Western Ghats

Unsettling report

Print edition : December 27, 2013

In Kozhikode district, a house on the edge of a hill the slopes of which have been quarried. Photo: The Hindu Archives

LDF activists marching to the State Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram on November 18 to protest against the Kasturirangan Committee report on the Western Ghats. Photo: C. RATHEESH KUMAR

The Kasturirangan Committee’s recommendations on protecting the fragile ecology of the Western Ghats has led to protests by settler farmers in Kerala’s highland districts.

"Once the lady was adorned by a sari of rich green hues; today her mantle lies in shreds and tatters. It has been torn asunder by the greed of the elite and gnawed at by the poor, striving to eke out subsistence. This is a great tragedy, for this hill range is the backbone of the ecology and economy of south India."

-- From the report of the Western Ghats Ecology Experts Panel (WGEEP) submitted to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), Government of India, on August 31, 2011.

THE office memorandum issued by the MoEF on November 16 accepting “in principle” the report of the High Level Working Group (HLWG) led by Dr K. Kasturirangan—the second such body constituted within a year by the Central government to make recommendations on protecting the fragile ecology of the Western Ghats—has triggered widespread protests in the hill districts of Kerala.

Pressure groups of settler farmers led by Catholic priests and powerful lobbies with business and other vested interests in the Ghats have found in it a good opportunity to try and scuttle the introduction of restrictions that would genuinely affect their lives or, in a number of cases, their vested interests—for example, in the quarry, construction, tourism or timber industries.

With Lok Sabha elections round the corner, opposition parties too have joined the chorus, mainly to put the ruling Congress-led coalition on the defensive in its Ghat district strongholds.

Chief Minister Oommen Chandy too criticised the Central government for issuing such a memorandum before removing the deficiencies in the report or without consulting the State governments concerned.

Union Minister for Environment and Forests Jayanthi Natarajan later explained that the final report would be notified only after taking into account the opinions of the State governments and that all stakeholders would have a chance to send their responses to the Ministry within 60 days.

But such explanations have not doused the anger in Kerala’s highland districts against the way the report, which will affect the lives of thousands of settler farmers, had been prepared—“without consultations at the local level or understanding the ground realities” and the lack of transparency in the way it has been sought to be implemented.

The loudest protests are against the MoEF accepting the Kasturirangan Committee’s recommendation regarding the demarcation of Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESAs) within the Western Ghats region in order to ban ecologically destructive projects or activities there.

However, none of the activities that are to be prohibited as per the November 16 memorandum affects the interests of ordinary farmers in such areas. They include: mining, quarrying and sand mining; thermal power plants; building and construction projects above an area of 20,000 square kilometres; 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 metres and above; and, red category industries.

The HLWG led by Kasturirangan —Member (Science) at the Planning Commission and a well-known space scientist—had relied on current land use data obtained through remote-sensing technology to come to the conclusion that nearly 60 per cent of the Western Ghats region spread over six States is in the category of “cultural landscape”—that is, under what it terms as “human dominated land use” that includes “settlements, agriculture and plantations”.

As such, only about 41 per cent of the Western Ghats land area is “natural landscape” with different classes of vegetation cover and medium-to-high biological value. Within this natural landscape, only about 90 per cent could be considered to be “biologically rich area, with some measure of contiguity”, the report said.

The ESAs identified by the Kasturirangan Committee thus covers about 37 per cent of the Western Ghats, or about 60,000 sq km, which “represents a more or less continuous band of natural vegetation”, “with very high or high biological richness, low fragmentation and low population density”. It extends over a horizontal distance of 1,500 km, is spread over six States (Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu) and includes Protected Areas and World Heritage Sites.

For practical purposes, the committee has identified ESAs at the smallest administrative unit, the village. Thus, 4,156 villages along the Western Ghats have been identified as ESAs, on the basis of the criterion that “they had 20 per cent or more of ecologically sensitive area within their boundary”. Within the State of Kerala, for example, the committee has, therefore, identified 123 villages as ESAs.

The protests of the ordinary farmers are more against the inclusion in the ESA category of the villages where they have been living as settler farmers for generations than, perhaps, against the ban on the projects and activities listed in the Central government memorandum.

The opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF) called a Statewide hartal on November 18, and widespread violence was reported in Kannur and Kozhikode districts on the previous days. The High Range Protection Council led by the Roman Catholic Church blocked roads for two days in Idukki district. Public transport buses, forest offices and government vehicles were set on fire at many places in the State.

Meanwhile, the quarry, mining and tourism lobbies and the mafias with deep interests in forest wealth and wildlife resources and who stand to lose because of the immediate restrictions that would be imposed on such ESAs on the basis of the MoEF memorandum have reportedly been fuelling fears and playing mischief among the settler farmer communities. They are also allegedly behind the violence that accompanied the hartals organised in several high-range districts as part of the protests by settler farmers.

