January 12, 2014

WESTERN GHATS:On Gadgil-Kasturirangan Reports

P Krishnaprasad

THE consciousness that preservation of nature and environment is essential for the existence of human life is getting strengthened day by day the world over. However, the report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), popularly known as the Madhav Gadgil report, and that of the High Level Working Group (HLWG), known as Kasturirangan report, have evoked opposition from all sections of the people. This article attempts to critically assess these reports and to remove the misconceptions among sections of pro-environment activists as to why the peasant movement, which always stood for conservation of environment, took a position against the implementation of WGEEP-HLWG reports by the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) of the government of India. IMPORTANCE OF THE ISSUE The Western Ghats and the eastern Himalayas in India have been classed among the eight “hottest hotspots” of biodiversity in the world. Many important rivers such as Godavari, Nethravathi, Krishna, Vaigai, Kaveri, Kunthi and numerous other water bodies originate from the Western Ghats that run parallel to the West Coast --- from the river Tapi in the north to Kanyakumari in the south. As per the Gadgil report, it is 1490 km long and 48 to 210 km wide, with an area of 1,29,037 square km. It shelters as many as 25 crore people in six states, namely, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamilnadu. A study of the southern region, comprising the states of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamilnadu, showed that about 40 percent of the original vegetation cover was lost or land converted to other uses between 1920 and 1990. In the context of neo-liberalism where the level of environmental degradation due to reckless exploitation of natural resources by corporate houses has increased manifold, it is the working class and the peasantry that have to address the environmental challenges with utmost seriousness. In view of the environmental sensitivity and ecological significance of the Western Ghats, as well as possible impacts of climate change on this region, the MoEF constituted the WGEEP through an order dated March 4, 2010. The 14 member panel with renowned environmentalist Prof Madhav Gadgil as chairman held 14 meetings in one and a half years and submitted its final report on August 31, 2011. But the report was prepared without any consultation with the local population, people’s representatives and political parties. When the report was made public in March 2012, various peasant organisations, socio-political movements and all the six state governments levelled the widespread criticism that certain recommendations for conservation of nature and environment were against the fundamental rights and livelihood of the local residents, and would impede local development. The massive opposition compelled the MoEF to form the HLWG on August 17, 2012 under the chairmanship of famous space scientist and planning commission member Dr Kasturirangan to revisit the WGEEP report. The HLWG had 10 meetings and four field visits before it submitted its report on April 15, 2013. In the context of pressure from the Supreme Court and National Green Tribunal, the MoEF did not even consider the crucial aspect of whether the HLWG had addressed the concerns raised by the local people. It hastily initiated steps to implement the HLWG recommendations and declared 4,156 villages in six States (99 in Goa, 64 in Gujarat, 1576 in Karnataka, 123 in Kerala, 2159 in Maharashtra and 135 in Tamilnadu) as Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESA). The intention was to impose the Indian Environment (Protection) Act on all these villages. This bureaucratic step invited widespread resistance and protest actions from the local population, which are still continuing. TERMS OF REFERENCE AND CONGRESS POLICY The UPA government, in the beginning, assigned seven responsibilities to the WGEEP in its terms of reference. These included --- to assess the current status of ecology of the Western Ghats region; demarcate the areas within the region which need to be notified as ecologically sensitive; make recommendations for the conservation, protection and rejuvenation of the region; suggest measures for effective implementation of the notification declaring specific areas in the region as eco-sensitive; to recommend the modalities for establishment of Western Ghats Ecology Authority; and to deal with any other relevant issues. The ministry has subsequently asked the panel to include in its mandate an examination of Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts, Gundia and Athirappilly hydroelectric projects, and a moratorium on new mining licenses in Goa. Humans are an integral component of nature and the existence and conservation of environment is intrinsically linked with human life. But a study of environmental degradation and its impact on various social sections or the society as a whole is not included in the above-said assignments for the WGEEP. Making recommendations for protection of the livelihood and fundamental rights of toiling people, including workers, peasants and tribal people who are dependents upon forest produce, was not included. Thus while constituting the WGEEP, the Congress high command and the Manmohan Singh government lacked the scientific vision that protection of environment would be ensured by protecting the livelihood of the local people. The fundamental error of the Gadgil report emanates from this very trend of environmentalism ‘negating human livelihood to conserve environment,’ and this contradiction has fomented broad opposition from local residents and peasantry against the Indian state. FAILURE OF HLWG The responsibilities given to HLWG were mainly to examine the WGEEP report in a holistic and multidisciplinary manner and to submit an action plan for effective implementation of this report. However, this time the MoEF considered the criticism of inclination towards mechanical environmentalism, negating human interests, and asked the HLWG to study the sustainability