Western Ghats: lessons in protection

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

Madhav Gadgil and K Kasturirangan are both scientists of great repute. But both are caught up in a controversy on how the Western Ghats—the vast biological treasure trove spread over the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu—should be protected. First the Ministry of Environment and Forests asked Gadgil to submit a plan for protection of the Ghats. When this was done in mid-2011, the ministry sat on the document for months, refusing to release it even for public discussion. Finally, court directed the government to take action on the recommendations. The Kasturirangan committee was then set up to advise on the next steps.

imageIn April 2013, the Kasturirangan committee (I was a member of it) submitted its report, evoking angry reactions. Ecologists say it is a dilution of the Gadgil report and, therefore, unacceptable. Political leaders and mining companies have joined hands to fight against the report. A virulent political agitation, led by the church and communist party leaders, was launched in Kerala.

The debate on the two reports has been personal, messy and uninformed. Instead, we need to understand the differences and deliberate what has been done and why. As I see it, there are three key differences between the Gadgil and the Kasturirangan report. First is on the extent of the area that should be awarded protection as an eco-sensitive zone (ESZ). The Gadgil panel identified the entire Ghats as ESZ. But it created three categories of protection regimes and listed activities that would be allowed in each based on the level of ecological richness and land use.

The Kasturirangan panel used a different method. It removed cash crop plantations like rubber, agricultural fields and settlements from ESZ. It could do this because it had the advantage of using a finer remote sensing technology. It also made the distinction between what it called cultural landscape and natural landscape deliberately. The purpose was to remove already modified areas under private control from protection as governing these areas through permit and fiat systems would lead to unnecessary conflict.

In this way, the Kasturirangan report’s area of ESZ is 37 per cent of the Western Ghats—still a massive 60,000 ha but much less than 137,000 ha proposed by Gadgil. What should concern us is that so little of the region’s natural area remains and the ways to conserve it.

The second difference is over the list of activities permissible in the protection regime. The Gadgil committee’s recommendations on this are comprehensive, from banning pesticide use and genetically modified crops in agricultural areas to decommissioning of hydropower projects and gradual shift from plantations to natural forests. It is perhaps exactly the right formula for this region, declared a natural heritage of humankind by UNESCO.

The Kasturirangan panel had already removed substantial areas of humanly modified lands from protection, so it decided to impose restrictions on what it called highly interventionist and environmentally damaging activities in the ESZ area. All mining, including quarrying; red-category industry, including thermal power; and buildings over 20,000 sq m would be banned. In the case of hydropower projects, the panel set tough conditions to ensure adequate flow in rivers and distance between projects. Our reasoning was it would be very difficult to take decisions on such complex and conflicted issues across the 60,000 ha.

The third difference concerns the governance framework. The Gadgil panel had recommended a national-level authority, with counterparts at the state and district levels. The Kasturirangan panel argued for strengthening the existing framework of environmental clearances and setting up of a state-of-the-art monitoring agency. But beyond the two reports, more serious questions need to be raised for policy. I have serious misgivings about the capacity and ability of governance systems (new or old) to regulate protection through permit and prohibition.

The Gadgil report summarises the poignant case of a strawberry farmer and rose cultivator in Mahabaleshwar, notified as ESZ. The farmer was not even allowed to build temporary sheds or cowsheds, whereas large constructions came up illegally. Similarly, in the eco-sensitive zone near a sanctuary, poor tribals were stopped from using kerosene lamps for lighting—the reason given was that the use of artificial lights disturbing wild animals is listed as a prohibited activity. Will such a regime based on rigid bureaucratic controls and combined with weak institutions of governance not be easily subverted and work against the interests of the poor and the environment?

That is why we need different ways of governance in the coming years. The Western Ghats are inhabited even in the areas categorised as natural landscapes. It is not possible to plan for Western Ghats only as a fenced-in wilderness zone. This is the difference between the natural landscapes of a densely populated country like India and the wilderness zones of many other countries.

The big question is how policy can incentivise, indeed promote, development that is sustainable in the cultural and natural landscapes. Until we answer this we will have smaller and smaller areas to conserve.

Report of the high level working group on Western Ghats (Kasturirangan Western Ghats Report)

Report of the Western Ghats ecology expert panel 2011 (Madhav Gadgil Western Ghats Report)

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  • Hi Sunita, As you have

    Hi Sunita,

    As you have correctly said, Gadgil report promotes sustainable practises in the human area of Western Ghats. We should have implemented the same.


