New Delhi: A high-level panel recommended that “activities with maximum interventionist and destructive impact on the environment” be prohibited in ecologically sensitive areas (ESAs) identified in the Western Ghats, in a report submitted on Wednesday to environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan.
The group headed by Planning Commission member K. Kasturirangan said 37% of the total area of the Western Ghats is ecologically sensitive, covering about 60,000 sq. km spread across Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
The panel used remote sensing technology to demarcate ESAs in the Western Ghats.
For this, it first distinguished between cultural and natural landscapes in the region. Cultural landscapes, which include human settlements, agricultural fields and plantations, covered 58.44% of the Western Ghats. Of the remaining area marked as natural landscape, about 90% was identified as ESA, where the panel called for a complete ban on mining, quarrying and sand mining.
“All current mining areas in the ESA should be phased out within the next five years, or at the time of expiry of mining lease, whichever is earlier,” it said in its report, available on the environment ministry’s website, which Mint has reviewed.
“It is imperative that we protect, manage and regenerate the lands now remaining in the Western Ghats as biologically rich, diverse, natural landscapes. We have reached a threshold from which we cannot slip further,” Kasturirangan said in a statement. “This has to be the objective of future planning and regulation in this recognized centre of biodiversity in our country.”
The panel also said no thermal power projects should be allowed in the ESA and hydropower projects should only be allowed subject to “a cumulative study which assesses the impact of each project on the flow pattern of the rivers and forest and biodiversity loss”.
“All ‘red’ category industries should be strictly banned,” the report states. “As the list of industries categorized as ‘orange’ includes many activities like food and fruit processing, there will not be a complete prohibition on this category. But all efforts should be made to promote industries with low environmental impacts.”
Red category industries are identified as heavily polluting by the environment ministry and include fertilizer plants, oil refineries, tanneries and copper smelters in a list of more than 60 items.
Sunita Narain, one of the 10 members of the group and director general of the research and activist non-profit group Centre for Science and Environment, said building and construction projects of 20,000 sq. m and above will also not be allowed in the ESAs. “We have looked at industries which have the maximum impact on environment,” she said over the phone.
“Environmentally sound development cannot preclude livelihood and economic options for this region,” the panel said in its report. “The answer (to the question of how to manage and conserve the Ghats) will not lie in removing these economic options, but in providing better incentives to move them towards greener and more sustainable practices.”
The report deviated from the suggestions of an earlier panel headed by ecologist Madhav Gadgil seeking guidelines for activities that could be permitted in ecologically sensitive zones. The earlier panel had suggested dividing ecological sensitive zones into three categories with different rules for each.
“We decided that it (categorization) is very difficult to manage and creates enormous problems in terms of violation,” Narain said. “We have tried to find a way to move towards the implementation of the Madhav Gadgil report. It is not dilution of the previous report, but a way to identify ecologically sensitive areas and say that this is no-go zone.”
She said keeping 90% of the Western Ghats as no-go areas, as suggested in the Gadgil report, would have been difficult to implement.
The Kasturirangan report also recommended that wind energy be included in environment impact assessment notifications.
“Additional safeguard for forest diversion in ESA should be introduced. In cases of forest clearance required in ESA, all information of the project, from application stage to approval should be placed in the public domain on the website of MoEF (ministry of environment and forests) and of the forest department of the respective States,” it said.
Environment minister Natarajan said the recommendations of the Kasturirangan panel would be examined urgently and action taken to address the challenges.
The biggest takeaway from the report is that “it is dawning on policymakers that in order to save sensitive ecosystems and endangered species, you need to adopt a landscape approach to conservation as opposed to a species approach and a protected area approach, because a single protected area can’t do much,” said Praveen Bhargav, managing trustee of Bangalore-based conservation non-profit Wildlife First.
While a landscape approach would consider the whole of the Western Ghats in its entirety, species-based conservation would be based around one species, such as the tiger for instance.
The National Green Tribunal had last week asked the environment ministry to “take expeditious steps to finalize acceptance or otherwise of the Gadgil committee report or any other committee report” which was set up to study the ecological significance of the Western Ghats. Justice Swatanter Kumar, chairperson of the Tribunal, gave the ministry three weeks’ time and listed the matter for hearing on 25 April.