Fragile ecology

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The devastating floods triggered by monsoon rains in the Western Ghats adversely impacting the life and property of the people in Kerala and parts of Karnataka have revived the debate on whether political expediency has trumped science. The flooding has been blamed on extensive mining activity and construction of big dams in the sensitive and fragile ecological western peninsular region involving the two states of Kerala and Karnataka. The question arises whether it is proper to dump the expert panel’s recommendations on preservation of fragile ecology of this region that could prevent repeat of floods in 2018 and those that took place almost a century ago. Similar floods have also wrecked havoc with the life and property of the people living in these regions across the country. The preventive measures do need a serious consideration by the policy makers and planners in the larger interest of the people. Moreover, there is also a need to calculate the economic costs of the mining activity and power projects that have threatened the bio-diversity rich Western Ghats. Madhav Gadgil, who chaired the Union Environment Ministry’s WGEEP, has said the recent havoc in Kerala is a consequence of short-sighted policymaking, and warned that Goa may also be in the line of nature’s onslaught. The state governments which are mainly responsible for the Western Ghats – Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Goa and Maharashtra – must go back to the drawing board with the reports of both the Gadgil Committee and the Kasturirangan Committee, which was set up to examine the WGEEP report. The main task before them is to make course corrections to environmental policy decisions. This is not going to be easy, given the need to balance human development pressures with stronger protection of the Western Ghats ecology. The issue of allowing extraction of minerals such as quarrying and mining to operate is the most contentious. A way out could be to create the regulatory framework that was proposed by the Gadgil panel, in the form of an apex Western Ghats Ecology Authority and the state-level units, under the Environment (Protection) Act, and to adopt the zoning system that it proposed. This can keep incompatible activities particularly the mining and quarrying out of the Ecologically Sensitive Zones (ESZs) at least for the time being till some sustainable plan is put in place. At present, the Western Ghats spread over an area of 1.29 lakh square kilometers as per WFEEP estimates and 1.64 lakh square kilometers according to Kasturirangan panel are in focus and constitute the sensitive core. It is also an important question what activities can be carried out there. The entire area is internationally acknowledged as a biodiversity hotspot. But population estimates for the sensitive zones vary greatly, based on interpretations of the ESZs. In Kerala, for instance, one expert assessment says 39 lakh households are in the ESZs outlined by the WGEEP, but the figure drops sharply to four lakh households for a smaller area of zones identified by the Kasturirangan Committee. The goal has to be sustainable development for the Ghats as a whole for the people of the states covered by them. The big hydroelectric dams, built during an era of rising power demand and deficits, should be considered afresh and proposals for new ones dropped or put on hold for the time being. The alternate forms of green energy particularly solar power are available now. A moratorium on quarrying and mining in the sensitive zones, in Kerala and also other states, is required to assess their environmental impact. Kerala’s Finance Minister, Thomas Isaac, has acknowledged the need to review decisions affecting the environment, after the floods. Public consultation and debate on the expert panels’ reports will find greater resonance now, and help chart a sustainable path ahead. Moreover, fresh assessment of the industrial activities in the sensitive and fragile zones is needed keeping in view the economic benefits and losses to the life and property due to vagaries of nature. It is also to be borne in mind that short-term economic benefits may be just a fraction of the losses suffered due to natural calamities triggered by mining activity in the ecologically fragile zones of Western Ghats.