Eager to help rapacious business interests for their own reasons, central and state governments are preparing to throw open the surviving rainforests of the Western Ghats, known for their rich biodiversity, to continued exploitation.
The Western Ghats extend from the Gujarat-Maharashtra border to the southern tip of the subcontinent, covering a linear distance of 1,600 kilometres. Thirty-nine areas identified by Unesco for preservation as world heritage sites under its Man and Biosphere programme are located there.
Like other forest areas across the country, this region too has witnessed large-scale encroachments and destruction in six-and-a-half decades of Independence. At the instance of prime minister Indira Gandhi, who had attended the Stockholm environment summit of 1972, Parliament enacted laws to protect the forests and the environment but depredations have gone on with the connivance of politicians and officials.
Taking note of the Supreme Court’s observation that lack of expertise hampered its ability to adjudicate on environmental issues, the central government enacted a law in 2010 to set up the National Green Tribunal, a specialised judicial and technical body. The tribunal was constituted only after the court repeatedly directed the government to do so.
It is not unusual for the central and state governments to pass laws and not implement them. In the wake of the Bhopal gas tragedy, the Centre, responding to popular demand, enacted the National Environment Tribunal Act in 1995 to punish polluters. The law was not enforced. Two years later a law to set up a National Environmental Appellate Authority was enacted. It too was not enforced. A Kerala law providing for a tribunal to award compensation to villagers for damage caused by the Coca-Cola company, which was referred to the Centre for approval, is in the limbo.
Jairam Ramesh, who piloted the National Green Tribunal Bill through Parliament as Minister of Forests and Environment, was shifted out soon afterwards, apparently to placate businessmen who found him too committed to ecology. Under the malleable Ms Jayanti Natarajan, who took his place, the ministry has been in continuous confrontation with the tribunal.
One of Jairam Ramesh’s positive initiatives was the constitution of an expert panel, headed by renowned ecologist Madhav Gadgil, to report on measures to save the Western Ghats. Jayanti Natarajan kept the panel’s report under wraps until forced by the Central Information Commission and the Delhi High Court to publish it.
In its 328-page report, the Gadgil committee proposed that a Western Ghats Ecology Authority be set up to ensure protection of ecologically fragile regions falling in six states. Commercial interests, backed by political parties in the states, raised a furore over its recommendations, which also included checks on construction of dams, mining activities and polluting chemical industries. In Kerala, the Syro-Malabar Church, whose members form a large chunk of the farmers in the hill region, also joined them.
The Centre then appointed a new panel, headed by Planning Commission member K. Kasturirangan, a space scientist with no expertise or experience in the field of ecology, to review the Gadgil report and make fresh recommendations. It watered down the Gadgil proposals but could not go so far as to satisfy the commercial and political interests fully.
Gadgil wanted 90 per cent of the Western Ghats to be a no-go area. He divided the ecologically fragile regions into three zones and proposed different sets of regulations for each. Kasturirangan asked that the entire area be treated alike. Gadgil wanted decisions on permitting mining and other activities in the protected area to be left to the village councils. Kasturirangan opposed it.
The Green Tribunal had directed the Ministry of Environment and Forests in April to implement the Gadgil recommendations within three weeks. The ministry did not act on the directive. Even after the Kasturirangan report was received it remained inactive. Early this month the tribunal fined the ministry Rs25,000 for its inaction which was holding up clearance of projects and asked it to clarify its position on the two reports by November 12.
Last week the ministry announced acceptance of the Kasturirangan report. Once again there was a hue and cry from the business class and the political parties. The loudest noises come from Goa, where the driving force against attempts to save the forest is the influential mining lobby, and from Kerala, where political parties in league with land grabbers and quarry owners are in the lead.
An open battle between environmentalists and commercial and political interests is on the cards with Gadgil exhorting the people to come forward to protect the forests. The last word may be that of the judiciary. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, October 22, 2013.