Not for your eyes at all

Updated on May 24, 2012 07:24 PM IST

A vital report on India's forests is suppressed, indicating the nation's continuing preference for the few over the many, Samar Halarnkar writes.

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Hindustan Times | By

'Our nation is evidently at a crossroads today, with grave misgivings on continuing with business as usual.'

That sharp statement does not come from left- or right-wing protestors who want India's government to step down. You will find it in a 325-page scientific study commissioned by the government, titled 'Report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel'.

Let me rephrase that.

Actually, you, if you are an Indian citizen, are not supposed to read this report because the government has presently banned its release and forbidden its authors - 14 of them, including some of India's best biologists and four government officers - from talking about it.

Fortunately, in democracies secrets drip out, and the Indian government is particularly leaky, so you can find the report on the internet. This renders useless the government's strenuous attempts to stop the Western Ghats report going public. These attempts include cancelling the scheduled public release of the report on September 21, 2011, refusing to release it to a petitioner from a Kerala village under the Right to Information Act, arguing against its release when that order was contested before the Central Information Commission, and after losing that case on April 9, 2012, appealing to the Delhi High Court.

Why would a government go to such lengths to keep secret a report that is supposed to be in the public interest and is, in part, a result of public consultations?

But I get ahead of the story, which began in 2010, when the Union ministry for environment and forests constituted the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) with three seemingly innocuous aims: to assess the current status of the Western Ghats region, a 140,000 sq km swathe of damp forests and hills running from Gujarat to Kerala; to identify fragile areas and recommend ecologically fragile zones that need protection; and to recommend how the Ghats can be protected and rejuvenated, in consultation with the people and governments of six states.

The problem appears to be that the expert panel, headed by eminent scientist Madhav Gadgil took its job seriously. The report starts by questioning the unscientific basis and practice of India's environmental forest policies, introduced by the British 150 years ago, and notes the ease with which this data-poor system is manipulated. Two examples:

First, the great forest fudge of the late 1970s. Sceptical of a claim made by India's forestry establishment that 23% of the country was forest, then secretary of the Space Department, Satish Dhawan, asked for a satellite scan. It revealed India's forest area to be 14% (settling at 19% after widespread debate).

Second, the paper tigers of Rajasthan's once-magnificent Sariska Reserve, where officials were deliberately fudging figures to show there were 17 tigers in 2004, when there were none.

Such falsification of data is now endemic. With some honourable exceptions, governments, officials, politicians and companies, public and private, lie systemically to gain short-term benefit by decimating forests.

So, says the report, the science that guides political and economic decision-making "must stand on a bedrock of empirical facts".

The report recommends remedial measures for the Western Ghats that, if implemented, will clearly affect the varied interests ravaging what is one of the world's hotspots for biodiversity.

But biodiversity is a buzzword. If your eyes glaze over at it, let me explain. It is not inaccurate to call the forests of the Western Ghats a major constituent - if not the biggest part - of India's biotic capital, as much strategic reserve as food stocks, nuclear arsenal, gold bullion and foreign exchange holdings. There are thousands of as-yet undiscovered species of plants and animals; as many as 1,500 species of flowering plants, 500 animals and an unknown number of fungi and insects found nowhere else on earth but in the mysterious forests of the Ghats.

The great biologist Edward Wilson once said that the unsolved mysteries of the rain forest - the deepest parts of the Ghats - are formless and seductive. "They are like unnamed islands hidden in the blank spaces of old maps," he wrote, "like dark shapes glimpsed descending the far wall of a reef into the abyss."

Whenever researchers look, they glimpse new spaces and shapes in the Ghats. The discoveries come in a cascade, sometimes many species in a night. Over the last 12 months, they have found many species of ginger, spider, scorpion, snake, fish and frog, all previously unknown to humankind.

This wealth is not just an exotic zoo for a handful of biologists but a source of future resources and vital indicator of the health of the forests, which are critical to sustaining peninsular India's major rivers. Draining a fourth of the country, these rivers are a life source for some 245 million people in five states.

The report documents corruption, repeated violations of India's laws, ill-planned schemes that irreparably destroyed forests for little or no benefit, and it lays out the health and livelihood threat to the millions who depend on the Ghats. The bottom line: declare the entire zone ecologically sensitive, if it is to be saved.

Yet, the environment ministry's Public Information Officer argues that the "scientific and economic interests" of India will be compromised if it is released in its present form. The ministry's idea of public discussion is to seek the opinion of 11 Union ministries and six state governments.

In his April 9 order, Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi set May 10 as a release date and pointed out that a report commissioned with public money, in the public interest and requiring public participation and debate cannot possibly be withheld. "MOEF's unwillingness to be transparent," said the order, "is likely to give citizens an impression that most decisions are taken in furtherance of corruption." So far, the government has done nothing to dispel that notion.

The views expressed by the author are personal.


    Samar Halarnkar is editor of IndiaSpend, a data-drive nonproft focussed on public-interest journalism. He has written two books and has been a reporter and editor for 25 years. He tweets as @samar11

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