BENGALURU, HUBBALLI: It is a time when the impact of climate change is so clear in terms of flash floods, landslides and changes in rainfall patterns, the Karnataka government has decided to do away with the Dr. Kasturirangan report on the Western Ghats. This has drawn sharp criticism from environmental activists who see it as a big dent in the efforts to save the sensitive Malnad region.
The Dr. Kasturirangan report, submitted to the government in 2013-14, was said to be a diluted version of the Dr. Madhav Gadgil report. Experts feel that the State and Union Governments are playing politics with the implementation of these reports. “As the Central government is still dilly-dallying and not taking a firm stand on the implementation of the report, it is seeking objections from the states to take a decision and reject it,” activists rue.
The High-Level Working Group, headed by Dr. Kasturirangan, an eminent space scientist and former ISRO chairman, was constituted to review the recommendations made by the committee headed by Prof Gadgil. The most important recommendation of Dr. Kasturirangan report is that 37% of the Western Ghats are to be notified as Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA), while the remaining 63% be designated as ‘cultural landscape’ excluded from the ESA to facilitate sustainable development.
The Union Ministry of Environment & Forests accepted this recommendation and issued four draft notifications under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 with modifications covering only 37% of natural landscape.
The Western Ghats, which has been accorded the status of a biodiversity hotspot by the United Nations, is in dire need of protection even as several developmental projects are queued up, threatening the ecosystem. Rejection of reports like Dr. Kasturirangan’s is only expected to aggravate the damage being caused to the Western Ghats in Karnataka and neighbouring states.
While Kerala is planning to adopt some of the recommendations made in the report, Karnataka rejecting it is being viewed as the first step towards diluting existing protection laws covering the Western Ghats. Activists point out that this shows how politicians have managed to misguide the masses. They say people living in the Ghats will be evicted and displaced although Dr. Kasturirangan’s report speaks of evicting the forest encroachment itself.
Those backing the Kasturirangan report say the government must study the background of those opposing the report as they are allegedly indulging in forest encroachments. According to former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, B K Singh, the legislature and politicians have campaigned against both the reports and have indulged in fear-mongering among the communities.
“Misinformation is spread saying the recommendations will block all development activities in the natural areas. The Kasturirangan report provides for the protection of existing forests and prevents any non-forestry use of these areas. The recommendations can be achieved if forest laws are followed in letter and spirit. That is how the CM is perfectly justified in rejecting it. Regarding the construction of large dams, the Kasturirangan report has diluted Gadgil’s recommendation of prohibiting them and has said that it can be allowed subject to proper ecological water flow,” Singh says.
Senior wildlife conservationist and trustee of Wildlife First, Praveen Bhargav, says that recognising the huge importance of protecting this irreplaceable ecosystem, former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee first took a visionary decision to protect the Western Ghats.
“The Union Government has notified an area of 56,825 sq km across six states as the Western Ghats ESA based on the recommendations of the Kasturirangan committee. The notification includes only 1,533 villages adjacent to forests and not entire districts, taluks or hoblis. There is absolutely no question of people losing their legally owned lands located in the identified villages or stoppage of their bona fide agricultural/horticultural activities or restriction of movement within the identified villages. The State Government, it appears, is tragically bowing to the misinformation campaign of vested interests and stalling the final notification,” Bhargav adds.
“The Western Ghats is the main water source for South India. It must be protected at any cost. The rejection of the Kasturirangan report will only pave the way for altering the existing laws,” says Dinesh Holla, an activist and founder of Sahyadri Sanchaya.
Despite repeated indications of ecosystem degradation in the form of yearly landslides and floods, the Kerala government is still in pursuit of diluting the implementation of strategies and guidelines put forth in the Kasturirangan report. The Wayanad Prakruthi Samrakshana Samithi and other environmental organisations in Kerala strongly criticise and disapprove of this mode of action by the government.
The guidelines issued by the Prof Gadgil committee were met with huge opposition due to its supposedly stringent suggestions. The Kasturirangan panel was constituted to revisit those guidelines. Former Kerala Biodiversity Board chairman Dr. Oommen V Oommen had forwarded the edited Kasturirangan guidelines to the Environment ministry. The Forest and Environment Minister had replied to this document stating his reluctance in accepting the suggested changes as it is.
Senior environmentalist N Badusha from Wayanad Prakruthi Samrakshana Samithi notes that it was an organised misinformation campaign by local politicians to create fear among the forest area dwellers about the reports. “In fact, we have been demanding to implement several recommendations of the Gadgil report. The Kerala government is planning to retain some of the recommendations from both the reports. Sadly, many of those opposing the report have never even read it,” he adds.
“We feel that the Western Ghats, the state of Kerala and its inhabitants will be pushed to peril unless the Kasturirangan report is implemented in full. Considering the action from the Central Government to finalise the eco-sensitive zone in Western Ghats, our approach is that the recommendations of the Prof Gadgil report should be implemented, rather than the Kasturirangan report.
“The approach of the Gadgil report, through its emphasis on involving gram sabhas to finalise the environmentally sensitive zones at local level, looks at people’s participation in the conservation. The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel report was looking at the total environmental sustainability of the Western Ghats, while the Kasturirangan report demarcated cultural and natural landscape separately. There were no suggestions put forward for people’s action towards conservation. In Kerala, the Oommen V Oommen committee report further diluted the area and suggested only marginal areas as ESZ,” says Badusha.
Decoding the Kasturirangan report
Primarily, the red list includes a ban on mining and stone quarrying, setting up of thermal power plants, building and construction projects of 20,000 sqm and above, township and development projects with an area of 50 hectares and above and or with built-up area of 1,50,000 sqm and above
Any activity listed in the orange category will be regulated and can be taken up, but with appropriate permissions. All agricultural and horticultural activities, including plantation crops, are in the green category and fully permissible
Local business and commercial activities including homestays, tea or coffee processing, curing, roasting and grinding, commercial complex, shops, manufacture of cement products like blocks, pipes, bricks and roofing tiles and wood furniture units are in the green category and will continue without any new restrictions