Genuine concerns have combined with vicious propaganda to create the fear in the settler farmers that once their villages are demarcated as ESAs, a number of other restrictions suggested by the Kasturirangan Committee and the WGEEP led by Madhav Gadgil earlier would be imposed there one by one, “forcing them to leave all their wealth, hopes and homes”.

In an article published in a prominent Malayalam daily, the general convener of the High Range Protection Committee, Fr. Sebastian Kochupurakkal, said: “We oppose the recommendation to exclude 123 villages in Kerala from the cultural landscape and include them instead in the region described as natural landscape, and to describe such highly populated areas as ESAs. The two reports (of the Gadgil and Kasturirangan committees) indicate that ESAs are areas where the provisions of the forest protection laws would be applicable. In the November 16 order, the government makes it clear that Forests Rights Act of 2006 shall be observed in these areas in letter and spirit. The report also says that even small projects would require clearance from forest authorities and environment impact assessment. Such a situation would make these villages literally forest lands. All forest laws would be imposed there. Land transactions would come to a halt. Plans to provide title deeds (to settler farmers) will come to an end. It would become illegal to even cut the branches of a tree. Development activities would become impossible. Even normal development activities that are required for a modern society would come to a halt. Gradually all such areas would become forest land. People living there will have to move out. We can never accept such a situation.”

The Chairman of the State Biodiversity Board, Oommen V. Oommen, who is leading a State government panel meeting stakeholders in such villages as part of the process of preparing Kerala’s response to the HLWG’s recommendations, told Frontline that a “fear psychosis” was evident among settler farmers with small holdings in the 18 venues in the districts of Wayanad, Kozhikode and Idukki where the panel had held sittings until December 3.

“All the venues were overflowing and where we expected perhaps a hundred people, there were instead 600 to 700 people waiting for us in each such centre with their concerns and written petitions. It seemed they had come out in such large numbers on their own, spontaneously, irrespective of caste or community. We also met other stakeholders, such as Kannan Devan Tea plantations, Malabar Cements and so on who had large stakes in such districts. The main concern expressed by all of them was the move to demarcate highly populated areas as ESAs. They needed clarity on a lot of things. For example, a retired soldier complained of how he, a small holder, lost out earlier when the government included a piece of his land as Ecologically Fragile Land (EFL) under a 2003 State Forest law. Now the rest of his land would also be demarcated as ‘ecologically sensitive’. What did it mean for him, he asked us,” Oommen said.

According to Oommen, many of the concerns the panel heard seemed genuine; some people had come because they had not understood the proposals fully, while others had come proactively. “At many venues people seemed to be in panic. Population density is very high in Kerala and nearly 22 lakh people live in the Western Ghat tracts of the State. But take the case of Idukki, an utterly Ghat district: 75 per cent of the land in such a district would come under the ESA category,” he said.

The Chief Minister said that the Kasturirangan Committee failed to take into account the ground realities in Kerala which, unlike many other States, had a high population density. Many of the ESA villages identified in the State have only plantations and no forests as such, and the committee did not assess it correctly because it relied on remote-sensing data that failed to distinguish between forests and plantations.

Similarly, 99 of the 123 villages identified in the State do not come under the low population density (of 100 persons per sq km) criterion adopted by the committee to include them in the ESA category. The recommendation that restrictions would have to be imposed in a 10-km buffer zone around forest areas would also create several problems in a State like Kerala. The only solution is to remove populated areas from the list of ESAs, the Chief Minister said.

Ecological significance

Despite the protests, there is hardly any dispute in the State about the ecological significance of the Western Ghats that runs about 1,500 km parallel to the Arabian Sea from near Mumbai in the north to just about Kanyakumari at the tip of the Indian peninsula. The unbroken hill chain (except at the Palakkad Gap) spread over 1,64,280 sq km is a biological treasure house, home to over 1,500 endemic species of flowers and plants, about 500 species of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Almost all the important rivers of peninsular India originate in the Ghats.

But nearly 50 million people live there. Unbridled deforestation, diversion and damming of rivers, mining, pollution, development and tourism projects and large-scale encroachments all have made it an ecologically highly sensitive expanse, a global biodiversity hotspot that is under a high degree of threat.

Gadgil Committee

Protests first began only when the report of the Madhav Gadgil Committee appointed by the MoEF was made public by the Union government rather reluctantly—and only because of a right to information (RTI) application and a subsequent court direction. The committee was set up mainly to assess the current status of the ecology of the Ghats region; demarcate the areas that are to be notified as ecologically sensitive under the Environment Protection Act, 1986; and make recommendations for the conservation, protection and rejuvenation of the region.