    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • After reading the editorial

    After reading the editorial one question comes up and that is about "For whose benefit this conservation is aimed at?"
    I am of the opinion that all these things are done for the benefit of "concerned people" that means people who are immediately concerned about the region. Obviously, they are local people who inhabit in that region, or forest dwellers and farmers. If recommendations are against the interest of these people all those recommendations should be removed. We should see that "exploitation of the region for benefit of unconcerned people that means, who do not live in that region but who want to exploit the natural resourses, must be controlled and all recommandations should be aimed at stopping such exploitation and not making life miserable for concerned people. For example, adivasis or forest dwellers are not allowed to hunt for food in many forests and that has made them malnourished. Such wrong recommandations must be challenged to protect interest of these people who are never properly represented in such committees. We see that veganism is forced on local people because such committees are controlled by vegans. Let us be reasonable and not force ideas of one group of people on other weaker group. For example, in this case, Sunita Narain, Madhav Gadgil and K Kasturirangan are all vegans! Outlook of non-vegans is forcibly avoided, this must be stopped.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • The article presents a good

    The article presents a good insight about what needs to be done to conserve Western Ghats. A rigid bureaucratic control is not required in such eco-sensitive zones, which will eventually promote only illegal activities.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Inhabitants should be made

    Inhabitants should be made owners of the forest they live in and they should be trained to harvest non-timber forest produce (including raw materials for medicines)in a sustainable manner. The produce must be purchased by the state/Central government, transported and auctioned. Middlemen should not be allowed to buy from the inhabitants. Government should also set up a development board for makin new, attractive, useful and innovative products from forest produce.
    Thus protecting forests should be a government controlled enterprise, not a liability.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Informative. Thank you... It

    Informative. Thank you...
    It is difficult for me to tell what to do. Natural resource however will be used ,only thing is ,the decisions must be so that resource should be preserved for longer time as much possible( by reducing need )...

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Excellent article. Very

    Excellent article. Very pertinent issues raised. As usual you are thorough with the subject. Congratulations Madam.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Some activities are banned in

    Some activities are banned in Western Ghats, especially the red category industries. But many activities are also allowed in the area which are green. Govt. officials and politicians are misrepresenting facts.

    If anyone wants to raise objections the notification regarding declaration of ESZ was uploaded on the website of MoEF recently.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Congratulations for an

    Congratulations for an excellent edit on a very important and live topic of Western Ghats also known as the Sahyadris!A list of 1000 endangered species ought to be made public with specific ways to conserve them .Till such time any report can be considered as interim. Again this could mean conflict with private forest land , established infrastructural projects and manufacturing factories .Everyone is aware that Environmental Impact assessments can be manipulated and the very soul conservation vandalized .Interested parties should read the report carefully and raise issues through various acts including RTI.No regulation can be final till every matter is tackled on case basis .
    Ancient texts refer to some exotic forests like the Dakini Van(Forest)in Bhimashankar range or the Shekru an Indian giant Squirrel in that region. These are just two instances. Local folklore when adequately referred will reveal the exclusive flora and fauna of the Ghats.
    Trekkers ,Hikers, Mountaineers and Naturalists who visit the Ghats for conserving activities are a source of richer data which is more meaningful than remote sensing data generated with third rate technology.
    We ought to take this matter further with clinical precision.Kasturirangan Report is an instance of official interference proving bad governance. Madhav Gadgil thinks locally and acts globally. His report is more relevant with its inclusive development model where tribals denoted by Asthmba or Ashwatthama are protagonists in the rhyme of the ancient Sahayadris

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Respected Madam You have

    Respected Madam
    You have given excellent information regarding this issue. As, many of us even don't know about this controversial issue and what are the reports given by Madhav Gadgil and K Kasturirangan. In this regard your article really gives clear-cut picture to know about this issue in all angles. On the part of policy and sustainability, really as an environmentalist and as a public, we have impose the our thoughts to Government to work on it immediately. In this regard you can help us to contribute something to the environment.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Ma'am we all know and

    Ma'am we all know and consider Gadgil as a person in India a environment specialist for intense field work with sophisticated academic writings. A heterodox person has given a report on western Ghats sustainable natural resources and ESZ areas. In responce the state has not disclosed the report but oppointed a high level committe to scrutinizing gadgil report on WG after long gap with court interference. This has put Indian environmentalist in a shocking dilemma. Regarding the nature conserrvation in the kasturirangan report rather than saying 37 percentage this has neglected more than 65% of the gadgil recommendations to forsee modern development. how can we asses and analysis a non egalitarian model of development where power lies only in hands of few. why did both committee rejected the local state managment and power over the natural resources of there geographical boundries rather recommended a central vigilance with control in these natural resources. I strongly feel that there is a lot uneasy insecurity about who should have control over natural resources but the Kasturirangan report favours a human sustainable practices where necessary and as well livlihood of people in these regions. federal power control and human practice both lead to degradation of natural resources in long run this is what many of our environmentalist like Gadgil, Basviskar rightly said and argue on explotiation of commercial purposes by state or industries which is equally destoryed by humans as well, only time matters where industries take 5 year to exploit and human 50 years. so where are the policy that support development of a green trend culture. Do you think our environment are imperative linked with the livelihood issues and beyond. Are green trends and deep ecology are not suitable to Indian Environmentalism.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply