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Draft notification: MoEF&CC should 'critically protect' eco-sensitive Western Ghats

Counterview Desk 

In a detailed representation to the secretary, Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), Shankar Sharma, power and climate policy analyst, commentin on the draft gazette notification of the MoEF&CC dated July 6, 2022 on the Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA) of the Western Ghats (WGs), has said that the political class, having vested interests in Karnataka, has been opposing such a move for many years.
Stating that there is no “rational basis to do so”, and stating that the opponents do not even seem to have even read the recommendations of Dr Kasturi Rangan committee report or the actual draft notification itself, Sharma underscores, the only aim of the vested interests, who have “unauthorisedly occupied massive pieces of forest lands”, to continue to do on in near.
“These vested interests are continuing to be ignorant of the fact that Western Ghats not only harbour rich biodiversity of critical importance to our people, but also support a population of approximately fifty million people. Without the continued support of such biodiversity richness, human life in peninsular India could be unthinkably poor”, he say, insisting, “The MoEF&CC must not succumb to the unsubstantiated opposition to nature conservation by the vested interest of the political class in our country.”

Text:

This has reference to the above-mentioned formal notification of ESA of Western Ghats (WGs) as per the recommendations of Dr Kasturi Rangan committee report, and seeking the comments from the public.
Many media reports have wrongly focused on unfounded fears for the locals as attributed to this draft notification:
1. As has been reported, the political class in Karnataka has been opposing such a notification since many years, and they do not seem to have any rational basis to do so. It will not be an exaggeration to state here that most of such people may not have even read the recommendations of Dr Kasturi Rangan committee report, or the actual draft notification itself.
None of the reasons quoted by such people so far opposing every one of ESA notifications, can be seen as rational, and are not supported by any official recommendations or by the draft notification. It is also the general opinion of those environmentalists in Karnataka, and of those who have been living in the Western Ghats since decades, that such irrational opposition to the draft notification on ESA can be attributed only to the vested interests of politically or otherwise influential people, who have already unauthorisedly occupied massive pieces of forest lands or planning to do so in the near future.
These vested interests are continuing to be ignorant of the fact that Western Ghats not only harbour rich biodiversity of critical importance to our people, but also support a population of approximately fifty million people, as per the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC). Without the continued support of such biodiversity richness, the human life in the peninsular India could be unthinkably poor.
2. Over the last few years, many workshops, seminars, discussion fora, webinars, opinion pieces etc. have deliberated on the recommendations of Dr Kasturi Rangan committee report and on the associate notifications by MoEF&CC. On the basis of such deliberations, the unfounded fears as propagated by such vested interests can be summarised as listed below. It is alleged by these vested interests that the implementation of the draft notification will lead to the following hardships/ life-threatening concerns to the local residents:
a) The locals will be displaced from their habitats to places out of ESA;
b) Various life-style economic activities such as agriculture, commerce, and development will be completely stopped;
c) Modification/ expansion of various kinds of dwelling will be prohibited; additional construction of any kind will be prohibited;
d) Ownership of various kinds of properties, including agricultural land holding, will be cancelled;
e) People will be completely prohibited from accessing the local forest resources, such as fodder, medicinal herbs, dry woods etc. from the nearby forests, which they have been doing on a sustainable basis since centuries;
f) The necessary civic amenities such as roads, schools, hospitals, banks, electricity, tele-communication, water supply etc. will be denied to the locals;
3. These unfounded fears can be attributed to multiple failures of the concerned authorities of the state govt. In:
(i) providing official translation of Dr Kasturi Rangan committee report and of the relevant draft notifications of MoEF&CC in the local languages;
(ii) deliberate indifference/ silence to provide clarity to the locals and the larger public of the state on such unfounded fears;
