The extremely fragile Western Ghats region is highly prone to natural calamities and chances of an Uttarakhand-like tragedy in the region cannot be ruled out if scientific conservation initiatives are not being implemented at the earliest, says a leading environmentalist.

Significantly, the foreboding has come at a time when the State is in a dilemma over implementing the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel report drawn up by noted ecologist Madhav Gadgil.

While business interests having stakes in granite quarrying, real estate, timber and tourism, who thrive in the biodiversity hotspot for decades, are opposing the report, the UDF government is under pressure to implement its salient recommendations.

According to Prof V.S. Vijayan, former chairman of the State Biodiversity Board, also a member of Gadgil committee, commercial interests with the support of political parties are trying to create tension among people and making false propaganda against the report.

“The Ghats region is highly prone to natural calamities like that happened in Uttarakhand recently. Indiscriminate plundering of natural resources and illegal and unscientific constructions have made it geologically fragile. Those who are agitating against the Gadgil report should try to understand the facts first before making a hue and cry,” Mr. Vijayan told PTI.

“The natural forest cover in the region has dwindled to seven per cent. Most of the rivers have dried up and waters are contaminated in the rest of them. Hills are also slowly disappearing due to quarrying,” he said.

Dismissing the argument that the Gadgil report is “anti-development” and “anti-farmer”, he said it is a pro-development report to the core but it wanted development initiatives in the region to be carried out in a sustainable manner.

“Development process has to go on. Livelihood of people should be met. But, these all should be achieved in a sustainable manner, without causing any more harm to the biodiversity and environment there,” he said. Gadgil committee report has evoked sharp criticism from various quarters including the mainstream political parties in all the six States concerned — Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Goa —through which the Western Ghats is spread over.

In Kerala, political parties and church establishments, irrespective of their differences, are against implementation of the report. They fear that the implementation would result in large-scale displacement of small and marginal farmers settled on the slopes of the hill ranges.

Even the Kasturirangan report, which studied the recommendations of Madhav Gadgil report, has also not received total support. The State government formed an experts’ panel last week under the Biodiversity Board Chairman V. Ommen to create consensus among political parties and environmental activists on its implementation.

Disputing the contention of the sceptics, Mr. Vijayan said the Gadgil committee has not opposed all human activity in the demarcated regions.

“We have recommended the ban on polythene carry bags in the region. But, some churches told the faithful that they could not use even plastic buckets if the report was implemented.”

“Another propaganda is that the report is against the construction of new houses in Western Ghats. But what we objected to was the conversion of agricultural and forest land for other purposes. But exception could be given to families who live there for generations. The recommendation was actually to curb real estate lobby,” he said.

A recommendation to make all new constructions in the region eco-friendly, was twisted by vested groups and propagated that Gadgil committee wanted all new houses to be built with grass and bamboo, he said.

He also denounced the allegation that the report was “anti-farmer”, saying that the report recommendations actually would provide more monetary gains to the farming community.

“There are recommendations in the report to provide ’conservation charges’ for those farmers who use indigenous seeds for cultivation. The benefit is also recommended for farmers who rear indigenous fish species. Even those who grow native tree species in their homeyard are also recommended to get monetary benefit,” he said.

Holding that the Gadgil committee has used a “totally unbiased system” to study the Western Ghats, Mr. Vijayan said they first took Western Ghats as a huge “water tower” as it is the water repository for all the six states.

The entire Western Ghats was divided into three zones based on as many as 14 characters like geological and biodiversity factors, presence of rare species and so on. The entire region was demarcated as grids and grades were given to each grid based on these factors, he said.

“The most sensitive areas have been included in zone one. Areas like Silent Valley and Athriappally fell under the zone naturally. We have not included any place purposefully in it.”

The report, prepared thoroughly through a democratic process, envisaged to secure ‘grama sabhas’ and panchayats the ultimate power which the mafia groups in the region did not want to happen, he said.

“The Kasturirangan panel, formed to examine Gadgil report, also had references about the presence of these mafias. As many as 52 per cent of objections which the Kasturi panel received against Gadgil report were from mining lobbies.”

He criticised Kasturirangan report for discarding the zonal wise demarcation proposed by Gadgil panel and dividing the Ghats region just into ‘cultural and natural areas’ stating that it would open up the region for mafias.

The expert also urged the authorities to distribute a Malayalam version of the Gadgil report among local residents and hold public debates on the matter with the support of grama sabhas.

Meanwhile, V. Ommen, who has been made the chairman of the expert committee on the Kasturirangan report, said his main responsibility would be to hold grassroot level discussions on the report and create awareness among people that it would not harm their life.

“I will be clear about my responsibilities only when I receive the terms and references. When we receive a copy of Kasturirangan report, we will bring out a Malayalam version of it, giving focus on Kerala side.Later we will visit all 123 villages, said to be affected with its implementation, and try to create consensus among various sections of people with the support of panchayat authorities and political parties,” he said.