An open letter from Madhav Gadgil says Kasturirangan panel report will rob the region of its biodiversity

Dear Dr. K. Kasturirangan,

J.B.S. Haldane, the celebrated 19th-century scientist and humanist who quit England protesting its imperialistic invasion of Suez to become an Indian citizen, once said: “Reality is not only stranger than we suppose, but stranger than we CAN suppose!” I could never have imagined that you would be party to a report such as that of the High Level Working Group on Western Ghats, but, then, reality is indeed stranger than we can suppose!

In our report to the Ministry of Environment & Forests, based on extensive discussions and field visits, we had advocated a graded approach with a major role for grassroots-level inputs for safeguarding the ecologically sensitive Western Ghats. You have rejected this framework and in its place, you advocate a partitioning amongst roughly one-third of what you term natural landscapes, to be safeguarded by guns and guards, and two-third of so-called cultural landscapes to be thrown open to development, such as what has spawned the Rs.35,000-crore illegal mining scam of Goa.

This is like trying to maintain oases of diversity in a desert of ecological devastation. Ecology teaches us that such fragmentation would lead, sooner rather than later, to the desert overwhelming the oases. It is vital to think of maintenance of habitat continuity, and of an ecologically and socially friendly matrix to ensure long-term conservation of biodiversity-rich areas, and this is what we had proposed.

Moreover, freshwater biodiversity is far more threatened than forest biodiversity and lies largely in what you term cultural landscapes. Freshwater biodiversity is also vital to livelihoods and nutrition of large sections of our people.

That is why we had provided a detailed case study of the Lote Chemical Industry complex in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra, where pollution, exceeding all legal limits, has devastated fisheries so that 20,000 people have been rendered jobless, while only 11,000 have obtained industrial employment. Yet, the government wants to set up further polluting industries in the same area, and has therefore deliberately suppressed its own Zonal Atlas for Siting of Industries.

Your report shockingly dismisses our constitutionally-guaranteed democratic devolution of decision-making powers, remarking that local communities can have no role in economic decisions. Not surprisingly, your report completely glosses over the fact, reported by us, that while the government takes absolutely no action against the illegal pollution of Lote, it had invoked police powers to suppress perfectly legitimate and peaceful protests against pollution on as many as 180 out of 600 days in 2007-09.

India’s cultural landscape harbours many valuable elements of biodiversity. Fully 75 per cent of the population of lion-tailed macaque, a monkey species confined to the Western Ghats, thrives in the cultural landscape of tea gardens. I live in the city of Pune and scattered in my locality are a large number of banyan, peepal and gular trees; trees that belong to genus Ficus, celebrated in modern ecology as a keystone resource that sustains a wide variety of other species. Through the night I hear peacocks calling, and when I get up and go to the terrace I see them dancing.

It is our people, rooted in India’s strong cultural traditions of respect for nature, who have venerated and protected the sacred groves, the Ficus trees, the monkeys and the peafowl.

Apparently, all this is to be snuffed out. It reminds me of Francis Buchanan, an avowed agent of British imperialism, who wrote in 1801 that India’s sacred groves were merely a contrivance to prevent the East India Company from claiming its rightful property.

It would appear that we are now more British than the British and are asserting that a nature-friendly approach in the cultural landscape is merely a contrivance to prevent the rich and powerful of the country and of the globalised world from taking over all lands and waters to exploit and pollute as they wish while pursuing lawless, jobless economic growth. It is astonishing that your report strongly endorses such an approach. Reality is indeed stranger than we can suppose!

Madhav Gadgil, Chairman, Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel