- India’s environment ministry has made several attempts since 2010 to finalise ecologically sensitive zones (ESZ) in the biodiversity-rich Western Ghats region but has failed to do so due to many factors including severe opposition from states that believe that prohibition of some development activities in ESZs will harm their growth.
- Following an order from the National Green Tribunal, the environment ministry has now come out with a draft notification proposing to declare 56,825 square kilometre area as ecologically sensitive.
- Environmentalists point out that the area proposed to be declared as environmentally sensitive is quite less and won’t help in protecting the ecologically sensitive region to the extent it needs. They also point out that it diminishes the role of Gram Sabhas as proposed in the Gadgil committee report of 2011.
- The deadline for finalisation of the notification falls right before the 2019 elections raising doubts whether it will be actually be finalised, given the timing.
After being criticised by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) for failing to finalise the ecologically sensitive area (ESA) in the Western Ghats region, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has once again come out with a draft notification proposing 56,825 square kilometre area of the Western Ghats as an ESA and providing guidelines on development projects in the region.
The issue is significant in the wake of the recent Kerala floods where unchecked exploitation of the Western Ghats was touted as one of the main reasons for aggravating the devastation caused by unprecedented intense rainfall in the state.
The Western Ghats, which are older than the Himalayas, are an important geological landform near India’s west coast extending over a distance of approximately 1,500 kilometres from Tapti river in the north to Kanyakumari in the south through six states – Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The region’s ecological importance can be gauged from the fact that it is the origin of several important rivers such as the Godavari, Krishna and Cauvery.
Often called as a treasure trove of biological diversity, Western Ghats was declared as a world heritage site in July 2012 by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). UNESCO had also noted that moderating the tropical climate of the region, the site presents one of the “best examples of the monsoon system on the planet”. As per UNESCO, the region also has an exceptionally high level of biological diversity and endemism and is recognised as one of the world’s eight ‘hottest hotspots’ of biological diversity.
To ensure that the area’s sensitive ecology is protected, in March 2010, the MoEFCC formed the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP)’ headed by noted ecologist Professor Madhav Gadgil to assess the current status of ecology in the region, demarcate areas in the Western Ghats that need to be notified as ESA and to recommend measures for the conservation, protection and rejuvenation of the region.
In August 2011, the Gadgil panel submitted its report designating the entire Western Ghats in three categories of ecologically sensitive zones – ecologically sensitive zone 1 (ESZ1), ESZ 2 and ESZ 3. It suggested measures like not allowing new dams based on large-scale storage in ESZ1, an indefinite moratorium in Goa on new environmental clearances for mining in ESZ1 and others.
However, the suggestion of bringing the entire area Western Ghats region under different levels of ESZ spooked the governments of various states who joined hands in opposing it as they believed it will harm their development projects. Following this, the ministry formed a committee under the then planning commission member K. Kasturirangan to look into the Gadgil report. The Kasturirangan panel, in its report in April 2013, suggested demarcating of 37 percent area (59,940 sq. km.) of the Western Ghats as ESA, seeking a strict regulatory regime on development activities in that region.
However, even after that, the state governments were not satisfied. Subsequently, the MoEFCC started consultations with states but till date, the process has not been completed.
“Our report was based on the mandate given to us, extensive consultations both with people and a number of gram sabhas, and within the scientific community,” professor Madhav Gadgil, head of the expert panel that first gave its recommendations about protection of Western Ghats, told Mongabay-India. “The subsequent reports have gone back on all of this, and are presumably catering to some limited vested interests,” he added.
Several attempts to finalise ESA in Western Ghats
Following the opposition from states, the MoEFCC issued a draft notification in March 2014 seeking views from all stakeholders to finalise the ESA. A meeting of the state environment and forest ministers of the Western Ghats region was also organised by the MoEFCC in July 2015 and another meeting with members of Parliament of the region in August 2015, to allay their apprehensions and concerns.
During these meetings, it was clearly conveyed to states that ESA’s demarcation won’t lead to displacement or dislocation of the local people living in habitations within the ESA and that practicing of agriculture and plantation activity shall also not be affected due to the ESA.
Another draft notification was published by the environment ministry in February 2017. However, this and several subsequent meetings failed to break the impasse. In April 2018, the MoEFCC convened a meeting with the six states involved wherein they voiced their concerns. For instance, Maharashtra informed in the meeting that it wants to reduce the ESA suggested by the Kasturirangan committee.
Latest attempt to finalise ESA
In August 2018, while hearing a case in the matter, NGT noted that “it is well acknowledged that the ecology of the Western Ghats region is under serious stress.” It observed that delay by states is not conducive to protection of the area and thus it needs to be finalised as soon as possible.
“These serious concerns have led to the appointment of expert committees. The Gadgil Committee proposed much larger areas for being included in the eco-sensitive zone. Kasturirangan Committee has reduced the same. The MoEF has accepted the said report. Delay on account of objections of States may not be conducive to the protection of the eco-sensitive areas. The matter may thereafter be finalised at the earliest but positively within six months,” noted a bench of NGT headed by its chairperson A.K. Goel.
The green tribunal bench observed, “in view of the fact that any alteration in the draft notification dated February 27, 2017, may seriously affect the environment and especially in view of recent incidents in Kerala, we direct that no changes be made to reduce the area of ESZ in terms of notification dated February 27, 2017, without the same being considered by this Tribunal.”
Subsequently, the MoEFCC issued a new draft notification on October 3 which proposed an area of 56,825 square kilometres as ecologically sensitive – similar to what was proposed in the February 27, 2017, notification.
The latest draft calls for a complete ban on mining, quarrying and sand mining in the ESA and that and all existing mines shall be phased out within five years from the date of issue of the final notification or on the expiry of the existing mining lease. It also states that no new thermal power projects and expansion of existing plants shall be allowed in the ESA and that all ‘Red’ category of industries (highly polluting), specified by the pollution control boards, and their expansion shall be banned.
It also said “that all new and expansion projects of building and construction with built-up area of 20,000 square metres and above and all new and expansion townships and area development projects with an area of 50 hectares and above or with built-up area of 150,000 square metres and above shall be prohibited and there shall be no restriction on repair or extension or renovation of existing residential houses in the eco-sensitive Area as per prevailing laws and regulations.”
The environment ministry in its also said that the Western Ghats are home to a variety of endemic species of flora and fauna such as the flat-topped lateritic plateaus, the sholas and wetland and riverine ecosystems.
“The Western Ghats not only harbour rich biodiversity but also support a population of approximately fifty million people and include areas of high human population density and therefore, there is a need to conserve and protect the unique biodiversity of Western Ghats while allowing for sustainable and inclusive development of the region,” said the draft notification.
The draft notification specified that “new hydropower projects shall be allowed” but will be subject to conditions like ensuring uninterrupted ecological flow of at least 30 percent of the rivers flow in lean season, a cumulative study which assesses the impact of each project on the flow pattern of the rivers and forest and biodiversity loss and keeping the minimum distance between one project and the other at three kilometres and not more than 50 percent of the river basin is affected at any time.
“The orange/white category of industries shall be allowed with strict compliance of environmental regulations but all efforts shall be made to promote industries with low environmental impacts,” the notification further proposed.
MoEFCC has sought views from stakeholders within 60 days after which it will take a final decision on the issue. However, a senior official of the environment ministry said, it is unlikely to happen.
“NGT has asked for finalising it within next six months – this period will complete just before the 2019 elections (in May 2019). Declaration of ESA in Western Ghats is a sensitive issue. It is highly unlikely that it will be finalised just before the 2019 elections,” the MoEFCC official added.
Latest draft ignores role of people and their local governments
Environmentalists are unhappy with the delay in finalising the notification as they believe it is resulting in harm to the ecologically sensitive area.
“This was notified earlier but lapsed due to no response from the states, which reflects poorly on the states and governance. This is as per the Kasturirangan committee recommendations (actually diluted further), which are hugely watered down and unscientific version of the Gadgil committee recommendations. If we want to protect the fragile Western Ghats and people staying there, we need to seriously implement the Gadgil committee recommendations,” said Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), a network of organisations and individuals working on issues related to the water sector, specifically associated to large dams.
“There is no place for people or communities (gram sabha) here, unlike those suggested in the Gadgil committee recommendations. This notification is for only 37 percent of the area which is mostly already under forest or protected areas. Even India’s ambition of 33 percent land under forest areas means that areas like Western Ghats need to have over 50 percent under forest and protection. This is not helpful. We are not learning any lessons from our disasters, Kerala floods being the latest in the series,” Thakkar told Mongabay-India.
Professor Gadgil, who came out with the initial report on the issue, was also critical.
“In our report to the MoEFCC, we had advocated a major role for gram sabhas, making them an active participant in safeguarding the ecologically sensitive Western Ghats. But the reports that followed rejected this framework. Abandoning of democratic principles in a democratic country is not a good decision,” Gadgil told Mongabay-India.
Banner Image: In 2012, UNESCO declared Western Ghats as a world heritage site. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/Mongabay India.