Western Ghats face another year’s wait for environment safeguards

Updated on Jul 05, 2022 09:39 AM IST

The draft notification is now in its fourth iteration and was expected to be finalised by June 30, but differences persisted between the governments of Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Goa and Gujarat — through which the Western Ghats extends -- forcing yet another delay.

The Western Ghats in Kochi. (Getty Images/iStockphoto) PREMIUM
The Western Ghats in Kochi. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
ByJayashree Nandi, New Delhi

The deadline to finalise the draft notification to officially earmark ecologically sensitive areas (ESA) of the Western Ghats in six states has been extended for another year, senior environment ministry officials said, thus allowing activities like rock quarrying, mining and establishment of new industries for now.

The draft notification is now in its fourth iteration and was expected to be finalised by June 30, but differences persisted between the governments of Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Goa and Gujarat — through which the Western Ghats extends -- forcing yet another delay, which comes ahead of the crucial monsoon season.

The issue of notifying ESAs in the Western Ghats has been one of the stickiest environment protection challenges in India, with the states resisting the classification for they will curb activities that have an economic benefit, even as the lack of checks mean the delicate ecology is eroded, threatening to worsen monsoon flooding and landslides, and lead to irreversible loss of plant and animal habitat, including of the many endemic species.

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“The draft Western Ghats ESA notification has been given an extension for a year. There is time till next July to finalise the notification,” a member of a committee set up by the environment ministry to review suggestions from the six states said. The committee was set up on April 18.

Attempts to notify the ESA areas began over a decade ago. In 2010, an expert panel led by Madhav Gadgil recommended that 75% of the 129,037 sq km area of the Western Ghats be declared environmentally sensitive because of its dense forests and the presence of a large number of endemic species. This was found to be controversial, with many states deeming it too restrictive, leading to another panel to examine the issue.

Three years later, the second panel, headed by rocket scientist K Kasturirangan, scaled down the area to 50%. The Kasturirangan report’s recommendations were further diluted, and four draft notifications have since been issued.

In the latest iteration of the notification, the area to be notified as an ESA has been shrunk to approximately 37% of the Western Ghats. This draft was issued on October 3, 2018, but the ministry, in view of the Covid pandemic, on June 16 last year extended its validity till December 31, 2021.

The 2018 document recommended a complete ban on mining, quarrying and sand mining; a phase out of all existing mines within five years from the date of the final notification being issued or the expiry of the existing mining lease, whichever is earlier; a ban on new thermal power projects or expansion of existing plants; and a ban on new or expansion of polluting industries as specified by the Central Pollution Control Board or State Pollution Control Board.

The committee member cited above, however, said that the ground situation in many areas earlier identified as ecologically sensitive has changed.

“There is new knowledge on which areas are more disaster-prone. The notification cannot be implemented without resolving the concerns of these six states. The draft notification, particularly area to be categorised as ecologically sensitive, may change significantly once we submit our recommendations on the ground situation,” the member said, requesting anonymity.

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The terms of reference for the committee, headed by Sanjay Kumar, former director general, forests at MoEFCC (Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change), was to examine the views of state governments keeping in view the fragility of the area; deliberate whether a village should be considered as a unit for declaring ESA; assessing whether forest areas can be demarcated separately and whether revenue areas can be excluded; examine profile of activities that are to be prohibited or regulated depending on the economic needs of the area, and finalise the text in the notification.

Other members of the committee include RP Singh, director, Indian Institute of Remote Sensing; S Raju, director general of Geological Survey of India; and R Sukumar, retired professor from Indian Institute of Science and director in charge of eco-sensitive areas at MoEFCC.

While the committee was asked to submit its report by June 30, officials familiar with the matter said that Kumar sought a year’s time to work on the terms of reference.

Experts, however, accused the governments of doing little to protect the Western Ghats.

“The corrupt rulers of the Western Ghats states, in collusion with those with vested interests like the construction industry including stone and rock quarries, do not wish to conserve eco-sensitive areas. The term ‘ecologically sensitive’ is now being used without any discrimination. In our report, we identified areas based on different levels of ecological sensitivity. Unfortunately, the Kasturirangan report included all sorts of areas in the ESA tag,” ecologist Gadgil said.

Reacting to ministry’s plan to further delay the notification, Gadgil said the area will likely witness more ecological disasters in the monsoon.

“These areas need protection. Every year there is more and more evidence that these areas are recording landslides, and disasters are killing hundreds of people. That will continue and increase. We will see disasters this monsoon too. Those in power do not want to protect these areas and are colluding with vested interests. People are not opposed to ESA notification,” he said.

Parts of Kerala and Maharashtra have been vulnerable to floods and landslides in the demarcated regions. Severe floods have ravaged Kerala three times in the last four years, killing hundreds of people and delivering an overwhelming blow to infrastructure and livelihoods.

Landslides and flash floods also ravaged the Konkan region last year.

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