Thiruvananthapuram: After the devastating floods, there is a growing demand to unconditionally implement the report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) chaired by professor Madhav Gadgil.
But here is what the High Level Working Group (HLWG), which was formed under renowned space scientist K Kasturirangan to soften the WGEEP report, had to say about Gadgil's radical pronouncements. “The Gadgil report was prepared using incomplete information and without adequate scientific rigour. Even the methodology that WGEEP said it would adopt was not completely used,” says Kasturirangan report, which was submitted in April 2013.
The HLWG expresses shock at the 'perfunctory' manner in which Gadgil and team branded the entire Western Ghats as ecologically sensitive. “The WGEEP discussed the 12 primary criteria and six auxiliary criteria proposed by Pronab Sen committee (for the identification of ecologically sensitive) in a very general way and with one or two examples from entire Western Ghats and with a remark “incomplete information” under each parameter and recommended the entire Western Ghats as ESA,” adds Kasturirangan report.
Kasturirangan panel wants only 37 per cent of the Western Ghats to fall under the three ecologically sensitive zones (ESZs) in contrast to the 64 per cent recommended by the Gadgil report. (The WGEEP, adopting a graded approach, recommended that Western Ghats should be classified into three regions on the basis of their ecological sensitivity: regions of highest sensitivity or ecologically sensitive zone 1 (ESZ-1); regions of high sensitivity or ESZ-2; and the remaining regions of moderate sensitivity or ESZ-3.)
Nonetheless, as proof of the Gadgil committee's incomplete research, the Kasturirangan panel also states that Gadgil had got the extent of Western Ghats wrong by a fairly large margin. According to WGEEP, the total area under the Western Ghats is 1,29,037 square km; the HLWG, using satellite images, found that it was considerably more: 1,64,280 sq km.
The HLWG also felt that Gadgil was too rigid to be sensitive to the peculiar pressures of the country. “The nuances of ecological sensitivity are such that excessive rigidity on this count could defeat the very purpose of this exercise, which seeks to strike a balance between preservation of our ecological endowments and the needs of development,” the HLWG report said.
The HLWG, even while appreciating the efforts made by WGEEP, found the following limitations. 1) Using criteria with incomplete back up information for designating entire Western Ghats as ESA; 2) identifying ESZs without taking into account the human cultural component which is essentially the livelihood and developmental needs of human populations; 3) 'Coarse grid size' used for zonation resulting in the inclusion of entire taluks having only a fraction of ecologically fragile areas as ESZs. Considering these limitations, the HLWG said the WGEEP itself suggested that ESZs designated require refinement and further examination.
Man vs beast
The tone of the Kasturirangan report, unlike that of Gadgil, clearly suggests that given a choice the team will attach greater importance to a poor man getting sustenance from the forest than, say, the Giant Malabar Squirrel. “Management of the Western Ghats through prohibition and fiat is often detrimental to the interests of the very people and environment policy is aiming to protect,” the report says. Incentivisation, and not displacement, is the HLWG motto.
Gadgil committee, on the other hand, had taken an activist position. Just because a windmill project in Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary threatened Maharashtra’s state animal, the Giant Malabar Squirrel, the Gadgil committee had applied a blanket ban on wind mills across Western Ghats area. Gadgil virtually threatened the future of the legendary Kodagu coffee when it recommended that existing plantations in ESZ be replaced with endemic plant species.
Cultural landscapes within forests
Kasturirangan panel admonished the Gadgil committee for being blind to the human cultural component in Western Ghats.
It divided the Western Ghats area into cultural and natural landscapes and placed the cultural landscape, which forms the largest chunk of the Ghats, out of the ambit of ESA even while fully aware that these landscapes are biologically rich.
The cultural landscape, as different from natural landscape, are the swathes within the Western Ghats that have been converted for human life, and are defined by habitations, agriculture and plantations (other than forest plantations). It is the natural landscape that has been branded ESA in the Kasturirangan report.
What’s more, the HLWG acknowledges and allows for the presence of humans even in areas marked as natural landscape. It says that unlike in other countries like Africa, the natural landscapes in Western Ghats cannot be called “wilderness areas”. “It is not wilderness area, but the habitat of its people,” is how the HLWG report puts it. Then it adds: “It is not possible to plan for Western Ghats, only as a fenced-in zone, with no human influence.”
For the HLWG, the human influence has enriched more than it had degraded the biological richness of the Western Ghats. “People living within the rich biodiversity have nurtured nature. They must benefit from conservation,” the report states. It says that facilities should be created for the value addition of non-timber forest products. It also calls for both infrastructure and financial support for the collection and transport of such produce. Kasturirangan panel indirectly mocks at the rigid approach of Gadgil by stressing the importance of generating sustainable livelihood inside biodiversity-rich areas.
The HLWG, unlike the organic cultivation diktat issued by Gadgil, has recommended an incentive-based shift to organic cultivation. Controversially, it even promotes tourism. “It is clear that tourism, particularly after the declaration of portions of the Western Ghats as a world heritage site, can be an important source of livelihood and economic growth in the region,” the report states.
Kasturirangan, too, cut to size
Even then, despite wresting the green initiative from Gadgil, Kerala was dissatisfied with Kasturirangan. The then UDF government appointed a new committee under then Bidoversity Board chairman Oommen V Oommen to pull out more spots out of the areas designated as ecologically sensitive zones by Kasturirangan.
Kasturirangan panel had branded all of 123 villages as ESA, a total of 13,801 sq km. The Oommen V Oommen panel reworked the boundaries and took out habitations, plantations and agricultural lands and four villages (a total of 3247 sq km) from the ESA. It is another matter that the Green Tribunal, in the aftermath of the floods, has asked the state to stick to Kasturirangan's estimate of ESAs in the state