Western Ghats

Forgotten lessons

Print edition :

A stone quarry in Malappuram district, a June 2018 photograph. Photo: Shaju John

At a culvert near Cheruthoni town, Idukki district, that was was washed away by the floods in August. Photo: H. Vibhu

The Union Environment Ministry’s recent order diluting the restrictions on activities such as sand quarrying in the ecologically sensitive areas of the Western Ghats is a cause for concern, especially in the context of the floods that devastated Kerala in August.

IN a State that witnessed the century’s worst floods barely five months ago, an order issued by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change on December 3 removing the restrictions on “destructive activities” such as mining and quarrying in a 3,115 square kilometre area spread over 123 ecologically sensitive area (ESA) villages of Kerala has surprisingly been welcomed by all major political parties.

The images of wayward rivers and the unending series of landslides wreaking havoc on the State are, however, fresh in public memory. Villages at the foothills all along the Western Ghats districts, a number of them located near granite quarries, bore the brunt of the destruction. The floods devastated 774 of the 1,564 villages in the State, directly affecting 54 lakh people of the total estimated population of 3.5 crore.

The State has been struggling since then to find the huge amount of financial and natural resources required to rebuild itself. According to the final Post Disaster Needs Assessment report prepared by a United Nations expert team, Kerala will need Rs.31,000 crore for its rebuilding efforts. There are reports also of an extreme shortage of building material. Scientific assessments had concluded that the impact of the floods was as severe as it was because of the reckless human intervention on the hills and the plains in the past decades. The State government had, therefore, committed itself to rebuilding Kerala in an eco-friendly manner. But political games over the sensitive issue of protection of the Western Ghats have kept the high-range districts, with their huge population of settler farmers led by powerful religious, economic and political interests, on the boil for over five years now. It had also proved to be a key election issue for political parties in the hill areas in districts such as Idukki and Wayanad, as demonstrated especially in the Lok Sabha election in 2014.

As another Lok Sabha election approaches, the order issued by the Environment Ministry, on the repeated request of the State government (against the background also of a case filed by some quarry owners in the State), throws the door open for unhindered quarrying for sand and granite on private lands in all the 123 villages and the reopening of all quarries that had remained shut for the past five years.

The Ministry had invited comments on or complaints about the State’s request from the public. V.S. Vijayan, former chairman of the State Biodiversity Board and a member of the Gadgil Committee, told Frontline that the order, issued hurriedly after the deadline for comments had passed and without taking into consideration any objections, took all those who wrote against the move by surprise. Terming the order as “most unfortunate”, he said areas where landslides happened during the recent floods in Kerala were all located in Zone One and Zone Two, which have been identified in the Gadgil Committee report as areas most prone to such calamities. “These were the areas where the environmental impact was very severe. But nobody listened to us. Floods will happen again; we cannot prevent it. But what we need to do is to ensure that the impact of such natural calamities is reduced. At least now we must take measures for it. The State government must ask the Ministry to withdraw the order. The entire issue needs to be revisited,” he said.

Committee reports

The Gadgil Committee, which submitted its report in September 2011, had considered the entire Western Ghats as an ESA and sought to entrust gram sabhas or the local people themselves with the power of taking the final decision on the kind of developmental activities that should be permitted there. But its proposals were not acceptable to successive governments in all the six stakeholder States: Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Goa and Gujarat. The Kasturirangan Committee, which was constituted in the wake of the Gadgil report with a mandate to give special attention to “the preservation of the precious biodiversity” and “the rights, needs and development aspirations of the local and indigenous people”, proposed much diluted restrictions.

Thus, the ESAs identified by the Kasturirangan Committee covered only about 37 per cent of the Western Ghats, or 59,940 sq km, in the six Western Ghats States, 13,108 sq km of it in Kerala. However, for practical purposes, the Kasturirangan Committee had identified ESAs at the level of the village, the smallest administrative unit. Accordingly, 4,156 villages along the Western Ghats were identified as ESAs on the basis of the criterion that “they had 20 per cent or more of ecologically sensitive area within their boundary”. And within Kerala, 123 such villages were identified as ESAs.

However, given the high population density of villages in Kerala, ordinary farmers were agitated at the inclusion of entire villages in the ESA category because they were made to believe that the suggested restrictions would be imposed on them. Following widespread protests, the then Congress-led State government conducted a field verification and eventually recommended that an area of 9,993.7 sq km be considered ESAs in Kerala. This was 3,114.3 sq km less than the 13,108 sq km area that was originally proposed by the Kasturirangan Committee.

