Ecologist Madhav Gadgil says SC verdict on ESZ flawed

The Supreme Court’s recent directive mandating an eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) of a kilometre around all protected areas, wildlife sanctuaries and national parks doesn’t seem to have gone down well with conservationists.

The directive is flawed, as is the whole regime of nature conservation here, said eminent ecologist Madhav Gadgil during an interview with Manorama Yearbook Online.

Slamming it as “ill-advised”, he said while there is a need to look at threatened habitats and elements of biodiversity overall, the worldwide trend calls most for an urgent need to conserve freshwater ecosystems.

“What needs to be protected most now are the river streams, ponds and wetlands of the country. The open, arid regions and scrub forests come next. Evergreen and deciduous forests are relatively less threatened, and are much less in need of protection,” he remarked.

Not just the focus of protection, but the agency to undertake protection too is inappropriate, Gadgil said.

The order, he stated, is grounded in the notion that protected areas, particularly wildlife sanctuaries and national parks, and the reserved forests, will protect the natural, biological and ecological habitat diversities of the country and that the forest department, in charge of this protection, is the right agency.

 “I think both are very flawed assumptions,” he said.

Reiterating the need for conservation measures to be participatory in nature, he said local communities, not the forest department, should be at the forefront of such activities.

“The Biological Diversity Act, 2002 provides a framework for local communities to suggest how to manage their biodiversity with the help of local bodies. Local-level biodiversity management committees, too, are needed,” he noted.

Quoting the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel Report that he headed, Gadgil said ecological sensitivity, which is the bone of contention now, should be defined case by case on objective grounds.

“Areas are categorised based on high, medium and low sensitivity. Protection should be given in accordance with this. Topography, elevation, rainfall, natural habitats, vegetation and other criteria too need to be considered in this context. Unfortunately, the urban nature conservationist class has no idea of the realities,” he added.

Accolades for Kerala model, K-Rail slammed

At a time when the country's apex judicial body has put forth an ill-advised mandate which is as flawed as the whole regime of nature conservation here, there is an increasing need to revive the famed Kalliasseri Planning Model, Gadgil said.

Slamming the SC's order as impractical, the ecologist said a people-oriented bottom-up approach to conservation with local communities in the forefront is the need of the hour.

He lauded Kerala for its proud record and brave attempts at developing participatory models of conservation coupled with development as early as the 1990s.

The Kalliasseri Planning Model is an exemplar of how people's participation should be undertaken in development programmes, Gadgil remarked.

During 1991-93, the Kalliasseri panchayat in Kannur was chosen for an experiment on Panchayat Level Participatory Planning in continuation with the Panchayat Resource Mapping Programme.  

This unique successful experiment subsequently became the model for the famous People's Planning Campaign (PPC) of Kerala in 1996.

Gadgil was a participant of the campaign and feels any development plan sans local community participation is absurd.

Not just such participatory exercises but the efforts by certain panchayats in the state to constitute their biodiversity registers too have received plaudits from the conservationist.

"All local bodies should create such frameworks to document and suggest proper measures for biodiversity conservation," he said, especially mentioning the efforts made by Kadanad Panchayat in Kottayam. 

The panchayat had, in 2011, prepared a biodiversity register following local agitations against hard rock quarrying and crusher units.

The register documented the adverse impacts of quarrying on their biodiversity and habitat. Although this attempt failed due to vested interests stacked against it, this is how ideally local communities should fight wrongdoings and act as agencies of biodiversity protection, Gadgil said.

The panchayats should go ahead on their own to institute Biodiversity Management Committees as specified by the Biological Diversity Act 2002 and then organise their functioning to guide biodiversity resource management as demanded by the Act, he added.

However, the government's ambitious K-Rail project has not gone down well with the conservationist. "As far as I understand, it will certainly disturb seriously many natural habitats including wetlands. Moreover, its execution will require lots of rock, metal and manmade sand and it will further create demand for rock quarries and their produce" he said, adding that such qualms should not be dismissed by the government.

Kerala Rail Development Corporation (K-Rail) is a Joint Venture company of the Kerala government and the Ministry of Railways, which intends to connect the state capital Thiruvananthapuram with the northern district of Kasaragod in four hours.

The journey takes more than 12 hours now, but land acquisition and survey stone laying of the RS 64,000 crore project had drawn the ire of conservationists and the public.

The CPM-led LDF government, however, has said it will go ahead with the project regardless of the protests.

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