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Saving India’s Western Ghats: A Long-Drawn-Out Debate Surrounding Conservation and Development

The Western Ghats are one of the top biodiversity hotspots in the world and form an important watershed. In five Indian states, the mountain range is at the heart of environmental conflicts: Fragmentation and deterioration of forests, biodiversity loss, pollution, soil erosion and landslides, soil infertility and agrarian stress, depleting groundwater resources, climate change and introduction of alien species, caused by developmental and mining projects, have raised the alarm in recent years.

This article is based on a role play event developed by adelphi to complement the Exhibition on Environment, Conflict and Cooperation (ECC) and adapted to the case of the Western Ghats by Manipal University. The event is part of the Climate Diplomacy Initiative supported by the German Federal Foreign Office.

The role play develops a fictional scenario in which the governments of two countries, a mining company, the local rural population and a separatist group have competing interests and claims over shared resources. Also, they have to deal with drought and the harmful impacts of mining, besides facing a changing climate. By slipping into the different actors’ roles, students can experience the connections between natural resources, environmental change and conflict. Participants can also simulate negotiations and engage in multi-party consensus finding. This form of collaborative learning makes clear how shared natural resources can be both a potential source of conflict as well as a point of departure for dialogue and cooperation.

adelphi inaugurated the role play in August 2016, in Berlin, with international high-school students as part of the Elbe Green Summer Session organised by AFS Interkulturelle Begegnungen e.V.

Arrayed along India’s southwest coast is a 1,600-kilometre-long mountain chain with forests older than the Himalayas: the Western Ghats. The mountains are one of the top biodiversity hotspots in the world, housing a large number of indigenous species of plants and animals, and are a recognised UNESCO World Heritage Site. Forming one of the four watersheds of India, the Ghats also attract large amount of rainfall and are at the heart of water conflicts in five states (Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu). Fragmentation and deterioration of forests, biodiversity loss, pollution (air, water and soil), soil erosion and landslides, soil infertility and agrarian stress, depleting groundwater resources, climate change and introduction of alien species, to name just a few, caused by developmental and mining projects have raised the alarm in recent years.

In response to this visible environmental deterioration, the central government constituted two panels comprising environmental experts and other professionals from both governmental and non-governmental organisations (NGO), which recommended that certain landscapes be declared as Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESA), where developmental activities would be banned or restricted. Reports released by both panels were rejected by the state governments. In September 2014, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), established for “effective and expeditious disposal of cases relating to environmental protection and conservation of forests and other natural resources,” criticized the central government for not coming out with a clear and unambiguous stand on the issue and failing to accept completely the recommendations of either reports.

Following stiff opposition from the state governments in the Western Ghats region, the central government asked them to submit reports on the demarcation of ESAs, including ground surveys and objections, further delaying the draft notification for ESA in the region – prompting mine owners to seek conditional sanction from the judiciary to resume operations in Sindhudurg district of Maharashtra. All the states, except Tamil Nadu, have submitted their reports and all except Gujarat have recommended a decrease in ESA. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has initiated fresh consultations with the state governments to reach a consensus and, in the process, also interact with the locals before arriving at a final decision.

The Western Ghats continue to remain in the news as the stalemate over the ESA proposal is far from being resolved. The NGT has under its disposal many cases against projects in the Western Ghats region – the latest being against the Yettinahole Project in Karnataka, wherein the NGT has issued a notice to the MoEFCC, Karnataka government, Karnataka Neeravari Nigam Limited (KNNL), Regional Office of the Environment Ministry and the tree conservation officer. Protests have also not died down on both sides of the debate (conservation and development), as political parties try to create mileage out of the issue by organising hartals (mass protests often involving a total shutdown of workplaces, offices, shops, courts of law etc), as evidenced by the dawn-to-dusk hartal in Idukki district called by the United Democratic Front (EDF), the opposition party in Kerala, against the ruling Left Democratic Front’s (LDF) stance on the inclusion of certain number of villages in the ESA.

The state of socio-ecological affairs in the Western Ghats  

Being a breathing ground for several endangered species of flora and fauna, carrying out effective development in this region is a greater problem as there is no comprehensive solution that can guarantee total sustainability as well as no degradation. The balancing act between conservation and development has given rise to more conflicts in the region than a way out. For example, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have been embroiled in an ugly legal battle over the sharing of water of the River Kaveri (Cauvery) that originates in the Western Ghats. This conflict remains unresolved despite the recommendations of a tribunal that oversees the sharing of the river’s waters and repeated judgements of the Supreme Court (SC) of India (apex court). Recently (in 2016), both states witnessed violence against people and public/private property belonging to the other state in the aftermath of a SC hearing. With the two governments enmeshed in this conflict  unwilling to negotiate on equal terms and accept any decision amicable to both parties, the Kaveri dispute is a long way from being resolved. At the same time, dam projects, as a solution for drinking water problems, are being pushed ahead.

