After taking additional charge of the ministry of environment and forests, Union minister of petroleum and natural gas M Veerappa Moily vowed that "not a single file will be pending".
The first casualty of such an attitude is likely to be the biodiversity hotspot of Western Ghats. In a one-step-forward, two-steps-back move, Moily, soon after assuming the new office, announced a review of the ‘Report of the High Level Working Group on Western Ghats’, also known as the Kasturirangan report.
The report, prepared by a 10-member team headed by K Kasturirangan of the Planning Commission, was submitted to the environment ministry in April 2012 with a key recommendation of declaring 37% (ie 60,000 sq km) of the total 1,64,280 sq km area of the Western Ghats as an ecologically sensitive area (ESA), thereby restricting polluting activities, such as mining, thermal power plants, etc.
In October, this report was accepted ‘in principle’ by Moily’s predecessor Jayanthi Natarajan who issued a couple of office memorandums and directed the concerned six states to immediately halt polluting activities. A draft notification delineating the ESA was also in the offing, claimed news reports.
However, things took a different turn when Natarajan resigned on December 21. It is alleged that she delayed investment worth `10 lakh crore by not granting environmental clearance to several large-scale projects, including those of the petroleum ministry.
Natarajan has now been replaced with Moily, who, in a clear case of conflict of interest, is handling both the ministry of petroleum and the ministry of environment. Apart from seeking a review of the Kasturirangan report, Moily has also exempted different types of industrial and mining projects from either providing environmental impact assessment reports or holding public hearings while receiving the state government’s approval.
The Western Ghats house nearly 4,000 species of flowering plants, over 500 species of birds, 120 species of mammals and 288 species of known fish fauna. In order to protect this rich biodiversity, the environment ministry had constituted a Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel headed by ecologist Madhav Gadgil in March 2010.
In 522-page report, the panel, among other things, recommended three zones in the Ghats — Ecologically Sensitive Zones (ESZ) I, II and III— depending upon their ecosensitivity. It ruled out environmental clearance to any large-scale storage dams or mining projects in ESZ I and II. It also recommended phasing out and regulating activities in ESZ III.
Predictably, the environment ministry tried to hush up the report.
However, strict orders from the Central Information Commission and the Delhi High Court forced the ministry to part with the report in May 2012. When the Kasturirangan report was accepted ‘in principle’ by the ministry, for a moment, it seemed that the Ghats, a world heritage site, will finally receive the special environmental protection they deserve.
However, with general elections around the corner, and mounting pressure from the Congress-ruled states, such as Kerala, Natarajan clarified on December 20 that agriculture and plantation activities along the Ghats would not be banned.
The very next day she resigned, paving the way for Moily, who after a ‘courtesy call’ from the chief ministers of Maharashtra and Kerala, both Congress-ruled, announced seeking fresh opinion of the six states on the ban on big construction projects in the Western Ghats.
If ecologists and environmental activists are to be believed, this may just be the beginning of the Western Ghats’ end, which are already threatened due to various large-scale projects, such as power plants, integrated townships, river valley schemes, mining, etc.
Nidhi Jamwal is a Mumbai-based freelance environment journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal