‘Destructive activities are carried out in name of development’: Madhav Gadgil

Mindless construction in the Western Ghats and the Himalayas is worsening climate disasters, ecologist Madhav Gadgil said in an interview on Tuesday
Madhav Gadgil said the climate crisis and unsustainable land use will trigger bigger disasters on India’s west coast.’
Madhav Gadgil said the climate crisis and unsustainable land use will trigger bigger disasters on India’s west coast.’
Published on Oct 20, 2021 12:06 AM IST
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ByJayashree Nandi

Mindless construction in the Western Ghats and the Himalayas is worsening climate disasters, ecologist Madhav Gadgil said in an interview on Tuesday. The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, which was constituted by the central government and chaired by Gadgil, had recommended in 2011 that 75% of the 129,037 sq. km of the Western Ghats – spanning Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Goa and Kerala – be declared an environmentally sensitive area because of its dense, rich forests and large number of endemic flora and fauna. The panel’s recommendations were not implemented. Gadgil said the climate crisis and unsustainable land use will trigger bigger disasters on India’s west coast. Excerpts from interview:

The scale of devastation we are seeing due to extremely heavy rainfall in October is unprecedented in Kerala and Uttarakhand. Why is this happening?

It is not unprecedented. In the Western Ghats, such disasters have been happening frequently in the past few years. In the Himalayas, we have seen instances of such flooding over the past 50 years. The Chipko agitation in Uttarakhand in 1972 was partly triggered by flooding in the Alaknanda because of cutting of trees and hill slopes.

These activities have only increased over the years. The Himalayas are even more fragile compared to the Western Ghats because they were created out of sediments from the sea during the collision of the Indian and Eurasian plates. The Himalayan soil is susceptible to landslides and erosion. The Western Ghats, on the other hand, were created out of volcanic rocks.

In both these regions, we are seeing extremely destructive activities in the name of so-called development. Road projects cutting through hillsides are common to both regions. In 2019, I traveled to Puthumala in Kerala after the landslides and saw several small landslide sites leading up to the big one. These were all along a road construction project. Rock quarries are proliferating along these construction sites to provide construction material. This is leading to a gradual crumbling and weakening of the hills.

The findings of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel were quite revealing. You foresaw these disasters in Kerala and Konkan, and even pointed out the most vulnerable districts correctly. Why do you think your recommendations were not implemented?

I know what kind of vested interests are prevailing. They are nurtured. They are the construction lobby who work so that the rich can make more and more money. People in the Konkan have now started talking a great deal about improper construction of bridges, high embankments and highways in vulnerable areas. In Chiplun, which was badly affected by floods this monsoon, the construction lobby has encroached on the estuary. They found free land, encroached on it and made a lot of money. These vested interests are dominating everywhere in the Western Ghats, and are functioning illegally.

Is it only these construction projects or has climate change also exacerbated disasters in the Western Ghats?

Climate change is having a perceptible impact on the entire west coast. Sea level is increasing, and the pattern of cyclone formation has changed. Cyclonic activity had reduced over Bay of Bengal and increased over Arabian Sea, including a spike in severe cyclones. All along the west coast, the coastal regulation zone has been crumpled under the feet. Mangroves are being destroyed and several ports are being built to support the demand for construction. These will be devastated by cyclones in the future. In another five to 10 years, cyclones will impact the entire region. Gujarat and Maharashtra have already seen the impact with Cyclone Tauktae and Cyclone Nisarga but Karnataka, Goa and Kerala will also be devastated.

The environment ministry is planning to amend the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 to bring significant changes to forest governance in India, including facilitating private plantations for harvesting. How will this impact biodiversity?

Such amendments are in flagrant violation of the Forest Rights Act of 2006. Local communities at least nurture and protect forests because they get non-timber forest produce from it. The forest rights law is not being implemented. Instead, private plantations are being considered, which will replace natural vegetation, leading to devastation of biodiversity. Wildlife will also be forced out, which will have a huge cost.

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Tuesday, December 07, 2021