With the exclusion of dams for drinking water and industrial water supply from the ambit of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification 2006, the rampant construction of dams throughout the Western Ghats is causing massive deforestation. The regions in which these dams are being constructed fall under the Ecologically Sensitive Zone (ESZ) 1, according to the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel’s (WGEEP led by ecologist Madhav Gadgil, also called the Gadgil Commission, set up by the central government) recommendations, wherein construction of large dams is not to be allowed. If these projects are undertaken on a larger scale, the Western Ghats are set to lose 6,000 hectares of forest cover. According to some estimates, these projects in the Western Ghats could trigger the displacement of more than 30,000 tribal peoples in Maharashtra, rendering it a social problem as well.

The region harbours a significant tribal population, such as in Karnataka, which includes the Malekudiyas, Siddhis, Soliggas and Halakkis among others. In the politics of development, these tribes who have considered the land their home for ages now, are the affected stakeholders. As the stakes of development rise, when the central government talks of rehabilitation proposals, they do not seem feasible because such measures need a multi-fold backing as the displaced people need to sustain themselves too. Although the provisions of the Recognition of Forest Rights Act exist, basic facilities such as education and healthcare are still lacking in many parts of the region. However, these lands are mineral-rich and have therefore been at the centre of controversy for long due to the lack of compensation and resettlement packages on account of mining and other extractive activities.

Environmentalists have been rallying to raise awareness regarding the loss of forest cover and other issues pertaining to the Western Ghats for a long time. When the Gadgil Commission’s recommendations were made public, these caused massive protests across the five states, especially in Kerala, where strikes organised by political parties hit normal life in upland districts. Protesters called the Gadgil report anti-farmer and alleged that it would drive out forest dwellers. The original report by Gadgil does not mention any such moves and instead recommends that the tribals and other forest dwellers who reside in the Western Ghats region be provided financial assistance to help them switch to organic farming methods. In fact, this report revolves around the assertion that most members of the cultural landscape in the Western Ghats region are benefited by preservation of the natural landscape.

In the light of the protests that erupted as a response to the report, another expert panel was set up – this time under the chairmanship of space research scientist Kasturirangan – that came up with another set of recommendations. The Kasturirangan panel, also called the High Level Working Group (HLWG), mellowed the recommendations to a great extent by, as they said, taking into account human habitation and peoples’ livelihoods in the region – giving equal weight to both human and nature. It identified only 37 percent of the Western Ghats as ecologically sensitive. Moreover, the panel called for incentivizing green and sustainable practices in the region, rather than banning development outright. The result would reduce the area of the Western Ghats identified as ecologically sensitive by nearly half. In fact, Goa Foundation (an NGO) filed an appeal before the NGT, contesting the rejection of the Gadgil report by the MoEFCC. It argued that the Kasturirangan committee had diluted the recommendations of the Gadgil report and that the new report would not help in stopping environmental degradation in the Western Ghats. Still, certain state governments remained dissatisfied. For instance, Karnataka accepted the Kasturirangan report’s recommendation of stopping mining but not quarrying and sand mining in the ESA.

In Kerala, the story does not end at these two reports. The regulations laid down by the Kerala Forest (Vesting and Management of Ecologically Fragile Lands) Act (that empowers the Forest Department to take over EFL from private owners) have also caused confusion in the minds of people, particularly the farmers who feared that their lands would be taken away from them if the ESAs were converted into an EFL and that they would not be compensated. The issues of plantation farmers and hydel power projects (especially the Athirapally power project) are the biggest roadblocks in implementing the ESA proposal in the state. The Athirapally hydel power project would not have been given the green light if the Gadgil report had been enforced According to the Kasturirangan report, it can be carried out, but with certain conditions by which the flow of waterfalls would not be affected. However, the project faces severe opposition from the tribal community in the project area, who claim that the project would result in their rights being infringed upon under the Forest Rights Act of 2006.

On the tribal issue, both reports actually fail to reach any consensus on the fate of these communities, even while addressing the environment versus development debate. The 2006 Act on forest rights of tribal communities and traditional forest dwellers, allows them to cultivate the forest land on which they have depended for their livelihood for generations. But as the Gadgil report states, “Forest land should not be used for non-forest purposes.” This contravenes the said rights provided to tribes and traditional forest dwellers. Also, there are thousands of leasehold farmers who cultivate and secure livelihood from forest land and this clause would be detrimental to them too. The Gadgil report says that public land should not be converted into private land. But there are tens of thousands of peasant families, including tribes, possessing agricultural land for decades in the Western Ghats region but they have been denied land documents; many thousand families are prevented from remitting land tax. They are small and marginal peasants belonging to a new generation of settled farmers who have migrated to high ranges, or poor tribal families.

