Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh has thrown his weight behind the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) report by offering it “200 per cent” of his support. Mr. Ramesh, who held the portfolio of Environment formerly, said that it would be an “extremely short-sighted decision if the government chooses to ignore the report.”
This was for the first time since the submission of the panel report that Mr. Ramesh has openly backed the panel suggestions.
The assertion of the Minister comes at a time when the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) was considering an expert panel view on the WGEEP report. The Minister’s open endorsement of the report, which had drawn sharp responses from across the five Western Ghats States, came at a function organised at the Kerala Institute for Local Administration, Thrissur, on Thursday. Mr. Ramesh walked into the meeting late in the evening unannounced even as around 120 civic heads of Kerala were deliberating on the Gadgil report.
Confirming the contents of his speech that was made in the absence of the media, Mr. Ramesh told The Hindu that he addressed the gathering while on his way to Kochi from Attappady in Palakkad district.
Incidentally, it was during Mr. Ramesh’s tenure as the Environment Minister that the WGEEP headed by eminent ecologist Madhav Gadgil was appointed. Later, his successor, Ms. Natarajan appointed a High Level Working Group headed by space scientist Kasturirangan to look into the WGEEP report. The government is yet to decide on the two reports.
Most of the Western Ghats States had registered their opposition to the report apprehending that it will hamper their development activities. At the same time, Mr. Gadgil had accused the MoEF and the Kasturirangan panel of creating a wrong impression about the report and projecting it as “draconian proposals.” The pro-report groups felt that vested interest groups including the mining lobby had distorted the panel report.
Referring to the interventions by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to protect Silent Valley forest three decades ago, Mr. Ramesh said that there were several Silent Valleys across the Ghats region. Athirapilly in Kerala and Gundiya in Karnataka were two such sites where conflicts arose around the issue of conservation. It may be recalled that the WGEEP had denied permission to two hydel power projects at these sites earlier.
Criticising the delay in approving the Gadgil report, Mr. Ramesh sarcastically commented that the government may appoint “some Padmanabhan committee” shortly to look into the recommendations of the Kasturirangan committee report. That committee too will also sit on these reports, he remarked.
The WGEEP report was not against development in its content. Instead, it suggested some restrictions on some development activities in some ecologically sensitive areas. The report has put people in the forefront and highlighted the importance of protecting the environment. It was not just drawn up for the protection of water and forests. It was for the livelihood security of the people, which could be saved only through ecological security. The Centre should recognise the ecological value of the Ghats and support the States willing to implement the report by offering them green bonus, Mr. Ramesh suggested.
Showering praise on Dr. Gadgil, the Minister said he required hardly 30 seconds to pick the ecologist as the head of the panel. “Mr. Gadgil is a complete Gandhian who believes in participatory process and bottom up planning process and a researcher who believes and works in modern science. There is no other person in India who knows Western Ghats better than Mr. Gadgil. The report is the product of the conviction, knowledge and belief in scientific process of the ecologist,” he said.