Curb on mining in Western Ghats

MoEF accepts Kasturirangan report; will declare one-third of the range ecologically sensitive

By M Suchitra, Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava
Published: Friday 15 November 2013


THE MINISTRYÔÇêof Environment and Forests (MoEF) has accepted the recommendations of a high-level working group to declare over one-third of the Western Ghats ecologically sensitive. Once the notification is in place, mining, quarrying, thermal power plants and highly polluting industries will be banned in 60,000 sq km of the Ghats. Projects will be allowed only after the approval of the gram sabhas concerned.

The Western Ghats extend from Gujarat to Tamil Nadu, covering an area of over 164,000 sq km. The mountain range has been identified as one of the world’s eight richest biodiversity hot spots and received the UNESCO World Heritage Site tag last year. MoEF’s decision has come after the recommendations of the high-level working group, headed by Planning Commission member K Kasturirangan. In April, the panel had recommended that 37 per cent area of the Western Ghats represents a band of contiguous vegetation and polluting industries should not be allowed there.

The Kasturirangan panel was constituted by MoEF to look into the recommendations of an earlier report submitted by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, headed by ecologist Madhav Gadgil. The Gadgil panel was formed by MoEF in 2010 to study the impact of population pressure, climate change and development activities on the Western Ghats. It had recommended that almost the entire Western Ghats should be declared ecologically sensitive area (ESA). It proposed that the GhatsÔÇêbe categorised in three zones with different degrees of protection.

Though the report was supported by ecologists, it was opposed by the states where the mountain range stretches and by politicians and farmers’ organisations who feared it would hamper development. In light of the objections it had received, MoEF constituted the Kasturirangan panel in August last year.

The panel was tasked with finding a holistic way of protecting the biodiversity of the Ghats and addressing the “rightful aspirations for inclusive growth and sustainable development” of the “indigenous residents”. The panel then came up with an estimate, saying 41 per cent of the Western Ghats is “natural landscape”, having low population impact andÔÇêrich biodiversity. The remaining 59 per cent is “cultural landscape” dominated by human settlements and agricultural fields. The panel recommended that 90 per cent of the “natural landscape” should be protected (see ‘Impact of Kasturirangan report’). The identification of ESA was based on the fragmentation of the forests, population density of villages and the richness of the biodiversity in villages.

Impact of Kasturirangan report
The Ministry of Environment and Forests issued a notification on October 19 accepting the recommendations of the Kasturirangan panel

1. A ban on all polluting industries (including mining) categorised as most hazardous in the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, and Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981

2.The Forest Rights Act, 2006, that recognises the rights of dwellers on forest resources, will be implemented in letter and spirit and the consent of gram sabhas concerned will be mandatory for any project

3. Hydro-power projects will be allowed subject to stringent conditions proposed by the Kasturirangan panel. These include cumulative impact assessment of such projects and ensuring minimum water flow in the rivers in the lean season

4.A body to assess and report on the ecology of the region and to support the implementation of ESA to be set up

5. Differing with the Kasturirangan panel recommendation that windmill projects be brought under environment impact assessment notification, Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) said such projects will be allowed in ecologically sensitive area (ESA) as per existing regulations only

6. In a major departure from all the other ESAs notified in the country, villages falling under the Western Ghats ESA will have a prominent say in decision-making on future projects in the region

7. A ban on construction projects of over 20,000 square metre. But, projects which are already undergoing approval process will be considered

8. MoEF has also lifted the moratorium on mining in Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts on the basis of the Kasturirangan report which said that a substantial area of the two districts fell outside the proposed ESA

9. Incentives will be given to the states in the Western Ghats to promote “green development”. These include creation of a special sustainable development fund by the Planning Commission to compensate for restricting development in ESA and higher payments under the 14th Finance Commission’s recommendation to keep the forest cover intact

10. A high-level committee of the MoEF will be set-up to monitor the implementation of the Kasturirangan panel recommendations

The controversy

In Kerala, a day-long shut-down was observed on October 18 in Idukki and Wayanad districts and on October 21 in Kozhikode. In Idukki, the reason behind protests was farmers’ fear of losing their chance to get title deeds. Many migrant farmers in the mountain range have not received title deeds despite an all-party decision taken in 1983 to give title deeds to all farmers who settled in the forests before 1977. “If ESA is notified, the chances of getting title deeds become grim,” says C V Verghese, CPI(M) leader from Idukki.

Sebastian Kochupurakkal, chairperson of the High Ranges Protection Council, which is leading the agitations in Idukki, saysÔÇêmany farmers were brought into the district during the Grow More Food Campaign (1932-1950) and many others settled as workers on government projects. “They are not encroachers and their day-to-day life will be affected by the declaration of ESA,” he says.

But environmental activists in the district oppose this argument.

The mountain range has been identified as one of the world’s eight richest biodiversity hot spots and received the UNESCO World Heritage Site tag

M N Jayachandran, an environmental activist in Kerala, says, “The issue of title deeds has nothing to do with either the Gadgil report or the KasturiranganÔÇêreport.” Political and religious leaders want to keep the issue alive to retain their grip over people, he says. There have been a lot of wrong campaigns against both the reports by the ruling United Democratic Front, the opposition, the Left Democratic Front and a section of the Catholic Church, which, he says, has even issued circulars wrongly interpreting the reports and fanning fears of the people.

While protests are being held against the Kasturirangan recommendations,ÔÇêsome environmentalists are demanding that the entire Western Ghats be notified as ESA,ÔÇêas per the Gadgil panel recommendations. The Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad, the people’s science movement, have issued statements supporting the Gadgil report. V S Vijayan, former chairperson of the state biodiversity board and member of the Gadgil Committee, says the Kasturirangan Committee report focuses more on economic exploitation of the Western Ghats while sidelining conservation. “The only bar inside ESA is on mining, quarrying and sand mining. Most polluting industries can be allowed outside ESA and less polluting industries can be allowed even inside ESA,” he says. “In a way, it amounts to opening up entire Western Ghats for development,” he adds.

What next

In an all party meet convened by Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy on October 21, it was decided to constitute an expert committee to study the Kasturirangan Committee recommendations.

“The state will intimate its views to the Centre after holding discussions with people’s representatives and representatives of farmers’ organisations in the villages which come under ESA identified by the report,” said the chief minister in Thiruvananthapuram on October 21 during a media conference.

The decision of the Congress-led state government has been criticised even by party MLAs. “The Kerala government and political parties are taking the side of the mining mafia,” says V D Satheesan, a Congress MLA. According to him, the Kasturirangan report is weak on conservation efforts. “Kerala does not want this diluted report which recommends conservation of only about 37 per cent of the Western Ghats,” he says. The Ghats pass through 13 of the 14 districts in the state. The Kasturirangan committee has identified 123 villages in 24 Western Ghats talukas to be notified as ESA.

Environmentalists point out that the state government and political parties are buying time by appointing a new committee. “When the Gadgil Committee report was released, neither the state government nor political parties made any effort to translate the report in the regional language or to take it to the people for discussion. The decision to constitute another committee reflects a lack of concern for the Western Ghats and the well-being of the people in the state,” says A Latha, an environmental activist with the Chalakkudi River Research Centre in Kerala.

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

Order of the National Green Tribunal with regard to Dr. Gadgil Report and Dr. Kasturirangan Report on Western Ghats, 1 Oct 2013

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

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