This was accepted, and the Union Environment Ministry’s draft notification of March 10, 2014, and three subsequent draft renotifications, issued in 2015, 2017 and 2018, demarcated the area of 9,993.7 sq km as ESAs as proposed by the Oommen Chandy government.

Meanwhile, the National Green Tribunal insisted that until a final notification was issued, there should be temporary measures in place to protect the fragile ecology of the Western Ghats. The Ministry, therefore, issued an order on November 13, 2013, banning quarrying and mining and many other destructive activities in the entire 13,108 sq km identified originally by the Kasturirangan Committee. Although the subsequent draft renotifications of the Ministry had reduced the ESA areas in Kerala to 9,993.7 sq km, the ban on destructive activities had continued in the entire 13,108 sq km and in all the 123 villages originally earmarked by the Kasturirangan committee.

Since then, MPs from the hill districts, all political parties and both the United Democratic Front and the Left Democratic Front State governments have been demanding that the ban be lifted. The December 3 order now confines the ban on destructive activities to 9,993.7 sq km, leaving 3,115 sq km area spread over 123 ESA villages open to quarrying and other such destructive activities, which, as specified in the Kasturirangan report, includes mining, sand mining, installing thermal power plants, building and construction projects above an area of 20,000 square metres, township and area development projects with an area of 50 hectares and above and/or with a built-up area of 1,50,000 sq m and above, and setting up red category industries.

Environmentalists have been pointing out that the ban on these specified activities did not really affect the interests of the ordinary people, mostly settler farmers, in these hilly districts. But it threatened business interests, especially of those in the quarry, construction, tourism and timber industries, who stoked the fear among the people that the restrictions proposed would affect normal life and activities in the villages they had been living in for generations.

However, it is true that as a result of the November 13, 2013, order and perhaps also because of the efforts of vested interests to play on the genuine concerns of people, life was affected in some ways in many ESA villages. For instance, the restrictions brought down land values, and the number of land transactions came down. And, especially after the floods, there were claims of an “acute shortage” of construction material, including granite, river sand, and so on, in the State. Harish Vasudevan, an environmental activist lawyer and a U.N. Development Programme environment consultant, said: “There was no demand from ordinary people of Kerala for the withdrawal of restrictions applicable to the ESAs. At best, people were demanding that entire villages should not be categorised as ESAs. Nobody wanted restrictions in quarrying or mining, for instance, to be lifted. But now, on the pretext of helping the cause of building a medical college hospital in Idukki district, the mining lobby and some politicians have succeeded in ensuring that the protection that was in place for the last five years has been nullified. From now on, mining will take place in all 123 villages without hindrance.”

The recent order of the Environment Ministry is a culmination of concerted moves by all major political parties in Kerala and successive State governments to eventually try and confine the proposed restrictions to the forest areas of the State alone. Joyce George, Member of Parliament representing Idukki, told a press conference as much, soon after the order was issued. He also said:

“The people of Idukki can now proudly say that the entire credit for providing consolation to the unfortunate people in the six States who were trapped in the areas declared as ESAs goes to them. They were the first to bring the plight of such people to public attention, they were the first to campaign against it and ensure that only the forest areas were included in the ESAs. What remains to be done is to see this process through till a final notification [restricting ESAs to forest areas alone] is issued, and for that we all have to stay together, ensure that cases are not filed against our cause and Gadgil is not brought here and seminars conducted to claim that it will lead to problems in the hill areas.”

The area now considered an ESA in Kerala as per the Environment Ministry’s renotification is 9,993.7 sq km, which according to the State government’s field verification report includes 9,107 sq km of forest area and 886.7 sq km of non-forest area. This non-forest area includes private land and areas under plantations where a large number of big and small, authorised and unauthorised quarries used to function before the ban came into force in November 2013. The recent order amending the direction issued under Section 5 of the Environment (Protection) Act allows all those quarries to start functioning again and for “more plunder of the public resources for private gains as in the past”, as Vijayan described it. According to Vasudevan, the claim of a scarcity of building material in Kerala was made without any study to back it.

“You have only got to look at the number of transport passes that are being issued by the Mining and Geology Department to understand how much material is being transported every day just from the authorised quarries in Kerala. It is a well-known fact that if the legally allowed load is five tonnes per vehicle per pass, for example, 15 to 30 tonnes of material is transported using a single pass. And then there are the large number of unauthorised quarries. Even before the final notification is issued, they are taking away the protection offered to ESA villages. It is like taking away a person’s organs even before brain death is confirmed.”

“Whatever little protection we had in the last five years when this ban was in place now stands reversed,” he said. “The purpose of demarcating ESAs was to protect the non-forest areas. But once this order is implemented and other demands are met, there will be nothing left to protect in Kerala, except the forest areas.”

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