Malin, the village in Pune district that was flattened by a landslide last week claiming more than 130 lives, has brought the focus back on the management — or mismanagement — of the Western Ghats.
The torrential rain on July 30 perhaps would not have brought down a side of the hill had it not been weakened by quarrying, levelling and de-forestation — activities banned in Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESA).
Malin was located in one such area along the 1,600 km-long Western Ghats and notified as an ESA; this was not enforced.
It encapsulates the approach to managing the Western Ghats: governance deficit.
Both the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) and High-Level Working Group (HLWG) reports, however contentious, drew maps of what kinds of development can and cannot be carried out in the Ghats but their recommendations have been drowned out by manufactured controversies and political machinations in the states concerned.
“The warning signs are out there, the reports cautioned us, but there has been little action to protect the Western Ghats,” said Dr Satish Thigale, a geologist familiar with the Ghats region in Maharashtra.
The WGEEP, chaired by ecologist Madhav Gadgil, identified the Western Ghats as an ecologically sensitive zone and created three categories of protection with certain activities allowed in each.
The HLWG, chaired by Dr K Kasturirangan carved out 37% of the Ghats as Ecologically Sensitive Zone; even this would have protected a massive 60,000 hectares if not the entire stretch.
The WGEEP report called for the setting up of a Western Ghats Ecology Authority (WGEA), a statutory national authority.
The HLWG advised strengthening of the existing legal and institutional framework in each state.
In the high-pitched debate, neither has come to pass. The MoEF stance on governance has been either confusing or negligent so far; now minister Prakash Javadekar “appears to be led by the pro-development lobby,” experts said.
“Every state has a different ideology and has allowed land-use changes in many stretches. But the Ghats don’t belong to states; they are national, even international, heritage. Javadekar must set up a proper governance regime, not undertake one more study,” said Dr Jay Samant, noted environmentalist.
In the absence of protective action on the ground, the Ghats continue to be endangered. Malin-like devastation may not be an exception.