(iii) indifference/ studied silence/ indirect encouragement of the state govt. for the misinformation campaign by vested political parties including many legislators; (iv) refusal to hold effective information dissemination campaigns to the public and to the political parties.
4. In this regard, some of the highly irresponsible statements by these vested political interests, which have led to the unfounded fears of the concerned communities, have been:
(i) There are already many Acts of the Parliament, such as the Environment (Protection) Act. 1986 and Forest Rights Act, with which the bio-diversity of the Western Ghats can be protected. The Government of Karnataka also is reported to endorse this view.
👉This argument should be seen as very hollow, as evidenced by the fact that natural forest cover in the state and the country has been coming down drastically despite many such Acts. Karnataka’s forest cover is officially known to be only about 21% of its land area, as against the National Forest Policy target of 33%.
The state, already having been tagged as probably the most water-stressed state in the country, whose 52% of land area is officially declared as drought prone, should deem this ESA notification as another important line of the much needed protective cover to safeguard the true welfare of our people.
(ii) Why should Karnataka be burdened with the mandate to protect 20,668 sq km of WGs area out of the total 56,285 sq km area in WGs to be protected as ESA, whereas all the other five states are mandated to protect much less forest area?
👉This is a silly argument, which indicates the narrow mindedness or ignorance of the science of ecology. Our political leaders should feel happy that our state is lucky to have been blessed with such a vast stretch of ecologically sensitive and biodiversity rich forest area (along with the tag of one of eight biodiversity hotspots across the globe), whose value to our people is unimaginably high.
The water stressed state of Karnataka must not forget the harsh reality that this vast stretch of Western Ghats in the state is the sole water fountain for the state (and of course to the region) without which most of the area in the state would have been, probably, unfit for human habitation.
(iii) The continued malady of regularisation of illegally occupied forest lands will not be feasible in the future.
👉The prime reason for the fast shrinking of forest cover and biodiversity in the state has been the illegal occupation and subsequent regularisation of forest lands by successive governments since decades. A tiny percentage of politically influential people in the state has been the only beneficiary of such administrative madness. The proposed ESA notification will thankfully end this malady, and help to preserve the biodiversity left in the WGs of the state.
5. The very commitment of various political parties, the state and the Union governments to adequately safeguard the critical biodiversity and the ecological richness of the WGs should be evident by the fact that the recommendations with regard to ESA have not been implemented since 2013 under various pretexts.
Real estate people can come up with multiple townships in Western Ghats, a credible threat which must be addressed properly
Starting from the first report of Prof Madhav Gadgil Committee, which was not even diligently considered by the Ministry and until the latest news report that the Ministry has constituted yet another committee to undertake a physical survey of ESA, the associated twists and turns at various levels of the environmental governance has left a lot more to be desired from the perspective of the committed environmentalists in the region.
One of the first demand by some of the states with regard to the Dr Kasturi Rangan Committee report was to have such a physical survey of ESA. It is deplorable that the same was not deemed necessary by the Union government all these years. In effect, the implementation of the associated recommendations is further delayed/ postponed by at least another year because of the duration given for the physical survey of ESA. The vested political interests, who have been seeking a free hand to commercially exploit the biodiversity of WGs, can be seen as emboldened by such indecisiveness of the MoEF&CC on multiple occasions.
It is even more deplorable that no effective measures have been taken by either the Union govt. or the state govt. all these years to publish the translated version of Dr Kasturi Rangan committee report in the local languages so far; so, also is the case with the translation of the various draft notifications on ESA. Such efforts on translation into local languages could have addressed most of the unfounded fears of the local communities, and could have prevented the vested political interests from indulging in scare mongering.

Recommendations:

