Western Ghats Conservation: Gadgil vs. Kasturirangan Reports

Western Ghats Conservation: Gadgil vs. Kasturirangan Reports
Posted on 26-07-2023

Conserving the Western Ghats: Examining the Recommendations of Gadgil and Kasturirangan Reports

The recent tragic landslide in Maharashtra's Raigad district has reignited discussions about the conservation of the Western Ghats. This mountain range, stretching about 1,600 km parallel to India's western coast, covers an area of 160,000 sq km and spans six states: Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. It is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and ranks among the 36 biodiversity hotspots globally, housing high mountain forests that play a crucial role in moderating the region's tropical climate and exemplifying the monsoon system.

Over the years, human activities, particularly deforestation for tea, coffee, and teak plantations, have severely fragmented the Western Ghats' forests. To address these concerns, the Indian government appointed the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) in 2010, led by renowned ecologist Dr. Madhav Gadgil. The committee's mandate was to study the impact of population pressure, climate change, and development activities on the region.

The WGEEP recommended designating the entire Western Ghats as an Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA) and proposed classifying 64% of the region into Ecologically Sensitive Zones (ESZ 1, ESZ 2, and ESZ 3). The recommendations called for halting almost all developmental activities, such as mining, construction of thermal power plants, and dams, in ESZ 1. Additionally, genetically modified crops, plastic bags, and Special Economic Zones were to be prohibited in all zones. The report emphasized a bottom-to-top approach in environmental governance, advocating for decentralization and empowering local authorities. To oversee the ecological management and sustainable development of the region, the WGEEP suggested establishing a Western Ghats Ecology Authority under the Environment (Protection) Act 1986.

However, the implementation of these recommendations faced significant resistance from stakeholder states due to fears of hindering development and impacting livelihoods. Kerala, in particular, objected to several proposals, including bans on sand mining, quarrying, transport infrastructure, wind energy projects, hydroelectric projects, and new polluting industries.

In response to the resistance, the Union Environment Ministry formed a High-Level Working Group on Western Ghats in 2012, headed by Dr. K. Kasturirangan, former ISRO chief, to formulate a new report replacing the WGEEP's suggestions. The Kasturirangan-led panel recommended designating only 37% of the area as ecologically sensitive, dividing the Western Ghats into cultural and natural regions. The report classified activities into red, orange, and green categories, with each having different levels of regulation or allowance.

The WGEEP, which had been based on sound scientific information and feedback from various stakeholders, criticized the Kasturirangan report for its lack of scientific rigor and failure to involve local communities in economic decisions, potentially violating constitutional provisions.

Regarding the implementation status, in 2014, the Ministry of Environment and Forests decided not to process the Gadgil report further and instead examined the Kasturirangan committee's recommendations. In 2017, the Environment Ministry demarcated an area of 56,285 sq km in the Western Ghats as ESA, deviating from the Kasturirangan committee's recommendation of 59,940 sq km. In Kerala, the ESA area was reduced to 9,993.7 sq km from the Kasturirangan committee's initial suggestion of 13,108 sq km.

Notably, Madhav Gadgil argued that implementing the WGEEP's recommendations would have mitigated the severity of floods and landslides in Kerala in 2018.

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