Ministry of Environment and Forests submitted that it is examining the recommendations of the K Kasturirangan-led panel and will not process the Gadgil report for further action.

Gadgil criticised the report calling it ‘faulty’ and ‘unscientific’. “The Kasturirangan report does not dilute our original report but perverts it. If you take milk and add water to it, it is called dilution; if you take milk and add formaldehyde to it it is not dilution, but something quite different. The pro-nature WGEEP report was unpalatable to the powers. The government then set up the Kasturirangan committee which produced a very faulty, unscientific report which further stated that local communities have no role in economic decisions, clearly in violation of our constitutional provisions,” Gadgil said.

In 2017, the Environment Ministry issued a draft notification, demarcating an area of 56,285 sq km in the Western Ghats as ESA as opposed to the 59,940 sq km recommended by the Kasturirangan committee. In Kerala, this was brought down to 9,993.7 sq km from the Kasturirangan committee recommendation of 13,108 square km as part of ESA.

By 2022, the Centre announced a high-powered committee constituted by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) to conduct physical landscaping and submit a detailed report in a year’s time.

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