The Politics of Ecosensitivity

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Kerala has squandered the chance to be a role model for conserving biodiversity.

Politics usually trumps environmental concerns in India. This has
been the state of play for decades whether we speak of conserving
forests, rivers or other ecologically important resources. The latest
victim in this game of political football is the chain of the Western
Ghats that stretches over 1,500 km across six states. No politician has
dared question the science that informed the important report of the
Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), led by noted scientist
Madhav Gadgil, that was
submitted last year to the government. But
instead of understanding the arguments that lay behind the various
recommendations made in the report to protect what Science
magazine terms as the world’s second-most “irreplaceable” site of
threatened species, politicians of all persuasions have ensured that
this report is first diluted, then misrepresented, and finally tied up
in political knots. The latter will guarantee that what little could
still be salvaged of the original report will now be firmly buried.

The course the WGEEP report has taken is instructive, and
predictable. Gadgil and his team studied the biodiversity richness of
the Western Ghats and then came up with a set of recommendations to
ensure that these resources are properly managed and protected. There
was no blanket advice to cordon off the entire region, given that it
covers 44 districts and 142 talukas in the six states. What it suggested
instead was to divide the Western Ghats into three “ecologically
sensitive zones” (ESZ). Only ESZ 1 would be closed to any interference
by way of mining, power generation (thermal or hydel) and industry.
Zones 2 and 3 would be permitted these industrial activities on a graded
basis and on condition that they conformed to environmentally benign
criteria.

The most significant aspect of the Gadgil report was its
recommendation that the entire process be rooted in the gram sabhas that
should be the ultimate authority to decide what kind of development, if
any, should be permitted in an area considered ecologically sensitive.
This recommendation conforms to similar criteria that exist in laws like
the Forest Rights Act.

Yet, as we know from places like Goa and Odisha, it is this type of
decentralised decision-making that is the biggest threat to those who
care little about conservation and are more interested in exploiting
natural resources for their version of so-called “development”. Hence,
whether it is mining, quarrying, sand mining, dams, thermal power plants
or polluting industries, environmental concerns are seen as obstacles
that must be removed for real “progress”. Given such thinking, no one
was surprised when the committee set up by the Ministry of Environment
and Forests (MoEF) headed by K Kasturirangan to study the Gadgil report
chose to ignore this particular recommendation.

The violent protests against the Kasturirangan report in Kerala last
month were the direct result of a notification by the MoEF identifying
eco-sensitive areas where five categories of activities would be
prohibited. These are quarrying, mining, sand mining, thermal power
plants, construction projects covering more than 20,000 sq km, township
and area development projects of 50 acres or more, and polluting
industries. Falling within areas notified as ecologically sensitive are
123 villages.

Instead of explaining what this notification would mean, and that it
would not necessarily lead to displacement or loss of livelihood, local
political considerations took over. Opposition politicians and some
religious heads whipped up anger against the state government using a
volatile mix of misrepresentation of facts and genuine fears. On its
part, the state government failed to anticipate such a reaction. And the
MoEF, which had provided the trigger for the protests, backed down
claiming that its notification was only a “draft” which would be
finalised after consultation with all affected states. Surely, the issue
could have been handled more sensibly by sending this so-called “draft”
to the state governments concerned, instead of posting it on the
ministry website.

That said, the real tragedy of the recent stand-off in Kerala between
the state government and the opposition is the opportunity missed for
the state to become a role model for other states. Kerala has a rich
tradition of involvement of panchayats and gram sabhas in the
developmental process. The consultative planning processes the state
pioneered have been lauded around the world. Kerala has an educated and
informed citizenry that could have been included in the implementation
of the efforts to conserve the Western Ghats. In fact, Kerala could have
demonstrated how the preservation of biodiversity can sit comfortably
with people’s livelihoods and survival needs and is not in opposition to
them. The Gadgil report’s emphasis on including gram sabhas in the
planning and implementation process was premised on the belief that such
a process will make efforts at conservation of biodiversity sustainable
and strong. At this juncture, even the greatly diluted recommendations
of the Kasturirangan Committee are unlikely to be implemented with any
seriousness. The price for this will not be paid by politicians who plan
only for the next elections, but by ordinary people who will suffer the
very real consequences of the loss of irreplaceable natural resources.

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