Its recommendations were welcomed wholeheartedly by many, especially environmentalists and non- governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishath, among others. But in Kerala where a State-sponsored “Grow More Food”campaign immediately after the Second World War had seen a government-supported influx of settler farmers from the plains to the then inaccessible jungles of the Ghats, and whose third-generation successors today formed a politically and communally powerful lobby, the government failed to publicise the true nature or implications of the report, and a large majority of people viewed it all with suspicion.

Unlike the Kasturirangan committee, the WGEEP led by Gadgil had concluded that the entire Western Ghats was an ESA. Within the ESA, however, it demarcated the regions into three levels of ecological sensitivity—Ecologically Sensitive Zone 1, 2 and 3 (ESZ1, ESZ2 and ESZ3). (According to the definition adopted by the committee, “Ecological Sensitivity” is “the imminent possibility of (a) permanent and irreparable loss of extant life forms (species); or (b) significant damage to ecological processes affecting natural evolution and speciation.”)

Along with it, as per an area’s ecological sensitivity, the Gadgil panel advocated a scheme of graded regulatory or promotional measures, “finetuned to local ecological and social contexts within the broad framework of (1) regions of ‘highest’ sensitivity (ESZ1), (2) regions of ‘`high’ sensitivity (ESZ2) and (3) regions of ‘moderate’ sensitivity (ESZ3)”.

Thus, it said that across the Western Ghats, Special Economic Zones and new hill stations should be banned or water courses, special habitats, geological formations, biodiversity rich areas and sacred groves should remain “no-go areas” untouched by development.

There were also several zone-specific suggestions under various heads, such as land use, building codes, waste treatment, wastewater management, water, agriculture, animal husbandry, fishery, forestry, biodiversity, mining, quarry and sand mining, polluting/non-polluting industry, power/energy, transport, tourism, education and so on.

For example, it maintained that the use of chemical fertilizers/ pesticides should be phased out within five years in ESZ1, within eight years in ESZ2 and within 10 years in ESZ3, and, that there should be no new mines in ESZ1 and ESZ2 and that existing mines should be phased out in five years in ESZ1; this moratorium may be reviewed on a case-by-case basis in ESZ2; and, new mining could be taken up but only for scarce minerals not available in the plains and subject to several conditions in ESZ3.

The Gadgil report maintained that it was suggesting all this as “a broad set of guidelines as a starting point”— and that, “the final system of zonation, the specific limits of the three zones taking into consideration micro-watersheds and village boundaries, as well as locally specific management plans”, were to be arrived at in each village by the gram sabhas — a task to be streamlined by the proposed Western Ghats Ecology Authority.

A role for local communities

Thus, the soul of the Gadgil report was that it would be the gram sabhas or the local people themselves who would take the final decision on the kind of development that should be permitted in any ecologically sensitive area.

That proved to be the red rag for the Union government. It kept the report in cold storage for about a year and when, eventually, its contents had to be made public in response to RTI petitions and a court order, environmentalists demanded that it should be implemented. The MoEF, instead, appointed a committee under Kasturirangan, obviously it seems now, to provide a diluted version of the Gadgil report and to ignore any suggestion of participation of local communities in the decision-making process.

Gadgil himself criticised the approach of the Kasturirangan panel, claiming that the report “shockingly dismisses our constitutionally guaranteed democratic devolution of decision-making powers, remarking that local communities can have no role in economic decisions.” In an open letter to Kasturirangan, immediately after the second panel submitted its recommendations in April 2013, he said: “We had advocated a graded approach with a major role for grassroots-level inputs for safeguarding the ecologically sensitive Western Ghats. You have rejected this framework and in its place, you advocate a partitioning amongst roughly one-third of what you term natural landscapes, to be safeguarded by guns and guards, and two-third of so-called cultural landscapes to be thrown open to development, such as what has spawned the Rs.35,000-crore illegal mining scam of Goa.”

In a December 4 article in The Hindu he also said: “Evidently, the Kasturirangan panel wishes to facilitate the continuance of the present system of a predatory economy, but was obliged to prescribe some minimal level of protection for natural resources. Quite typically, this protection is proposed to be imposed from above and is not decided upon through a democratic process. But even this minimal protection is unacceptable to the beneficiaries of the current system who triggered the recent violence.”

Looking at the political and social turmoil the November 16 MoEF memorandum has created in Kerala, and its reactions, it is more or less certain that the Union government has buried the report of the WGEEP forever and is unlikely to implement even the much-diluted suggestions of the Kasturirangan committee with any seriousness.

Oommen told Frontline in reply to questions: “Those who came to the official venues expressed reservations on a number of recommendations and they often clubbed them together for criticism as the ‘Gadgil-Kasturirangan recommendations’. What we understood was that whatever may be the measures being suggested, they cannot be implemented without taking the people into confidence.”

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