After the floods

| Updated on August 23, 2018 Published on August 23, 2018

Disregard for environmental norms in the Western Ghats is proving catastrophic

As the flood waters recede gradually in Kerala and Karnataka, it is time to introspect on man-made factors that worsened the impact of the unprecedented rain in these two States. These have been highlighted by Madhav Gadgil, Chairman of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, which submitted its report in 2011. At that time, the panel’s recommendations were roundly rejected by the States concerned; they expressed the view that declaring the entire Western ghats region as an ecologically sensitive zone (the panel categorised the area into three zones of sensitivity) would seriously impair economic activity. However, as Gadgil now points out, the excesses of quarrying, construction, sand mining and unabated tourism can hardly be denied in precisely those regions of Karnataka and Kerala which have been devastated by the floods. Satellite images confirm the extent of degradation in these ecologically sensitive areas. However, it appears that Kerala and Karnataka do not agree with this assessment. The Hindu (August 22) reports that the Karnataka government had underscored its objections to even the 2013 Kasturirangan committee report, which diluted the recommendations of the Gadgil panel and reduced the ecologically sensitive area (ESA) to 37 per cent of the total area of the Western Ghats. Kerala too has not accepted the ESA spelt out by the Kasturirangan committee; as against over 13,000 sq km identified by the panel, the protected area actually notified is down to less than 10,000 sq km. In its June 2018 submission on the ESA, the State may have argued for a further reduction, citing the constraints faced by agriculture, plantation and construction of houses.

These States need to reconsider their stand in view of the recent calamity. Even as ecologists have said that the Kasturirangan panel takes a lenient view of mining, industrial and infrastructural activity in the region outside the ESA (what it calls ‘cultural landscape’ as opposed to ‘natural landscape’), it appears that States are not keen on environmental curbs of any sort. The so-called ‘environment vs development and livelihoods’ debate should not be used as a front to shield vested interests. A different governance regime, as suggested by the Gadgil panel, may be required to administer the Western Ghats, which traverses six States. Indeed, the challenge is to set up decentralised, participatory institutions to manage hilly regions and river basins that stretch across States, as existing bodies do not seem to have lived up to their role. However, the Kasturirangan panel makes a valid observation that results are better achieved through incentives than policing. It also observes that the Gadgil panel’s provisions are reasonable in scope, but can be misinterpreted by implementation agencies.

The Centre should the urge the States to accept what is best in both the reports, without entertaining any further reduction of ecologically sensitive areas. Sustainable development is an imperative in times of global warming and extreme weather occurrences; it cannot be a mere slogan.

Published on August 23, 2018
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor