Identifying 37 per cent — or about 60,000 square km — of the Western Ghats as ecologically sensitive, a high-level panel has recommended that “destructive” activities such as mining, thermal power, major construction, and some hydel power projects should not be allowed there.

However, the panel was silent about any restrictions in the remaining 96,000 square km area, thus creating the perception that it had diluted earlier recommendations that the entire Ghats should be declared as an eco-sensitive area.

The panel, headed by space scientist and Planning Commission member K. Kasturirangan, which submitted its report to Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan on Wednesday, was initially set up to review the more stringent recommendations of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) headed by ecologist Madhav Gadgil.

The Gadgil report had wanted the entire area of the Ghats to be graded into three levels of eco-sensitive zones, each of which would have different restrictions. It had faced uproar from State governments and industries which were alarmed by the curbs on development in almost 70 per cent of the biodiverse range of mountains spanning six States.

The new high-level panel has taken a different approach. Taking advantage of Dr. Kasturirangan’s connections with ISRO, it has used satellite data to produce a far more detailed database, with a resolution of 24 square metres as opposed to the 9 square km used by the Gadgil report. It then used remote sensing technology to distinguish between “natural landscapes” and “cultural landscapes” which include human settlements, fields and plantations.

It recommends “a prohibitory regime on those activities with maximum interventionist and destructive impact on the environment” on about 90 per cent of the area of “natural landscapes”. The four major restrictions in this area would be a total ban on fresh mining and a five-year phase-out of current mining, a ban on thermal power, all “red” category industries, all townships and any construction above 20,000 square metres. Hydel power projects will be allowed subject to certain conditions, in stark contrast to the Gadgil recommendations, and a small window of hope has been provided for the future of the controversial Athirapally hydel power project in Kerala. Also, the land-use change restrictions recommended by the WGEEP have been discarded.

Explaining that restraints cannot be imposed on areas where people already live and work, the report argues: “It is not wilderness area, but the habitat of its people, who share the landscape with biological diversity. It is not possible to plan for Western Ghats, only as a fenced-in zone, with no human influence.” Instead, the report called for incentivising green growth in the “cultural landscape” areas.

After submitting the report, Dr. Kasturirangan said the next step must be to focus on the biodiversity that is still left. “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,” he said.

WGEEP panel member and TERI executive director Ligia Noronha feels this is not the right approach. “The Western Ghats are not just about what is left. We should be protecting the whole of the Ghats. That is why we wanted a gradation of zones, a more nuanced approach to eco-sensitive zones. [The Kasturirangan panel] seems to have gone back to the mindset of carving out certain protected areas, rather than keeping the whole ecosystem in mind,” she says.

However, Kasturirangan panel member Sunita Narain, who also heads the Centre for Science and Environment, said that their report was actually “implementable..Senior Environment Ministry officials quietly agreed, expressing the hope that the “more sensible” recommendations would attract less opposition from the States.

Ms. Narain also pointed out that the Kasturirangan panel had left the ball firmly in the Central government’s court.

“We want to ensure effective protection right now, not in ten years’ time,” she said.