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Business News/ Opinion / The fight to save the Western Ghats

The fight to save the Western Ghats

India needs to move away from wild swings in making environment policies

Illustration by Shyamal Banerjee/MintPremium
Illustration by Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

The Western Ghats, spread over six states in western and southern India, cover an area of approximately 165,000 sq. km. They are home to a unique ecosystem in the country that is under threat from human activities. Nearly 59% of this area has been exploited: habitation, plantation or agriculture. Only 41% of the area is a natural landscape.

Last year, a high-level working group, led by K. Kasturirangan, a former chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization, recommended that 37% area under pristine condition be declared an Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA) by the Union ministry of environment and forests. This would have, effectively, led to a ban on any industrial or habitation activities in this zone. The report was submitted in April.

Trouble erupted last year when former Union minister for environment and forests, Jayanthi Natarajan, accepted the recommendations of the Kasturirangan panel. This led to protests by six states, chief among them Kerala, as being obstructive to their developmental efforts.

Within days of Veerappa Moily’s taking over as the new minister, there were ample hints that the report’s implementation may be delayed until after the forthcoming elections. The six states in question—Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat—will highlight their concerns on the report and only after that will its implementation begin. Kerala, for example, has already highlighted its opposition to the report to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his visit to the state last week. In any case, the report’s future is now uncertain.

The wild swing of opinion on the report by the Union government highlights what is wrong with environmental protection in India.

Of the more than two dozen odd recommendations of the panel, the key ones concern the establishment of industries, thermal power plants, mining and quarrying and construction in this ecologically fragile zone. The panel recommended a ban on these activities. (It banned building and construction projects above 20,000 sq. m and prohibited township and area development projects).

It would be a gross travesty to say the panel was not sensitive to the developmental needs of the affected states. For example, the southern region is endemically short of power and hence there is immense pressure on states to permit construction of power plants in this region. Here the question is one of choice. For example, the panel has only banned building of thermal power plants but has permitted hydro power projects subject to careful environmental clearances. This, in any case, is the normal process for any large hydro power project. Similarly, any large-scale building and construction activity is likely to serve commercial interests and not the developmental priorities of the region.

These are sensible recommendations and burying them for political reasons is not the right step.

This newspaper has often held that blind environmentalism serves no purpose and, in fact, ends up hurting the very people whose livelihoods it seeks to protect. But equally, as any economist will tell you, a clean environment is a necessary ingredient for long-term growth. China’s blind industrial expansion, leading to a virtual environmental disaster should serve as a warning that ultimately environmental destruction proves counterproductive to growth.

India needs to adopt a different approach to protect its environment. As a first step, it needs to move away from a politically directed process of taking key environmental decisions. The National Green Tribunal represents an important step in moving away from that kind of command-and-control mode of decision-making. But that is just a single step. The question is how does one move away from politicizing these important, and far-reaching, decisions? Either way, these decisions are subject to hectic lobbying: environmentalists want a total halt to any exploitation of these regions while developers want a free hand. There is a middle ground that permits sane, careful, balance between the two. India needs to reach that zone where sensible decisions can be made.

Should a complete ban be effected on any development in the ecologically sensitive areas of the Western Ghats? Tell us at

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Published: 05 Jan 2014, 07:56 PM IST
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