ESZ case | Gadgil’s WGEEP report back in the spotlight

As Kerala debates the Supreme Court order for maintaining at least a kilometre of Eco-Sensitive Zone for protected areas, the WGEEP report, popularly known as the Gadgil report, once again springs back to public discourse

Updated - July 01, 2022 08:42 am IST

Published - June 30, 2022 08:32 pm IST - KOCHI 

Ghats’ treasures: The Koomban Mala, the evergreen forested hills of Silent Valley National Park that contribute to the richness of the Western Ghats, captured from Karuvarakundu in Malappuram district.

Ghats’ treasures: The Koomban Mala, the evergreen forested hills of Silent Valley National Park that contribute to the richness of the Western Ghats, captured from Karuvarakundu in Malappuram district. | Photo Credit: SAKEER HUSSAIN

A posse of hawk-eyed policemen stood guard outside a packed conference hall at Thodupuzha in Idukki some time in 2013, watching over the crowd for signs of unrest. 

The situation was tense outside as the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) had stirred up a series of protests across the State.  Everyone at the venue was expecting some heckling or sloganeering to greet the chief guest of the day.

Clad in kurta and pyjama, the willowy Gandhian walked into the hall calmly. The chitchats and murmur in the hall gave way to heavy silence as he approached the podium.  The audience was all ears as Madhav Dhananjaya Gadgil began his lecture on the ecological significance of the mountain ranges of Western Ghats and the need to adopt sustainable development models. 

Nearly two hours later, armed policemen escorted Mr. Gadgil, who came to Idukki, the hub of anti-WGEEP protests, ignoring the warning of organisers and braving the threat of physical attack, back to Kochi from where he flew back to his hometown Pune. 

It was probably the first time that the ecologist, who used to move unnoticed and effortlessly merged with the crowd, remained wrapped in a heavy blanket of security.  No one present at the venue of the conference had any inkling that this Maharashtrian, who headed the WGEEP, would influence the socio-political and ecological narratives of the State at least for a decade. 

As Kerala hotly debates the Supreme Court order for maintaining at least a kilometre of Eco-Sensitive Zone (ESZ) for protected areas, the WGEEP report, popularly known as the Gadgil report, once again springs back to public discourse in Kerala. 

A decade after the WGEEP panel report was released in public domain, the man and the report are being repeatedly discussed. While some view him as the messiah of Kerala’s ecology, there are a few others who see him as an eco-terrorist out to wreak havoc on the lives of millions of people who had painstakingly set up their lives in the high ranges and near forest areas.

It had taken a year-and-a-half, 14 meetings across the Ghats States, several brainstorming sessions, public consultations, and field visits for the panel to evolve a methodology to categorise the Western Ghats into three zones of varied ecological sensitivity and suggest broad sectoral guidelines for each of these zones.

It had also spelt out a broad framework for the establishment of the Western Ghats Ecology Authority. The report was submitted to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests on August 31, 2011. 

No one had any hint of the political unrest the report was to trigger in the State, which has a significant segment of its population settled in the Ghats districts. The report saw some political parties and a section of the Church coming together to oppose it and later extending the camaraderie to the 2014 Parliament elections.

It also witnessed a pro-Congress politician entering the fray as a Left-backed independent candidate, supported by the Church-backed High Range Samrakshana Samiti, and winning the election hands down.

The period also witnessed churns in the State unit of the Congress. P.T. Thomas, the sitting MP of the Idukki constituency, came under attack from the Syro-Malabar Church for his pro-Gadgil stance and was denied a ticket to contest. Political compulsions and stiff opposition from the Church also forced him to move out of his home turf Idukki and settle in Ernakulam. 

“Probably,” remembers ecologist V.S. Vijayan, a member of the WGEEP, “this was the only election in the State influenced by an ecological issue. Though the State had earlier witnessed public protests and campaigns to protect the verdant forest of Silent Valley, they had not snowballed into a political issue in those times”.

“Looking back, one can find that the WGEEP report has become a platform for creating awareness on ecological issues and a sustainable model of development in Kerala. One also realises the games played out by the mining lobby and a section of the Church to unleash a misinformation campaign and propaganda aimed at creating panic in the minds of the people,” says Mr. Vijayan, who spoke at around 175 public meetings to spread the “truth about the WGEEP recommendations.” 

“The panel was all for inclusive development models that took care of the people and the ecology. We never recommended evicting people from their homelands. We suggested eco-friendly mode of farming in the Ecologically Sensitive Areas,” remembers Mr. Vijayan. 

What went wrong for the report, says Mr. Vijayan, is that the misconceptions and mischief created and spread by certain vested interest groups influenced the masses. The organised campaigns succeeded in creating a wrong impression in the minds of people and the ecological issues suddenly assumed a political colour, he remembers. 

T.V. Sajeev, entomologist and Principal Scientist of the Kerala Forest Research Institute, Peechi, who had addressed over 75 public meetings to spread the message of the WGEEP report, feels that the report had brought out the real issue of ecological conservation from the clutches of a romantic approach spread by some poets and writers. 

“If asked about the outcome of the report, I will say that it served as the ammunition for hundreds of mass movements at local levels against the indiscriminate and illegal exploitation of natural resources and spread the word about conservation of ecology. The report, which put forward a scientific approach and framework for addressing ecological issues, dismantled the wrong notions of science and knowledge and helped at least a few scientists of the research institutions to listen to the lives of people and issues concerning them,” he says. 

The report also put forward a democratic approach towards ecological governance. It suggested discussing ecological issues and development concerns and initiatives at the grassroots level of grama sabhas rather than adopting a top-down approach. Even a decade after the report, the democratic spirit of ecological governance is yet to percolate down the system, he says.

The highlight of the report that the common man is central to conservation went unnoticed in the flurry of misinformation campaigns, says Mr. Sajeev. 

However, striking a different note, Fr. Sebastian Kochupurakkal, the leader of the High Range Samrakshana Samiti, who headed the anti-WGEEP report campaign in Idukki, says the report helped in alerting farmers against the “eco-terrorism” perpetuated by some people. 

Till the publication of the report, the samiti had been focussing its attention on securing title deeds for settlers. It had succeeded in getting title deeds for over 80,000 families. The report and the subsequent developments changed the life of farmers, who were castigated as encroachers. Farmers realised that their lives will be in peril if the report was accepted. They also emerged as protectors of the environment in the post-Gadgil report period in their own ways, he says.

Maintaining that the political interventions that followed the WGEEP report evolved on their own, Fr. Kochupurakkal says that the Church did not have anything personal against the late P. T. Thomas. Spontaneous protests erupted in different parts of the State against the panel report and some went against Thomas, he says. 

The current protests against the ESZ are unlikely to attain the gravity and dimensions of the one that the State witnessed against the WGEEP report, he says.

Though on the two ends of the political spectrum, Leader of the Opposition and Congress legislator V.D. Satheesan and Binoy Viswom, Communist Party of India (CPI)  national council member and Rajya Sabha member, share the vision that the WGEEP report was a harbinger of what Kerala had to expect in the next decade. 

Mr. Viswom remembers that it was after much inner-party deliberations that the CPI welcomed the report. The party position was formulated after a subcommittee looked into it. While welcoming the report, the CPI stressed the point that people should be taken into confidence while implementing it. In case of the now debated issue of ESZ, the CPI is of the view that an inclusive approach shall be adopted.

Each passing day, says Mr. Satheesan, underscores the relevance of the WGEEP report in the State. Of late, Kerala has been battered by the vagaries of nature. The west coast States are experiencing the extreme weather patterns common on the east coast, forcing the States to take a relook at their priorities. The report becomes relevant in the changing times and changing weather patterns, he feels. 

When asked whether the suggestions of the WGEEP report had been implemented in Kerala, those who vehemently opposed it and others who campaigned for it concurred on one point, that one cannot simply wish it away. Many also consider the special mention in the report against the Athirappilly hydel power project in the Chalakudy river basin, as the final blow against the attempts to implement the project.

In the wake of the controversy, in 2013, the government appointed a High Level Working Group (HLWG) “to suggest an all-round and holistic approach for sustainable and equitable development while keeping in focus the preservation and conservation of ecological systems in the Western Ghats” .

Nine years after the HLWG report was submitted, the Centre could not take a call on the sensitive issue, which could impact the lives of millions living in the Ghats States as well as the several mining and quarrying units and other industries, many accused of causing irreparable ecological damage.

But the report has become a touchstone of sorts on ecological questions concerning the State and Kerala lends an ear to Dr. Gadgil after every natural disaster. 

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