The Hills Are Going Somewhere

Jay Mazoomdaar
Grist Media

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Nearly half of Pathanamthitta, Kerala's newest district, is covered with evergreen and moist deciduous forests. A major pilgrim destination because of Sabarimala and other temples, its economy rests on agriculture, handloom and mining. The three major rivers of Pathanamthitta (literally rows of houses by the river) - Pampa, Achankovil and Manimala - descend from the Western Ghats, produce one-third of the state's electricity and are ravaged by illegal sand miners who operate in the night.

Not far from these riverbeds, stone quarrying - both legal and illegal - is gnawing away at the once-lush hills. There is money to be made in stone crushing and transport. And, as asthma and lung cancer cases go up, in the sale of drugs. The local economy is in tatters though. Landslides and choked streams are ruining agriculture. And the idle local farm labor has no place in the quarries that hire migrants from Jharkhand and Odisha, themselves victims of mindless mining at home, for measly wages.

It is to protect various models of this destructive economy that the governments of six Western Ghats states and the Center have been resisting recommendations from the experts to safeguard one of India's last remaining treasure troves of nature. The result is a loss of livelihood, health, water, forest, wildlife and biodiversity.

As Minister for Environment and Forests, Jayanthi Natarajan admitted to (some would say sought credit for) a higher green clearance rate than her predecessor Jairam Ramesh who, notwithstanding his frequent protestations, let nearly 99 percent of projects pass the scanner. Yet, their environmentalism was blamed for holding up projects worth Rs 10,000 crore. The Prime Minister himself repeatedly blamed the sluggish economy on the 'clearance raj', a euphemism for India's wildlife, forest and environmental laws.

The laws have not been annulled by Parliament yet. But attempts were afoot to bypass them pretty early on. Natarajan, to her credit, fought in 2012 the Finance Minister P Chidambaram's proposal of setting up a National Investment Approval Board (NIAB) under his ministry to unilaterally grant prompt one-window clearances to projects worth Rs 1,000 crore or more. As a compromise, the Cabinet Committee on Investment (CCI) was set up early in 2013 and the Prime Minister constituted a Project Monitoring Group to push big investment.

Things came to pass when Natarajan resisted the pressure to ease green clearance rules which were being routinely manipulated in their existing form. As far back as in October 2012, the Prime Minister's Office asked her to do away with "the necessity of public hearings for obtaining environment clearance (for coal mines) in cases where 25 percent expansion is required". Days before her ouster, Natarajan had a heated argument with Petroleum Minister Veerappa Moily at a CCI meeting over granting clearances to three pending projects in Tamil Nadu (by the Chennai Petroleum Corporation Limited), Assam (Oil and Natural Gas Corporation) and Gujarat (Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation).

Impatient to boost the economy, the growth hawks in the UPA government were running out of time. When the Prime Minister's Office put Moily in charge of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) - setting aside objections about an obvious conflict of interest - on 24 December, its immediate agenda was to allow summary clearance of big infrastructure projects. But there was more.

Moily was to get the MoEF to agree to the government's position on genetically modified crops dictated by Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, whose home state Maharashtra has been awaiting a nod from the Supreme Court to start field trials. He was also asked to buy time for the governments in the six Western Ghats states that were wary of being encumbered by green regulations and foregoing development work (and irking the mining mafia) ahead of a general election.

Barely two weeks into his green avatar and Moily has already delivered on all counts.

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The Western Ghats or the Sahyadri hills are the repository of life that predates dinosaurs. Identified by UNESCO as one of the world's eight most important biodiversity hotspots, these forested hills are the source of numerous rivers that feed the mightier Godavari, Krishna and Cauvery, among others. These rainforests are home to 325 globally threatened species and many still unknown to the world. Only two years ago, 12 new species of frogs were discovered here. Over 1800 species found in these hills are not found anywhere else in the world.

Loss of these hill forests will not only make thousands of unique life forms disappear from the face of the earth but also jeopardize the livelihood of many millions who depend on the rivers and streams fed by these rainforests for agriculture and fishery. Presciently enough, the Save Western Ghats Movement emerged in Maharashtra as early as the 1980s to save one of the country's four key watersheds.

But it took nearly 25 years and a Jairam Ramesh to set up an expert committee - the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) - in March 2010 under the ecologist Madhav Gadgil to chart a strategy for conserving these Ghats. Rapid development, particularly since Independence, had already scarred many of these evergreen hills. For all its ecological and economic importance, only 10 percent of the Western Ghats remains protected under law.

