But Union Ministry says it has not been formally accepted

Recommending scrapping of two controversial hydro-power projects in Karnataka and Kerala that had run into difficulty due to opposition from environmentalists, the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) has suggested setting up of a statutory authority to protect the Ghats.

The report of the panel, headed by Madhav Gadgil, formerly with the Indian Institute of Sciences, Bangalore, has called for cancellation of Karnataka's Gundia and Kerala's Athirapally hydro-projects, and gradual phasing out of mining activities in ecologically highly-sensitive areas of Goa by 2016.

The report has been put up on the website of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, following directions from the Central Information Commission and a court directive, for comments, with a disclaimer that it hasn't been formally accepted by the Ministry, and was being analysed and considered by the Ministry.

The expert panel set up in 2010 suggests the constitution of a Western Ghats Ecology Authority (WGEA), as a statutory authority appointed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, with the powers under Section 3 of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. The Western Ghats have been identified as an extensive region, spanning more than six states, 44 districts, and 142 talukas.

Once created, the 24-member body will have ecologists, scientists, representatives of civil society, as well as tribal groups, officials from the Union Environment Ministry, Planning Commission, National Biodiversity Authority, Central Pollution Control Board, and representatives of the state government as its members.

The WGEA would need to function in a networked fashion, with six constituent State Western Ghats Ecology Authorities, appointed jointly by the State Governments and the Centre. The State Western Ghats Ecology Authorities should interact closely with the State Biodiversity Boards and Pollution Control Boards, as well as State Planning Departments administering the Western Ghats Development Programmes, funded through Five-Year Plans by the Planning Commission. It would be appropriate that all the Western Ghats Development Plan schemes are worked out by the State Governments with the Authority.

Regulation lacking

Currently, the Ecologically Sensitive Areas are administered with the help of High-Level Monitoring Committees (HLMC), appointed by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. These are hampered by want of regulatory powers, except in the case of the Dahanu Taluka Ecology Authority, established through a judgment of the Supreme Court. They are also hampered by want of financial and human resources, the panel said in its report.

In some cases, no HLMC has been in place for several years at a stretch. WGEEP proposes that they should be replaced by District Ecology Committees in all Western Ghats districts.

These District Ecology Committees should work in collaboration with the district-level Zilla Parishad/ Zilla Panchayat Biodiversity Management Committees, as well as District Planning Committees. Once created, the authority will have jurisdiction on the location of industry, and land-use planning. It will also be the final authority in declaring ecologically-sensitive areas, where facilities like storage dam won't be permitted.

(The panel report is available in the Resources section of The Hindu's website www.thehindu.com)