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Integrated study needed for Ghats

Print edition : Aug 10, 2012 T+T-
Madhav Gadgil: In the context of Indias biodiversity resources, this is the area that has the largest number of species confined to India.-

Madhav Gadgil: In the context of Indias biodiversity resources, this is the area that has the largest number of species confined to India.-

Interview with Professor Madhav Gadgil, Chairperson of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel.

The Western Ghats are suddenly in the news. First because the government inexplicably blocked a report it had commissioned on the region and then, under pressure, made it public, and secondly because the region was conferred the UNESCO World Heritage site status in July.

The 1,600-kilometre-long stretch of mountains has flora and fauna that are found nowhere else except perhaps in a small way in Sri Lanka. It has 39 biodiversity hotspots, which means that the Ghats have noteworthy biodiversity that is under threat from human actions. The mountain range is older than the Himalayas, but its proximity to the coast has resulted in overdevelopment bordering on destruction.

It was only two years ago that a determined plan was set into action by former Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh. Although he was given a new portfolio after only 26 months on the job, the plan he initiated was carried out by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel he had appointed to study the region. Professor Madhav Gadgil was chosen to chair the panel of experts because of his long-standing interest in nature and because he has made significant contributions to the natural world in his career spanning over 30 years. Moreover, he has worked with Jairam Ramesh on a number of occasions.

Gadgil and his team of 13 members which included names such as Renee Borges of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS); Ligia Noronha of The Energy and Resources Institute; Raman Sukumar of the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore; and B.J. Krishnan, Member, International Commission on Environmental Laws worked for a year on the report. It was scheduled to be released at a function on September 21, 2011, in Delhi, but two days before the date all the panel members received an e-mail informing them that the function had been cancelled and that the report was not to be released to the public. It was released nine months later after a non-governmental organisation filed a case in court.

Sitting in his airy study on a hillside in the Pune suburb of Pashan, Madhav Gadgil spoke to Frontline about the report and what it means for the Western Ghats. Excerpts:

What was the background to setting up the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel?

About 25 years ago, there was the Save the Western Ghats march. I participated in several sections of it. The organisers kept up their interest in the Ghats even after the event. Around the same time, the Ministry of Environment and Forests [MoEF] began setting up centres of excellence all over the country. The first one was started at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, where I was working. It was called the Centre for Ecological Science, and its specific mandate was to study the Western Ghats. So, as you can see, we have been working on the region for a while. Then around February 2010 there was a meeting at Kotagiri in the Nilgiris [Tamil Nadu]. The organisers invited Jairam Ramesh and highlighted the problems of the Western Ghats. He agreed to look into the issues. That is a very brief history of how it all started.

What is the main reason for focussing on the Western Ghats?

In the context of Indias biodiversity resources, this is the area that has the largest number of species confined to India. There is greater diversity of species in the Himalayas, especially in the Eastern Himalayas, but most of the Eastern Himalayan species are shared with Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar. Some of the Western Ghats species are shared with Sri Lanka, but a very large number are endemic. There is a lot of concern about the flow of water in the rivers. So the main concern is management of biodiversity and water resources.

You had a short time frame March 2010 to March 2011 to file a report on such a vast topic.

Yes. Of course, we relied a lot on existing reports and studies. I have to say that there is no additional or new understanding in our report. This can only come from fresh field research. Our mandate was different. The contribution was to put together all computerised data sets available on the Western Ghats. These had never been collated. We organised them on a geospatial platform and developed at least an initial kind of environmental decision support system for the Western Ghats. This was the fresh scientific input for the report.

There is no consensus on what really constitutes the Western Ghats. How did you define it for the report?

It is true that there is no unanimity even in scientific literature. In the context of the Important Bird Areas, they have used one definition. D.N. Wadia [the geologist] uses another definition and the Planning Commission has yet another. Necessarily, the boundaries are arbitrary, depending on the purpose. We looked at the ecological perspective and at the habitat.... That was a more all-encompassing way for our purpose.

In a nutshell, what were the aims of the panel?

The mandate was to identify areas that are ecologically sensitive and broadly suggest a regional development strategy and examine the current experience of some of the ecologically sensitive areas such as Dahanu taluk, Matheran and Mahabaleshwar [in Maharashtra]. Peoples participation is vital to achieving environment- and people-friendly development. Solid empirical data are the basis of our report, and so it cannot be dismissed. We are on strong ground.

We have a lot of laws, but there is a deficit in environmental governance.

Absolutely right. In the report there are two sections on deficit in environmental governance. The laws are not being applied and a lot of damage is being done that could have been prevented if the laws were applied. Also, there is development by imposition, and this is another reason for special laws for this region. The local people do not want this development very often. There is also conservation by imposition like undue restrictions. There is a lot of unrest because of that. So, there is public unrest because of things such as mining ruining agriculture. Or sudden restrictions on sustainable harvesting of forest produce.

In this situation, how will the panels report help?

I think it is the first government panel report that explicitly talks about the corrupt practices and the flouting of rules. So, it is all on record. I dont think that has been done before. I was pleasantly surprised that when I presented this before the Members of Parliament no one denied this and no one wanted to stop the work of the panel. So, the issues are now in the public domain and hence have to be dealt with.

Certainly, in Kerala, Goa and Maharashtra, there are a number of civil society groups that have become far more aware of what is going on because of this explicit documentation. They say that had the democratic processes been in place this contradiction between development and the environment would not have existed.

Is it not strange that after commissioning the report, the Ministry of Environment and Forests suddenly refused to make it public?

[Smiles] I can speculate, but its not proper to do so.

And, as you said, there was no objection when you presented it before the MPs.

Absolutely. It was presented at the end of March 2011, when Jairam Ramesh was still the Minister for Environment and Forests. It took a few more months for some more writing, and then we presented it officially to the Ministry. As of August 30, 2011, it was meant to be made public on September 21. There was supposed to be a function and all the panel members were to go to Delhi. On September 19, they made the decision that the function would be cancelled and the report was not to be made public. We all received an e-mail essentially saying, Please dont come to Delhi, the report is not going to be made public and you are ordered to keep quiet about the report.

So, who took it to court?

I had no role in that. There is an organisation called River Research Foundation in Kerala. Its members have a special interest in the preservation of the rivers of Kerala. They had done extensive work on the Athirapally dam. Mr Krishnan, who is part of the Foundation, tried to get hold of the report by filing a Right to Information application. He followed the usual process, but his appeal was rejected at every step on the grounds that revealing it would hurt the scientific, economic and strategic interests of the country. Krishnan demanded specifics, and it turned out that the Ministry believed that the real reason was economic. The Ministry said that if the report was made public civil society groups would ask for protection for the region and this would hinder economic activity.

Meaning the so-called development activities such as intensive mining and big power plants?

Yes. The Ministry said it would formulate a policy and then take inputs. To this, the Central Information Commissioner [CIC], Shailesh Gandhi, said that was not what was meant by the democratic process. He said the inputs had to be taken while formulating the policy. You cannot finalise policy, declare it in the name of the people of India and then say, make suggestions, which anyway are meaningless since the policy is finalised. On May 9, the CIC ordered the report to be made public. Then on May 5, the Ministry put in a plea in the Delhi High Court asking for a stay. On May 17, the High Court made some more adverse remarks against the Ministry and rejected the plea.

It is odd that the Ministry did not take it to the Supreme Court.

It must have thought that the Supreme Court would make even more adverse comments.

Coming to Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts in Maharashtra, ecologically speaking they cannot be separated from the Western Ghats, but they are being considered as separate in the report. And yet, you also point out that they are under severe economic and environmental stress. What exactly is their position? Should all the heavy industry that is planned on the coastal strip be allowed to come up or be banned?

Any kind of delineation of the Western Ghats is necessarily arbitrary, and certainly there are no natural boundaries. But since we were asked to be confined to the Western Ghats, we had to take the traditional understanding of it, but specifically we were also asked by the Ministry to look at Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts as a whole. And yes, I do believe they must be seen as part of the Western Ghats. We cannot just protect the Ghats and let the coast go to the dogs we need an integrated look. In fact, our major recommendation is that there has to be a cumulative assessment of Raigad, Ratnagiri, Sindhudurg and Goa together.

By making this an exception, was the Ministry acknowledging that the environment in the two districts is under stress?

It would seem so.

In the report, you have written that if heavy industries on the coast complied with environmental restrictions, the indefinite moratorium on their activities should be revised. Why?

I believe that it is definitely possible to conduct a certain amount of mining without destruction. It can be done with care. We have seen this in Scandinavian countries where industrial development is environment friendly. The real problem is that these projects are executed with carelessness and with an eye on immediate, short-term profit.

The status of heritage site has recently been accorded to the Western Ghats by UNESCO. Was this something that was being worked on alongside the expert panel?

Yes, it was a parallel effort. We never met that committee. It was an exercise carried out by the Ministry and forest officials. We did request them for discussions. We did meet in a sort of way.

What was the background to this?

It was initiated before the setting up of our panel, sometime in 2005.

That means the government does see the region as requiring special attention?

Yes, definitely. When the MoEF was established, it identified three major areas to focus on the Western Ghats, the Himalayas and the Ganga.

How does it benefit the area to have this status?

Search me. I asked one of the members of the IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature] what benefit this status would have, but she could not come up with any concrete answers. Now, since this debate has started we are asking how exactly it will help nature conservation. What are the guidelines from UNESCO that will help us achieve nature conservation? People say things, but we have received no written replies. My impression is that it is more a symbolic thing.

But it is a vindication of the report by the government.

Well, certainly. Now that the government has pleaded very strongly at this forum in St. Petersburg to have this status granted, it will do something more serious, such as taking the report seriously.

There is now at least some increased moral pressure on the government to walk the talk.

So what drives you at a personal level to do what you have done?

I have been interested in the Western Ghats since childhood. I was born here in Pune and my father was a member of the Bombay Natural History Society and a friend of [the ornithologist] Salim Ali. So, even before I was born there was an interest in our family in natural history. I remember vividly that Irawati Karve, the anthropologist, was very disturbed about the people displaced by the Koyna dam. She was also very interested in nature and she used to talk about it. So both angles the environment as well as the problems of development have been in my life since a fairly early age. Im also very proud of our democracy and believe in it.

Do you think the current Environment Minister would have appointed you as the head of the panel?

That is for them to decide. But, of course, I will say that Jairam Ramesh was very familiar with all my work. We have served on some panels together, and so certainly he had in me the confidence another person might not have had.

You have taken a very positive tone throughout the report. Is this just natural optimism or do you truly believe that something will work out?

Yes, I am a natural optimist. I also have a very strong faith in democratic processes and I believe that through these the environment will benefit.