NEW DELHI: Nearly eight years ago, noted ecologist Madhav Gadgil had warned about the impending natural disasters threatening coastal states, unless critical steps were taken to conserve the ecologically fragile Western Ghats.

In a 552-page report, the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, commonly called Gadgil Commission, suggested shifting from large-scale cultivation of single commercial crops on steep slopes, which was leading to soil erosion and increased run-off, and controlling massive encroachment and deforestation in the catchment areas of major rivers.

Spread across six states, Western Ghats is a treasure trove of biodiversity and source of major rivers, including Godavari, Krishna and Cauvery.

The recommendations, which have been ignored by state governments, are back in focus as the states face monsoon fury with floods and landslides killing hundreds across Kerala, Karnataka and Maharashtra.

Most sites where landslides took place, in fact, fall into the zones which would otherwise have been marked ecologically sensitive, had the key recommendations of the report been adopted.

Referring to the region, as the “Protector of the Indian Peninsula", the report had raised alarm on the rapid erosion of natural capital for man-made capital in the Western Ghats, which has led to “excessive, unnecessary environmental damage".

One key proposal was to designate the entire Western Ghats as an Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA), and then assign three levels of sensitivity to the regions. These were Ecologically Sensitive Zone 1 (ESZ1), Ecologically Sensitive Zone 2 (ESZ2) and Ecologically Sensitive Zone 3 (ESZ3) depending on the topography, climatic features, hazard vulnerabilities, ecological resilience and origin of rivers, among other factors.

The idea was to ensure sustainable development in these areas by focussing on conservation of the ecosystem. The panel recommended controls on mineral extraction and mining and stated that no new mining licences be granted, until conditions improve.

No more new hill stations, no change of land-use from forest to non-forest use, or public to private ownership and no more inter-basin diversions of rivers in the Western Ghats were some of the other recommendations.

“Develop sustainably and conserve thoughtfully," highlighted the report, which was submitted to the then ministry of environment and forests in 2011.

It recommended against building new large-scale dams in Ecologically Sensitive Zone 1. Since both the Athirappilly project in Kerala and Gundia hydel project in Karnataka fall in this zone, these projects should not be accorded environmental clearance.

It even recommended issuing a moratorium on ongoing projects such as dams and mines that can impact water resources, until a Western Ghats Ecology Authority was set up for proper scrutiny and decide on whether to allow them to progress or not.

“Most of the rivers in the Western Ghats are either dammed or diverted. West-flowing rivers have been virtually made into east-flowing rivers by violating all natural laws," it stated.

The report also highlighted that many of the reservoirs, especially in the steep valleys, are silting up prematurely due to the massive encroachment and deforestation of catchments consequent to dam construction. “Idukki dam is a classic case wherein the entire catchment was encroached along with dam construction," it stated.

It also raised concerns over large-scale shift to cultivation of soil-eroding monoculture plantations of tea, coffee, cardamom, rubber, banana, pineapple and timber on steep slopes, leading to increased surface run-off and low seepage deep into the soil. “A policy shift is urgently warranted curtailing the environmentally disastrous practices and switching over to a more sustainable farming approach in the Western Ghats," it stated.

It also recommended decommissioning of dams and thermal projects that have crossed their viable life span (for dams, the threshold is 30-50 years) in a phased manner.

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