The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests moved an affidavit last week in the National Green Tribunal, rejecting the report on the Western Ghats prepared by a committee headed by ecologist Madhav Gadgil. This makes the Kasturirangan panel report the official guideline in opening up parts of the Western Ghats for mining, dams and commercial activities. The Gadgil report had divided the Ghats into three ecologically sensitive zones and deemed nearly 70 percent of the region to be inappropriate for commercial activities. The Kasturirangan report, however, reduced the ecologically sensitive zone to just 37 percent. In rejecting the Gadgil report, analysts say, the government has clearly spelt out its stand in the environment versus development debate. In a conversation with G Vishnu, Gadgil calls the move undemocratic and unconstitutional.
Edited excerpts from an interview:
What do you think will be the impact of the government’s decision to reject your report?
There is a contradiction between what the government is saying and what it is doing. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said that the new government would turn development into a people’s movement. For that, you have to seek the people’s permission before clearing any project. But if you look at the Justice Shah Commission’s report on illegal mining in Goa, for instance, the clearances were given at lightning speed. On the other hand, take the case of a Coca Cola plant in Kerala that the locals wanted to be removed. The gram panchayat had put its foot down and stated that it had to protect the local environment and people’s welfare. The company moved the high court, arguing that the local body had no right to overrule the permission given by the state government. But the court ruled in favour of the panchayat’s decision and said that institutions of local self-governance have the responsibility and right to ensure the well-being of the people. Then the Kerala legislature asked the company to pay compensation to the local people.
This example shows that development must be in accordance with the needs of the affected people; it should not be imposed on them. Our report said the same thing.
But the Kasturirangan report asks how local communities can have a say in economic decision-making. I am surprised how they could pose such a rhetorical question. The report is totally undemocratic and its conclusions are unconstitutional.
What will be the consequences of allowing development activities in the Western Ghats?
Ecology is all about interconnections. There will be ripple effects, deterioration and imbalance. It will impact the health of people living nearby.
Why did you define certain areas in the Western Ghats as extremely sensitive ecologically?
It was our mandate to define the ecologically sensitive areas in the Western Ghats. We decided not to use a broad brush to paint everything as sensitive. We took ecosystems such as natural parks and wildlife sanctuaries as being most sensitive and found that such zones covered 70 percent of the Western Ghats.
Of the various economic activities being carried out in the Western Ghats, what did you find to be the most problematic?
The most striking example was of stone quarries in Kerala. In its report to the Assembly, the state Public Accounts Committee had pointed out that 1,600 of the 1,650 quarries were operating without proper permission. They did not have forest clearance.
Can there be a middle ground between protecting the environment and promoting economic development?
Of course, but the middle ground should be arrived at through a democratic process; not in the way the quarry owners in Kerala manage it by bribing the officials and resorting to violence.
What did you make of the stands taken by the political parties?
Unfortunately, I think none of them are interested in the democratic process. We have to involve the entire population and the gram sabhas. There has been a strong gram sabha assertion in Kerala in the past 18 years. But the political leadership doesn’t want to devolve power to the gram sabhas. We had pointed that out in our report.