Environment laws are being sabotaged’
Jayashree Nandi | May 25, 2013
The Western Ghats is at the centre of an environmental tug-of-war. A Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel headed by ecologist Madhav Gadgil set up by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2010 concluded that the entire Western Ghats is ecologically fragile and suggested a layered approach that divides the region into three grades of ecological sensitivity. The report held the rights of forest dwellers as supreme in deciding if their forests could be let out for development projects. But two years later, the ministry appointed another High Level Working Group headed by Planning Commission member K Kasturirangan to scrutinise Gadgil’s report. The group recommends that only 37 per cent of the Western Ghats is ecologically sensitive, and urges the ministry to "incentivise green development". Gadgil, who has been campaigning for the forest communities, tells TOI-Crest why he is disappointed
What do you think of the K Kasturiranganled working group’s recommendations on your report?
It fails to take note of the very soul of the panel’s approach. We had called for eschewing the current pattern of ‘development by exclusion’ coupled to ‘conservation by exclusion’. Despite the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution, that have devolved powers of making decisions relating to development to Panchayat Raj institutions and nagar palikas, all development as well as conservation decisions are currently being thrust on the people. The panel proposed that we should instead attempt to develop a model of conservation and development compatible with each other encompassing the whole of the Western Ghats region. The fine-tuning of development-conservation practices to local context that this calls for would require full involvement of local communities. Ignoring this basic principle enunciated by the panel, the working group makes a number of misleading remarks.
Your report has upheld the community’s right to decide on natural resources. Do the working group’s recommendations move away from that?
Wholly so. The working group goes so far as to remark: "How can development be based on decentralised planning and decision making? In other words, how can local communities including tribals play a greater role in discussing and deciding on the economic future of the region, which is classified as economically sensitive?" Such a statement only underscores the working group’s intention to advocate the continuation of the current pattern of thrusting all development decisions on people. Our panel had provided concrete case studies of how flawed this approach has proven in cases such as Lote MIDC, a chemical industry hub, and the Plachimada Coca Cola factory. The working group simply ignores all such evidence.
Why is it so important to declare the entire Western Ghats eco-sensitive ?
The constitution of Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESAs) under Environment (Protection ) Act (EPA) is very different from the constitution of protected areas like national parks. Indeed a longstanding example of an ESA is the entire Dahanu taluka with its farms and orchards and even a thermal power plant, but all being managed carefully from an ecological perspective by a Dahanu Taluka Ecology Authority since 1996. The Pronab Sen Committee set up by the environment ministry to identify parameters for designating ecologically sensitive areas proposes that the area of occurrence of every endemic species needs to be protected in its entirety. Western Ghats harbours well over a thousand endemic species of flowering plants, fish, frogs, birds and mammals, covering the entirety of the region, including many disturbed habitats such as roadsides. Clearly, a uniform set of regulations cannot be promulgated under EPA for this entire tract. Hence, the Western Ghats panel recommends the adoption of a graded approach, with finalisation of boundaries of regions of different levels of sensitivity and of management regimes to be based on grassroots inputs.
How do you think India should address the conflict between development and ecology?
As a democracy, we have devised a number of excellent legal frameworks for protecting our environment and for taking democracy down to the grassroots level. These include the Environment Protection Act with Air and Water Acts, provisions for Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) including public hearings, the Biological Diversity Act, the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act, Forest Rights Act, the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution and the Panchayats Act (PESA). All of these are currently being sabotaged. What we need to do is to implement them effectively in letter and spirit and I am confident we will arrive at an environmentally sustainable pattern of development fully acceptable to our people.
In mineral-rich forest areas communities are at risk of losing ownership of their land. How can the conflicts be resolved?
By honestly implementing the Forest Rights Act.
Which other areas in India need special conservation efforts?
Fresh waters, mountains, islands are most critical. In particular, the Northeastern hills, Eastern Ghats, Western Himalayas, Andaman and Nicobar Islands and a whole lot of river basins in India.
Could you give us an example of a forest area where forest rights have been recognised?
A border district of Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh, Gadchiroli, is a good example of the implementation of forest rights. In Gadchiroli, forest rights have not been granted only for cultivation, but the community has decision making powers. For instance, a high level of subsidies was being given to the paper industry that was plundering the forests there. But the community managed to stop the industry. The community also plays an important role in conservation of the forests through their sacred forest traditions.