of equitable economic and social growth in the region, preservation of the precious biodiversity and ensuring the rights, needs and developmental aspirations of local and indigenous people, tribes, forest dwellers and other most disadvantaged sections of the local communities while balancing equitable economic and social growth with sustainable development and environmental integrity. But the HLWG miserably failed to do justice to these crucial aspects and, instead of addressing the concerns raised by the local residents and peasant movements which could have been done by accepting certain amendments and issuing clarifications, it made several amendments that only diluted the WGEEP recommendations. The HLWG also aroused adversity by recommending whole villages as eco-sensitive areas and by retaining the anti-people guidelines of the WGEEP report. On its part, to contain the mass protest, the Congress leadership has been propagating the lie that the MoEF has rejected the Gadgil report and accepted the Kasturirangan report. But the terms of reference of the HLWG was very specific: to so amend the WGEEP report that the MoEF could implement it. The HLWG is only a working group to suggest an action plan for effective implementation of WGEEP report with amendments. RECOMMENDATIONS THAT AFFECT HUMAN LIFE 1) On land use: The most crucial recommendation creating anxiety among the local population is the following broad guideline in EGEEP report (vol 1, pp 41-42): “change in land use not permitted from forest to non-forest uses or agricultural to non-agricultural, except agricultural to forest (or tree crops)” except when an extension of existing settlements is needed to accommodate an increase in the local population. This means an absolute ban on developmental and construction activities, except housing, and cannot be accepted. The HLWG report made no amendment to this clause. Since the MoEF has accepted the HLWG report, this clause on land use gets legitimacy. Thus no basic developmental activities including construction of schools, hospitals, government offices, libraries or even cattle sheds would be permitted in the eco-sensitive areas and other areas up to 10 km distance. This means no construction of buildings above 20,000 sq m, no infrastructure development like roads and railways, no non-red category industries. Since the notification process has started, obviously there will be many impediments including court injunctions against construction or development projects in all the 4,156 villages which are supposed to be declared as eco-sensitive. It is quite natural that people denied of basic socio-economic development will be compelled to evacuate in future. Though this serious apprehension was voiced through various petitions, the HLWG and the MoEF did not consider it. This is highly dictatorial and cannot be tolerated in a democratic society. 2) Ban on converting public land to private land: The guidelines of the WGEEP report (vol 1, p 41) say that public land could not be converted to 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 the land tax. They are small and marginal peasants, belonging to new generation of settled farmers who have migrated to high ranges, or poor tribal families. Since the HLWG did not make any amendment to the above clause and the MoEF has accepted its recommendations, such families would be denied of land pattas forever. Hence the demand that the government must not accept this clause; rather it must issue land pattas to deserving peasant families in possession of agricultural land. 3) Ban on using forest land for non-forest purposes: The 2006 act about the rights of tribals and traditional forest dwellers allows them to cultivate the forest land on which they have depended for livelihood for generations. But a clause the WGEEP report says: “forest land should not be used for non-forest purpose.” This contravenes the said rights provided to tribes and traditional forest dwellers. Also, there are thousands of lease farmers who cultivate and get livelihood from forest land and this clause would be detrimental to them too. While the HLWG did not make any change in this clause, the GOI should reject it. 4) Phasing out of chemical fertilisers: The WGEEP report recommends phasing out of the use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and weedicides within a certain period. The HLWG did not amend it. No one can oppose organic cultivation; use of chemical fertilisers needs to be strictly regulated. But regulation and prohibition are different things and a complete ban on minimum necessary use of chemical fertilisers cannot be accepted by peasantry. Excessive use of chemical fertilisers is not an issue specific to Western Ghats alone; it relates to the entire country and the world. Prohibition will negatively affect agricultural production and the income of peasant families. Hence the MoEF claim that nothing in its order would negatively affect the farmers is factually wrong. 5) No monoculture plantations; threat of replacing plantations with natural forests: The WGEEP report, the subheading of Forestry: Private Lands, recommends: “no monoculture plantation of exotics like eucalyptus; existing plantations of such exotics should be replaced by planting endemic species or allowing area to revert to grassland where it was originally grassland.” While commenting on this clause, the HLWG report said: “the sector-wise guidelines stoke fears of selective interpretation and misuse. In this case, WGEEP specifies that in ESZ1/ESZ2 change in land use would not be permitted from forest to non-forest uses or agriculture, except where it is needed for extension of village populations. It also specifies that even on private lands, there will be no monoculture plantation of exotics like eucalyptus and existing plantations should be replaced by planting endemic species. Therefore, even though, there is no detailed description of the ecological problems of coffee, the implication of this recommendation is that all plantations would have to be replaced with natural forests in the foreseeable future.” This is a matter of serious concern for tens of thousands of plantation workers. The HLWG did not consider the fact that coffee, tea, rubber etc are exotics and amend the said clause. The large tracts of cash crop plantations make invaluable contributions to the economy and provide employment and income to lakhs of people. As these need be protected, the MoEF must reject this recommendation. 