  1. The ecological health of the biodiversity in the country, especially in WGs, cannot be adequately protected and enhanced unless the letter and spirit of the concept of ESA is diligently implemented at the earliest. The earnestness and the speed with which ESA notification on WGs will be implemented by MoEF&CC will also provide an indication of its commitment on the larger cause of environmental upkeep in the country.The genuinely concerned environmentalists in the region and the country as a whole are despondent about the associated disinterested approach of the MoEF&CC, and are also reluctant to repose adequate faith in the state governments in this regard.Hence, the unfounded fears of the local population on the proposed ESA notification, and the associated misinformation campaign by the vested political interests, as highlighted in the paragraphs above, should be either fully ignored, OR addressed effectively and urgently through a diligently thought through ESA notification.
  2. \Even if the concerned authorities in MoEF&CC choose to conveniently ignore their explicit/ implicit commitment to the global community to save tropical forests (of immense ecological value) to minimise the impacts of climate change, they must not ignore the growing scientific evidence of the intricate linkage of the increasing incidences of zoonotic diseases with the loss of wildlife habitats, such as the ones in Western Ghats. Dr TS Anish, Associate Professor of Community Medicine at Thiruvananthapuram Medical College, spoke to Malayalam newspaper Mathrubhumi and explained that human expansion into the Western Ghats and the consequent destruction of habitats left bats, which were common disease vectors, without food." The loss of habitats of wild animals such as bats, monkeys and civet cats forced them to move closer to human habitations and establish new interfaces new interfaces with human beings," he said.
  3. In order to alleviate the unfounded fears of the local communities, MoEF&CC should take urgent measures to publish the translated version of Dr Kasturi Rangan committee report and the draft notifications on ESA in the local languages. The final notification on ESA should contain suitable information to alleviate the unfounded fears of the local communities, and it should also address the misinformation campaign by vested political interests.
  4. Since various forms of extractive activities such as mining, quarrying and sand mining in the Ecologically Sensitive Area will be a death knell to the local biodiversity sooner or later, there shall be a complete ban on all such extractive activities. However, the lifting of sand from the local rivers/ streams should be allowed for local area constructions/ modifications only through necessary restrictions on mining and transporting sand out of local village/ taluka limits.
  5. \Additionally, all the existing mines shall be phased out within a year from the date of issue of the final notification or on the expiry of the existing mining lease, whichever is earlier.
  6. A major threat to WGs is the new construction and/or widening of a large number of roads/ highways, including national highways; such as the widening works under Bharath Mala and Sagar Mala Yojana. Widening of roads, including national highways, should be restricted to only the specifications of two-lane state-highways, and the appropriate speed limits. There can be no substantiation to have the same speed limits in the highways passing through the ESA, as in the highways in plains. Specific mention in this regard needs to be added in the notification.
  7. The proposal in the draft notification for buildings/ development/ township can be seen as clearly a pro real estate policy. There have been evident moves by the rich and influential city dwellers to have resorts, second homes, villas, apartment buildings in WGs for week-end relaxation. Such efforts can be clearly seen especially in coffee growing regions of WGs n Kodagu, Hassan and Chikmagalur districts. Many paddy fields and coffee estates are being converted to commercial use through unscientific means. Allowing 20,000 square meters (2,15,278 sq ft) building, and 50 hectare (123 acres), or 16,14,586 sq ft for township can lead to real estate/ land mafia activities, which will negate the larger objectives of ESA. Real estate people can come up with multiple townships in WGs even within the limit of 123 acres. This credible threat must be addressed properly; there need be no new townships in WGs.
  8. As has been the experience since independence, the hydropower projects of medium and large size will almost invariably lead to massive destruction of biodiversity. Also, in view of the enormous capacity potential and technological advancement of new renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power technologies available in our country, there are no obvious benefits as compared to the costs of hydropower projects of medium and large sizes, and river diversion projects; hence they should not be allowed in WGs.
  9. There are more than 20 linear project proposals in the WGs of Karnataka in the name of power projects, railway lines, roads etc. which may lead to destruction of few million trees and/or many thousand hectares of thick natural forests. Such proposals include the high impact and controversial projects such as Hubli-Ankola railway line, few hydel power projects and power transmission lines, even within the legally Protected Areas (PAs) such as Wildlife Sanctuaries. It is critical and urgent not to allow the consideration of any such large scale / high impact projects in the WGs until the relevant final notification on ESA is issued.
My humble submission is that MoEF&CC should not forget the critical need to take our forest and tree cover to the National Forest Policy target of 33% of the land area, at a time when the acclaimed nature conservationists across the globe are advocating 50% of land and ocean resources to be adequately conserved to mitigate the existential threats of climate change. Because of their natural characteristic as rain forests over millions of years, the WGs are the best location, and ESA is the best opportunity to reach the National Forest Policy target of 33%. Road side tree saplings and mono-culture plantations cannot be the substitute for the natural forests from any perspective.
The future of true welfare of our people will solely depend on how the Union government approaches the biodiversity conservation in each case such as the notification on ESA for WGs. In this context, the MoEF&CC must not succumb to the unsubstantiated opposition by the vested interest of political class in our country.

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