In fact, Ramesh saw the significance of these rainforests even before he set up the WGEEP. Accepting that the Western Ghats were as important an ecological system as the Himalayas, he said the Center would not "give sanction for mining and hydroelectric projects proposed by Maharashtra, Karnataka and Goa that will destroy this ecosystem."

By the time the Gadgil panel submitted its report in August 2011, Ramesh was already shunted out of the MoEF. The recommendations were too hot to handle for his successor Natarajan. She refused to make it public, denied applications under the Right to Information Act seeking the gist of Gadgil's recommendations, and even contested a Central Information Commission ruling at the Delhi High Court. Finally, after dithering for a year, the MoEF in August 2012 formed yet another panel - under Planning Commission member Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan - to examine the Gadgil report.

Kasturirangan submitted his report on April 17, 2013, identifying roughly 37 percent of the Western Ghats as Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA). Since Gadgil in his report had marked 60 percent of the Western Ghats as highest-priority Ecologically Sensitive Zone (ESZ), Kasturirangan was criticized by conservationists for compromising the cause.

However, Gadgil and Kasturirangan defined and demarcated the area of the Western Ghats differently. Going by forest types, Gadgil's measurement of the ghats came to 1,29,037 sq km, and he proposed to declare 60 percent of this landscape 'ESZ 1' - highest conservation priority. Kasturirangan adopted the criteria followed by the Plan panel and identified 1,64,280 sq km as the Western Ghats. He marked 37 percent of this stretch as ESA where hazardous industries, thermal plants or mines would not be allowed. 

As per Gadgil's specification, the ESZ-1 areas add up to approximately 77,000 sq km (60 percent of 1,29,037 sq km). Kasturirangan's ESA, on the other hand, accounts for around 60,000 sq km (37 percent of 1,64,280 sq km). However, this reduction of 17,000 sq km, which is roughly 10 percent of the entire Western Ghats landscape, is not the real difference between the two reports.

While proposing three ESZ areas - of high, moderate and low conservation priority - the Gadgil report sought to let the gram sabhas decide what sort of land use and local demarcations would best suit their livelihood and social interests. While the Kasturirangan report did stress on the livelihood needs of the people, its demarcation of the ESA did not make any room for people's participation or ground input.

In an article last month, Gadgil wrote, "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."

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Ironically, the governments and the industries found even the watered-down prescription too bitter to swallow. Strong resistance from the state governments of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala was backed by a disinformation campaign that claimed farmers would lose their livelihoods and not get title deeds if ESAs were notified.

Finally, under pressure from the National Green Tribunal to choose between the Gadgil and Kasturirangan reports, Natarajan in October 2013 accepted, in principle, the latter. Protests took a violent turn in Kerala with daylong strikes observed in several districts. The state even appointed its own committee to examine the Kasturirangan report. Last week, the Kerala panel concluded that villages and plantations be excluded from the proposed ESAs.

On November 13, the MoEF issued directions to the states under the Environment Protection Act, 1986, banning construction projects on areas of 20,000 sq m and above and other red-category polluting industries in the ESAs identified by Kasturirangan. While finalizing the ESA notification draft that called for no fresh mining leases and phasing out of existing mines within five years, Natarajan clarified only a day before she resigned on 21 December that nothing would affect land ownership rights or livelihood practices such as agriculture.

Like all stakeholders, the six state governments would also have the opportunity to give their opinion within a 60-day window if the draft ESA notification was put up for public consultation. But after that deadline, the government would have a take a call either way, presumably in March.

Immediately after taking charge following Natarajan's resignation, Moily met Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan. The decision was to invite comments from the six state governments. By doing so before making the draft notification public and allowing five long months for the states to reply, Moily made sure that UPA II will not have to bite the bullet.

What does that mean for the Western Ghats? Not much, if the status quo is maintained and no new projects are cleared till the new government at the Center takes a call. But, given the dash for a home run, holding up development is an unlikely option before the elections. Big projects, including the Athirappally and Gundia hydel plants, are long pending. And every delay is an opportunity for vested interests to take preemptive steps and maximize damage before ESAs are notified.

Ramesh, for one, has not given up yet and is batting for Gadgil. A week after Moily took over the green ministry, Ramesh underlined that the WGEEP report, the true roadmap for conserving the Western Ghats, was "hijacked by a few political voices who had a vested interest" and should be resurrected for a dispassionate debate after the Lok Sabha polls.

The hills may not be going anywhere, but time is not on our side.

Jay Mazoomdaar is an independent journalist. He writes on environment, development, politics and life. He is currently working on a book of essays. @mazoomdaar