Girl from Nilgiri leads petition to ‘protect’ Western Ghats, Centre, states served notice

The petition says 50 million people are directly dependent on the Western Ghats and its ecology, and another 200 million are indirectly dependent.
The Western Ghats are recognised among the world’s eight biodiversity hotspots.(AFP Photo)
The Western Ghats are recognised among the world’s eight biodiversity hotspots.(AFP Photo)
Updated on Jun 19, 2020 12:04 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, Panaji | ByGerard de Souza | Edited by Abhinav Sahay

The Supreme Court has issued notice to the Union ministry of environment and forest and the six states lining the Western Ghats in response to a petition seeking reinstatement of the recommendations made in a report filed by Western Ghats Ecology Experts Panel (WGEEP).

A young girl from the Nilgiris, M Kaviya, is the lead petitioner among the 23 individuals who moved the plea in SC. The petition, as interim relief, prays for allowing only those activities permitted in the WGEEP report in specified areas.

M Kaviya is one among the seven children listed as petitioners and supported by several others including environmental activists and NGOs like the Goa Foundation from Goa, Ankur Trust from Maharashtra and Kerala’s River Research Centre apart from others from the six Western Ghats states.

The WGEEP report by renowned ecologist Dr Madhav Gadgil was submitted in 2011, but its recommendations to restrict damaging activities like mining, quarrying and red-category industries in the Western Ghats are yet to be implemented by the Centre or the governments of the six states.

The matter was listed before a bench headed by Chief Justice S A Bobde, who directed that a notice be issued to the relevant parties including centre and governments of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

“[We] have approached the Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Constitution of India for urgent directions and orders that will result in an effective, sustainable and credible conservation regime for the Western Ghats, its diverse ecosystems and ecologically sensitive zones,” Claude Alvares, Director of Goa Foundation, said.

Alvares stated that a population of 50 million people is directly dependent on the Western Ghats and its ecology, and another 200 million people are indirectly dependent.

“The future of entire southern India is intimately linked with the healthy survival of the Western Ghats. The governments have abjectly failed to do justice to the Western Ghats, despite being empowered to do so,” he added.

The petition has cited the “massive environmental disasters” that struck several parts of Kerala and Karnataka during the 2018 monsoon, and in 2019, killing 483 people in Kerala, 16 in Kodagu, Karnataka besides forcing 4.50 lakh people into relief camps as houses were destroyed, roads was washed out and buildings collapsed.

Acknowledging that the Western Ghats are a global biodiversity hotspot, and hence needed to be conserved, the Union Government had set up the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel headed by Dr Madhav Gadgil back in 2009.

Dr Gadgil had recommended that large swathes of areas falling within the Western Ghats be marked as ecologically sensitive areas.

However, owing to opposition from states, the MoEF set up another committee called the High Level Working Group headed by former ISRO Chief Dr K Kasturirangan who further reduced the area to be notified as ecologically sensitive. However, this report too was rejected by many states.

“The Kasturirangan Report has been watered down considerably by various State governments, with the active collaboration of the Ministry of Environment, to a level of meaninglessness,” Alvares said.

He further pointed out that Kerala has excluded the entire area recommended by the Kasturirangan Committee and set up its own committee, Goa and Maharashtra have sought to exclude a large number of villages from proposed eco zones, while Karnataka has not accepted the Kasturirangan report.

“As a result, the region, recognized as one of the world’s eight biodiversity hotspots, does not have the protection that was sought by the environment ministry when it set up the WGEEP,” he said.

Back in November last year, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had set the ministry of environment, forests and climate change a fresh deadline of March 2020 for the finalization of eco sensitive zones in the Western Ghats, and warned that any further delay would mean that the advisor in the MoEF would not get any salary till the notification was finalized.

The ministry had apprised the tribunal of states’ demand for more and more exclusions citing the need for development. It was said that the need for development sometimes runs into conflict with the need for environment protection and that both aspects need to be balanced.

In August 2018, the NGT, while frowning upon yet another delay in finalization of the eco sensitive zones in the Western Ghats, had barred the linked states from making any changes to the ecologically sensitive areas as it “may seriously affect the environment”, especially in the view of the floods in Kerala.

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