6) On identification and demarcation of eco-sensitive areas: The identification and demarcation of ESAs in HLWG report is unscientific, and no survey was conducted to identify such areas. The HLWG adopting borders of the revenue villages to demarcate the ESAs is unscientific. Thus many sensitive areas (e.g. 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. HLWG has declared numerous heavily populated habitats as ESAs though the suggested criterion is a population density below 100 persons per sq km. The WGEEP too did not consider the natural boundaries, sensitivity of the landscape and significance of biodiversity while fixing the ESZs. Hence the MoEF must take steps to have a detailed survey with the involvement of the local people to identify and demarcate the ESAs. ACTION PLAN AND INCENTIVISING PEASANTRY Both WGEEP and HLWG have talked loud about organic cultivation and incentivisation of agriculture. But the action plan submitted by HLWG has no specific recommendations for allocation of a special fund for promoting organic cultivation and for extending subsidy to agriculture, except the fund for forest and environment conservation. It indicates a lack of earnestness in the entire affair. As for a conflict between the humans and wildlife, peasants living in the forest areas tell us numerous stories of loss of life, crops and property. Wild elephants have killed 68 human beings in the last 20 years in a single panchayat, namely Thirunelly in Wayanad district of Kerala. But both the reports are silent on protecting the life and crops of peasantry from wild animals. The government has the responsibility to find a permanent solution to this critical issue. The MoEF must segregate the wildlife and human habitats by constructing a three metres deep trench and a four metres high fence on iron pillars along the entire forest border, especially around the wildlife sanctuaries. But the WGEEP, the HLWG and the MoEF did not recognise the real life problems and pain of the people living in forest areas. Any expression of concern for environment without a concern for human beings is nothing but hypocrisy. The unbending opposition of locals against both the reports is due to such grave failures to protect the livelihoods and life of human beings. As per the HLWG report, no red industry will be allowed in the ESZs. But milk processing, meat processing, extraction of vegetable oil and hospitals also come in this category and the MoEF is unwilling to save them. The suggestion of WGEEP that the final demarcation of zones by taking the micro watersheds and village boundaries into account, and fine-tuning of the regulatory as well as promotional regimes, must be based on extensive inputs from local communities and local bodies, must be highlighted. According to the WGEEP, the Gram Sabha is supreme in decision making. But in reality the WGEEP has recommended no statutory role for Gram Sabhas to change, amend and delete any clause in the guidelines. Also, Gram Sabhas are not sacrosanct and are prone to be manipulated and hijacked by property owning classes and local kingpins. GADGIL REPORT: NO MAGNA CARTA About many aspects like conservation of forest areas, paddy fields and water bodies, there is no effective recommendation in the WGEEP report. Out of the existing forest area of 69 million hectares (mha), only 8.35 mha have been categorised as dense forests. More than 20 mha of forests are monoculture and more than 28.8 mha are fragmented open forests with low tree density. The teakwood plantations create hostile environment to both flora and fauna, make forests arid, prevent the undergrowth and lead to desertification; they are thus the major reason thrusting wild animals to human habitats in search of food and drinking water. But the WGEEP report did not discuss these aspects and recommended replacing monoculture plantations with natural forest, though it did recommend replacing monoculture plantations on private lands. The preservation of paddy fields and water bodies in the entire Western Ghats area is not addressed by both the reports. The erstwhile LDF government in Kerala had enacted the Paddy Fields And Water Bodies (Conservation) Act that prevents conversion of paddy fields to any other use, and equivalent recommendations could have been made by WGEEP for all the six states. The HLWG should well have recommended to the 14th Finance Commission a special food security fund to encourage social cooperatives of peasants to modernise and mechanise agriculture and animal husbandry and to establish agro-processing units and marketing networks. The two reports are at best a bureaucratic exercise not based on any scientific assessment of the human-environment relationship in the region. The limitation of both the reports is that a balance between protection of the people’s livelihood and conservation of the environment is missing. Thus now the progressive class and mass movements have the responsibility to rally all sections of the people for removal of anti-people recommendations in these reports and incorporate provisions favouring the people’s genuine developmental aspirations and livelihood along with preservation of environment and biodiversity. In this regard the All India Kisan Sabha has demanded that the prime minister must order a scientific assessment of the issues involved by a broadbased committee of scientists, social scientists, environment experts, organisations of the peasantry, with adequate representation to varied political opinions from the affected states. Public hearings and broadbased consultations with all the stakeholders must be held before arriving at a comprehensive plan for protection of fragile ecosystems and livelihoods. The central government must keep the implementation of HLWG report in abeyance till that time.