Measures to conserve Western Ghats to be delayed by 6 months
Measures to conserve the ecologically sensitive Western Ghats will be delayed by another six months after the central government extended the deadline to notify the new rules till June 30 citing difficulties in consultations due to the coronavirus pandemic, a notification from the Union environment ministry stated. Earlier, the deadline was set to expire on December 31.
The union environment ministry issued a notification on December 31 amending the Environment (Protection) Rules, 1986. In rule 5, sub-rule (3) and clause (d), “for the words, letters and figures 31st December, 2021, the words, letters and figures 30th June, 2022 shall be substituted,” the notification stated. The clause applies to prohibition or restrictions imposed by the government on the location of industries or the carrying on of processes and operations in an area.
After floods and landslides in the Western Ghats in Maharashtra and Kerala last year, experts had called for an immediate demarcation of the ecologically sensitive areas. The government intends to prohibit or restrict industrial and developmental activities in some 37% of the area of the mountain range, an area of 59,940 sq km spread over five states.
The environment protection act rules enjoin the central government to consider all observations and objections within 120 days of publication in the official gazette, and impose the new curbs within 180 days which has been now been amended to extend the timeline. The five Western Ghats states – Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat – have opposed several of the measures.
Last year, these states did not agree with the Union environment ministry’s fourth draft on the subject in a notification dated October 3, 2018. In view of the pandemic, the ministry had on June 16 extended the validity of the notification till December 31. But once again, the five states were not able to reconcile their differences, a ministry official said, requesting anonymity. Several activities such as mining, operating thermal power plants or specified polluting industries, building townships and area development will either be completely banned or severely restricted.
The Western Ghats is an ecologically fragile region. An expert panel led by ecologist Madhav Gadgil in 2010 recommended that 75% of the 129, 037 sq km area should be declared an environmentally sensitive area because of its dense forest and a large number of endemic species. In 2013, a panel headed by rocket scientist K Kasturirangan scaled it down to 50%. The Kasturirangan report’s recommendations were further diluted, and four draft notifications have been issued since.
“The need for conserving Western Ghats ecology without compromising local livelihoods has been recognised in various planning, policy and scientific documents,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at the Centre for Policy Research, a think tank. “Its legal and regulatory enforcement has, however, been a vexed process.
“This new extension for the finalisation of the notification represents political negotiations and prioritisation challenges of various governments,” Kohli said. “It is also an important moment to strengthen the process by reflecting on post-Covid consciousness around public health, food security and biodiversity.”
Several experts have linked unplanned construction and quarrying to the worsening of disasters in the Western Ghats.
“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,” Gadgil had told HT in an interview in October after floods in the Konkan and landslides in Uttarakhand. “People in the Konkan have now started talking a great deal about improper construction of bridges, high embankments and highways in vulnerable areas.”