It is to be noted that the most polluting ‘red’ category industries (like fertilizer plants, oil refineries, tanneries and copper smelters), as per the Kasturirangan report, can be established outside the ESA (67 percent of the Western Ghats), while ‘yellow’ category industries can be set up anywhere in the Western Ghats. The only activities that are barred within the ESA are mining, quarrying and sand mining. These activities are banned in the protected areas anyway. The methodology adopted by the HLWG declares this agenda unmistakably clear and loud. According to this, the “natural landscape” needs to be considered for conservation, while in the rest of the area, referred to as “cultural landscape”, any kind of developmental activity is permissible. In other words, of the 164,280 square kilometres of the Western Ghats, as defined by the HLWG, only some 60,000 square kilometres (37 percent) have been set apart for conservation, and in turn to be declared as an ESA. And, it is to be noted that this includes national parks, sanctuaries, reserve forests, world heritage sites and other protected areas. Such kinds of conclusions should be reviewed further for an apt and viable solution.

Finding solutions and reaching consensus

While reaching a solution on the conflicts related to the Western Ghats seems to be a very difficult task, a certain degree of consensus can be reached on a few issues that affect all in the region and where solutions are implementable in terms of feasibility. The governments and other concerned stakeholders need to provide accurate information to the people so that players with vested interests cannot spread rumours to incite violence in order to further their own ends. The mining mafia has played a role in mobilising general sentiments against the Gadgil report.

On top of these two committees, the Kerala Government formed another committee to review the Kasturirangan report and it has recommended that “the inhabited areas, plantations and agricultural lands in the Western Ghats region be excluded from the scope of ESA.” This bureaucratic logjam must end and steps to protect the eco-sensitive areas of the Western Ghats need to be taken. Water-sharing issues will have to be dealt with in a more cooperative manner than is currently being done, as the focus now lies on division of waters and not co-development. As far as energy requirements are concerned, if not on a large scale, a shift from the conventional sources of energy production is important and should be initiated at the primary level so as to sustain and promote it further. Such projects have been successful, as seen in the case of solar energy projects in towns like Kanhangad, Kerala.

On the social front, proper documentation of tribal and other backward and poor communities should be produced so as to segregate households and families during the implementation of projects (with their consent), giving a mutually accepted compensation securitised by a legal expert, an ecologist and a representative of a trusted local NGO, along with the tribal representatives so as to avoid any kind of exploitation in both legal and monetary terms. The local governments (grama sabhas and panchayats) have to partake in the final decision-making on the recommendations of reports or the draft notification (and its implementation). The best option, however, for the MoEFCC would be to get the summary of the reports of the WGEEP and HLWG translated into local languages and sent to the local governments in the Western Ghats region and seek their feedback. An overall objective approach of study and scrutiny should be initiated for further discussions involving all the key people in a true democratic manner.

A democratic process of identifying and demarcating the ESAs should be undertaken in order to avoid the mistakes committed by both Gadgil and Kasturirangan – the former took a completely ecological point of view while the latter’s methodology, as many (especially farmers) would argue, was highly “unscientific”, which is why many sensitive areas (such as Kuruva islands and Edakal caves in Wayanad) are excluded and many areas where no stipulated criteria were satisfied have been included. Aerial surveys have mistakenly marked plantation areas as forests. Both reports have declared numerous heavily populated habitats as ESAs though the suggested criterion is a population density below 100 persons per square kilometre.

Hence, the MoEFCC must take steps to have a detailed survey with the involvement of the local people to identify and demarcate the ESAs. The government must also issue land pattas (a legal document issued by the government in the name of the actual owner of a particular plot of land) to deserving peasant families in possession of agricultural land. Instead of depending on surveys submitted by the state governments, the MoEFCC should take into consideration the recommendations of the two panels (Gadgil and Kasturirangan), based on another review conducted by a joint committee of experts, environmentalists and government officials (local, state and national). Additionally, based on the survey of industries, polluting ones need to be barred or restricted, but those critical for livelihood/employment and basic facilities should not be scuttled completely in the name of conservation. At the same time, big power projects need to go through strict environmental impact assessment procedures.

The Centre – MoEFCC – is not in a position to make a decision that caters entirely to conservation or on other hand, the states’ demands. In the end, it is about finding solutions to the problem of power shortage, paucity of drinking water, poverty and unemployment, without forgetting the fact that ecological biodiversity needs to be recognized as an integral part of the human and cultural landscape as well as the natural one. Everyone agrees that one must strike a fine balance between conservation, preservation and development and ensure that they can go hand in hand; but this is easier said than done.

Contributors: Shariq Ahmad Khan, Nadeem Ahmed, Anirban Paul, Rakshan Kalmady and Nachiket Tekawade (pursuing Bachelor’s in Journalism and Communication, School of Communication, Manipal University, Karnataka, India)

Guided by: Ms. Maitreyee Mishra, Assistant Professor – Senior Scale, School of Communication

Compiled and edited by: Dhanasree Jayaram, Project Associate, Manipal Advanced Research Group (MARG), Manipal University

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.