Instead of opening a debate on the Gadgil panel’s report on the Western Ghats, the government has chosen to sideline and replace it with another by an alternate group

This is a challenging time in India’s development history where a number of tenets of environmental governance are being questioned by the imperative of growth. Environmental governance in India is under assault, and is thus in need of both fresh thinking, and a new focus, based on outcome and results.

The Western Ghats are no ordinary ecosystem. They constitute the water tower of peninsular India, providing water to 245 million people and draining a large part of the land surface of India. They are also a treasure trove of biodiversity. The Convention on Biological Diversity confers sovereign rights over these elements of biodiversity for which we are a country of origin. India can play an important role in research relating to such biodiversity elements and claim a share in the commercial profits flowing out of their use. The elements of value not only include medicinal plants and cultivated species of plants and their wild relatives, but seemingly worthless creations such as spider cobwebs, which turn out to be sources of a new kind of silk stronger than steel. Notably enough, such elements of value are by no means confined to natural forests, but occur everywhere across the Western Ghats, underscoring the need to maintain connectivity amongst biodiversity rich habitats.

Hostility

Today, however, it is estimated that only seven per cent of the Ghats’ primary vegetation survives and there are many threatened species, of which 51 are critically endangered species. It was in this context of threats and in response to demands by people of the Western Ghats, that the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) was set up in March 2010 by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to assess the state of the Ghats and suggest ways for their “conservation, protection and rejuvenation” through a process of consultations with State governments, industry, and local people. Post submission of the report in August 2011, its “quarantine” until May 2012, and its subsequent release, the panel presumed that a more detailed public discussion would follow its translation into regional languages, and then finalised. This did not happen. Instead, an adversarial environment emerged or was created, resulting in hostility to the WGEEP report. State governments protested that development will be affected, without a careful reading of what it allows, promotes and seeks to protect. They chose to ignore, as did the MoEF, the tentativeness of the panel’s recommendations, the provisional nature of zone boundaries and sectoral guidelines, to be used for informed and inclusive deliberations, a point made repeatedly but which continues to be misrepresented. However, instead of there being a larger debate around the WGEEP report, the Ministry chose to appoint a High Level Working Group (HLWG) whose mandate it was to examine the WGEEP report “in a holistic and multidisciplinary fashion.”

We would like to comment on three aspects of this examination: (i) the process followed, (ii) analytical approach adopted, and (iii) recommendations made.

The process

The stakeholder comments received by the MoEF (1,750 in a population of 50 million in the Working Group States) should have been shared with the panel. Instead, secrecy followed — inexplicable, given that the WGEEP was an MoEF appointed panel, not a fly-by-night operator as seen in the mining regions of the Ghats. The MoEF also summarily rejected the panel’s plea that any decision in the matter should be made only after the report is made available to people in regional languages and their feedback obtained. The HLWG’s examination of the WGEEP report ought surely to have commenced with a dialogue with the panel. This was not done, but for a meeting with the chairperson and some of the members, very late in the game. Instead, the HLWG had a limited consultative process and finalised the recommendations and submitted its report, without sharing this with the Gadgil Panel, suggesting that the intention was not to make the WGEEP recommendations “implementable,” but really to replace it by an alternative framework.

Analytical approach

The approach adopted for the examination combined a selective review of development issues in the WGEEP report with its own reasoning that insufficiently regarded the Western Ghats as an ecosystem from the perspective of “conservation, protection and rejuvenation.” An ecosystem such as the Western Ghats comprises both people and the ecology, and hence WGEEP carried out its mandate using a social-ecological lens. It is misleading then to suggest that the WGEEP did not have local people or the state’s development needs in mind in arriving at its recommendations. What WGEEP did was mainstream into development planning for the districts of the Western Ghats the more long-term needs of the people such as water and ecosystem services. With this in mind, it suggested not just the graded regulation of the more ecologically harmful activities, but the promotion of more benign, job creating activities, for example, agro and biomass-based industry, regulated ecotourism, industries and services that involve dematerialisation, education hubs, etc. In energy provisioning, it recommended clean energy, “smart” demand side management campaigns, and more equitable distribution policies.

Misread

Despite a detailed discussion of the sectoral issues and dilemmas and a whole chapter dedicated to multi-centred governance for the Ghats that examined both regulatory and market instruments, the impression has been created that there was no engagement in our report with social and development issues. We do agree that there was need for more discussion on the recommendations, but these were to be discussed and refined after submission to the MoEF. Many arguments were made for incentivising environmental improvements through ecosystem payments and fiscal measures, as were discussions of how the Green India Mission, Compensatory Afforestation and Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA), and National Afforestation and Ecodevelopment Board (NAEB) should aim for genuine and effective transfer of powers and funds to local institutions for implementing the programmes. Similarly, it was argued that international mechanisms such as Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), and (REDD+) or Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), Forest Conservation, and Enhancement of Carbon Stocks and Sustainable Management of Forest could be tapped to provide adequate financial resources for larger scale efforts, for example, where plantation owners chose to regenerate forests where these plantations were no longer seen as profitable, as some owners suggested to us. Instead, it is suggested that WGEEP had recommended that coffee plantations be restored to forests, creating panic among plantation owners of Kodagu, when no such reference was made.

It is thus unfortunate that the spirit of the WGEEP report is being distorted and misread and an impression being created that it was rigid, disregarded social and development issues, and is thus, not implementable. The WGEEP approach was to engage with the community in understanding their concerns, do the scientific assessments, and then take the science back to the local community, and have the state and community take the final decisions on both ecologically sensitive areas and sectoral activities that should be allowed.

The use of more detailed remote sensing data and inclusion of more social data in the HLWG report is an improvement for arriving at a more detailed zoning. But only a few parameters are used to arrive at ecological sensitivity. It is not evident to us if this list of parameters is sufficient to define the sensitivity of this unique ecosystem. Nor is it clear that just incentives and current regulations will result in improved behaviour of agents in harmful activities in the other (cultural landscape) areas. It was, in fact, in response to the people in the inhabited areas, where such activities impact people’s lives, water, health and livelihoods, that we had suggested that there was need for strong oversight and regulation of such activities. This is where the pressures are most high as are conflicts.

Recommendations

The HLWG calls for an Ecologically Sensitive Area for just 37 per cent of the Western Ghats; it drops the layered ecological sensitivity approach for the rest of it. Mere incentives for greener growth for the rest of the 63 per cent of the Ghats, we believe, will result in business as usual. How does that protect the Western Ghats as an ecosystem? In sum, the HLWG report does not review and refine the WGEEP report, but provides instead an alternative framework and recommendations.

In the light of these two reports, we need more thinking on the kind of environmental governance needed for the Western Ghats around: (i) the value of the Western Ghats ecosystem and the services it provides (ii) the consultative processes required to arrive at recommendations, and (iii) the argument made about “implementability.” To which we ask: for whom and for what?

(Madhav Gadgil and Ligia Noronha were members of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel.)

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