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Gadgil Panel Report and Kerala Floods

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August 25, 2018

What is the issue?

  • The recent floods of catastrophic dimensions have ravaged the state of Kerala.
  • This has proved the rejection of Gadgil panel report to be a costly error for people and environment.

What was the Gadgil Panel on?

  • About 8 years ago, the Centre constituted the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP).
  • It is a 14-member panel under the chairmanship of noted ecologist Madhav Gadgil.
  • It was tasked to look into measures to arrest the ecological devastation from human activities in the Western Ghats.
  • The 1600-km-long mountain range of Western Ghats is a fragile ecosystem.
  • It is regarded as one of the eight ‘hottest’ biodiversity hotspots in the world.
  • Kerala accounts for nearly 18% of the biodiversity-rich Western Ghats.
  • The Gadgil panel submitted its report in 2011.

What are the key recommendations?

  • The Gadgil Committee divided the Western Ghats into three ecologically sensitive zones (ESZ).
  • These are the highest (ESZ1), high (ESZ2) and moderate sensitivity (ESZ3) zones.
  • This is in addition to the Protected Areas managed under acts such as the Wildlife Protection Act.
  • It suggested that ESZ1 and ESZ2 would be largely ‘no-gone’ zones.
  • So mining, polluting industries as well as large-scale development activities, including new railway lines are restricted.
  • It also objected to new dams, thermal power stations or massive windmill farms or new townships in ESZ1.
  • The panel however gave importance to the local communities and gram sabhas.
  • They were given a larger say in deciding on matters relating to the ecology of these regions.
  • It also called for
  1. stricter regulation on tourism
  2. phasing out of plastics and chemical fertilisers
  3. a ban on diversion of forest land into non-forest applications
  4. a ban on conversion of public lands into private lands

What happened next?

  • The Gadgil panel report was rejected by the then Union Environment Minister.
  • The report was also unacceptable to any of the six Western Ghats States.
  • These included Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat as well as Pondicherry (UT).
  • A year later, the government appointed a new committee under the chairmanship of K Kasturirangan.
  • It was tasked to “examine” the WGEEP report.

What were the changes made?

  • The Kasturirangan committee did away with the graded approach in terms of ecological sensitivity.
  • It rather divided the Western Ghats into cultural lands (where there are currently human settlements) and natural lands.
  • It recommended declaring cultural lands into ecologically sensitive area (ESA).
  • This spanned around 60,000 sq-km or 37% of the total area.
  • Recently, the Environment Ministry notified an area of around 56,000 sq km in the Western Ghats as ESA.
  • In Kerala, the Kasturirangan committee had proposed an area of 13,000 sq km as ESA.
  • But under pressure from the Kerala government, the notified area was brought down to less than 10,000 sq km.

Why was the Gadgil panel report rejected?

  • The Gadgil panel faced stiff resistance from all political parties, particularly in Kerala.
  • It was primarily because of the involvement of private land.
  • A large part of the ecologically sensitive zones belonged to private citizens.
  • Attempts to introduce social control over the use of private land have often been challenged.
  • The restrictions may not have much of an impact on people.
  • But they are often instigated, by groups with vested interests, to oppose such moves.
  • Popular resistance thus increases the political considerations in implementing such regulations.

What are its implications?

  • Nearly 40% of the granite quarries in Kerala in 2014-15 were located in ecologically sensitive areas.
  • Significantly, a quarter of them were in the Gadgil committee-earmarked extremely sensitive ESZ1.
  • These are notably some of the regions which have been devastated by the recent floods.
  • The present disaster caused by heavy rainfall in Kerala could not have been completely avoided.
  • But its severity could have significantly been reduced, if not for the rejection of WGEEP's proposed zoning.
  • If the measures to protect the fragile environment were in place, man-made factors would not have worsened the impact.
  • Development in the State in the last several years had materially compromised its ability to deal with a disaster of this proportion.

What is the way ahead?

  • The Western Ghats States need to reconsider their stand in view of the recent calamity.
  • The "environment vs development and livelihoods" debate should not be used to shield vested interests.
  • A different governance regime, as suggested by the Gadgil panel, may be required to administer the Western Ghats.
  • However, Kasturirangan panel's observation that results are better achieved through incentives than policing is valid.
  • Indeed, the challenge is to set up decentralised, participatory institutions to manage hilly regions and river basins.
  • The Centre should urge the States to accept the best in both the reports.
  • It should not entertain any further reduction of ecologically sensitive areas, for nature's and hence people's sake.

Source: BusinessLine

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