Rather than seek to impose inflexible solutions, the expert panel on conserving the Western Ghats has suggested guidelines for consulting people right down to the level of villages for the right answers
The report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), uploaded on the Ministry of Environment and Forests website as of May 23, has triggered a vigorous public debate on several vital issues before us; issues relating to environment — development choices and the proper roles of people and government authorities in deciding on these choices.
The report, kept away from public gaze for almost nine months, was finally released on the orders of the Central Information Commissioner who observed: “It is claimed by the government that the policy is being formulated and hence the report cannot be disclosed. The law requires suo motu disclosure by the public authority “while” formulating important policies, and not “after” formulating them. Obviously, the thinking was that our democracy is deepened by public participation in the process of decision-making, and not when a policy is finalised and then merely announced in the name of the people. MoEF’s unwillingness to be transparent is likely to give citizens an impression that most decisions are taken in furtherance of corruption resulting in a serious trust deficit. This hampers the health of our democracy and the correct method to alter this perception is to become transparent. Such a move would only bring greater trust in the government and its functionaries, and hurt only the corrupt.”
Need for feedback
The report is now in the public domain with feedback invited by July 5, 2012. It would obviously be desirable for the public to take advantage of this opportunity, study, dissect, agree to or disagree with the contents of the report and contribute to guiding the policies of our nation in this important area. Naturally enough, those who were attempting to keep the report away from public scrutiny are now engaged in projecting a distorted version of the contents. Many of them are doing so without reading the report. Those of us who were on the panel feel that it is our responsibility to communicate to the public what is actually in the report; obviously we cannot deal here with all the complex issues covered in the report, but will focus on some key issues. We believe it unlikely that any Indian would find reasons to quarrel with these key propositions. We urge people to examine the original text of the report to make sure that we are indeed correctly representing the spirit of the report and then formulate their own feedback as they see fit.
The distorted picture of the report being projected portrays it as a part and parcel of the standard practice of imposing all priorities from above. So our proposals are being wrongly portrayed as “Conservation by Imposition” as if the Panel has prescribed rigid boundaries for Western Ghats and for zones with different levels of ecological sensitivity, or as if WGEEP has come up with a set of inflexible restrictive prescriptions.
Quite to the contrary, WGEEP has clearly stated that what is proposed are only provisional boundaries and provisional guidelines, both to serve as a basis of informed deliberations through an inclusive process reaching down to all gram sabhas/ward sabhas throughout the Western Ghats region. Our using talukas to draw boundaries of eco-sensitive zones was forced on us by the lack of readily available detailed information, and the report recommends that these must be immediately redrawn taking the gram panchayat boundaries and watershed boundaries into account. We not only suggest regulatory measures, but also promotional measures such as payments to farmers for building up carbon stocks in farm soils. These measures too are meant to be taken up for consideration by people going down right to the grass-roots. The report suggests that an excellent precedent for this exists whereby the Goa government placed the database prepared for Goa Regional Plan 2021 before all gram sabhas for correction of any errors as well as suggestions.
Reaching out to people
An important action point that emerges from this approach is dissemination of the information and understanding contained in the report in regional languages, and soliciting feedback from the gram sabhas/ward sabhas as a first step in a down-up planning process. It is suggested that the State governments should follow up on this by taking appropriate actions to implement devolution of powers to local bodies as required by the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution, and ensure that all levels of the government are properly involved in implementing such proposals of WGEEP report as are found to be acceptable through a broad based democratic decision-making process.
We believe that there are many proposals in the WGEEP report that should find acceptance all over the country, within and outside the bounds of Western Ghats, and regardless of any assignment of ecological sensitivity levels. We list below a series of such suggestions.
Governments should initiate a series of steps to remove deficit in environmental governance as pointed out in the WGEEP report:
— Strictly enforce environmental laws such as Air and Water Acts to control pollution
— Facilitate, not suppress, freedom of expression and assembly of people drawing attention to issues of environmental degradation
— Empower local bodies, i.e. gram, taluk and zilla panchayats and nagarpalikas and mahanagarpalikas to take decisions on environmental issues
— Put in place Biodiversity Management Committees (BMC) in all local bodies, fully empowered under the Biological Diversity Act, 2002, to regulate use of local biodiversity resources, and to charge Collection Fees
— Initiate registration of crop cultivars as called for by Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act, 2001, and give grants to panchayats to build capacity for in situ conservation of crop genetic resources
— Implement fully the Forest Rights Act
— Reinstate the system of empowering citizens to monitor the status of environment under the Paryavaran Vahini scheme
— Carry out a radical reform of environmental clearance process through (a) assigning preparation of EIA statements to a neutral competent body that does not depend on payment by project proponents, (b) making mandatory involvement of local BMCs in the process of EIA preparation, (c) making mandatory taking on board all information submitted and suggestions made during public hearings, (d) making mandatory periodic environmental clearance requirement, preferably every five years, (e) making mandatory involvement of BMCs in the process of monitoring of implementation of conditions laid down while granting environmental clearances, (f) make mandatory preparation of regional Cumulative Environmental Impact Analyses
— Enhance the scope of regional development plans to include key environmental concerns and make mandatory involvement of local BMCs in the process of preparation of regional plans
Governments should initiate a series of steps to build a transparent, participatory database on Indian environment:
— Promote full access to all pertinent information, for instance, through freely making available the currently suppressed Zonal Atlas for Siting of Industries (ZASI).
— Take action on organising an Indian Biodiversity Information System (IBIS) in line with the proposals before the National Biodiversity Authority since 2004.
— Organise a public transparent, participatory database on Indian environment by drawing on student environmental education projects as recommended by the Curriculum Framework Review, 2005 of the National Council for Educational Research and Training.
It is our fond hope that our fellow lovers of nature and democratic values will seriously consider these propositions and take advantage of this opportunity to mould the environment and people-friendly development strategies.
(Madhav Gadgil, a former Professor of Ecology at the Indian Institute of Science, is Member, National Advisory Council. He was on the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel)