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More than what meets the eye

A delegation of MPs and MLAs led by Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai meets Bhupendra Yadav, Union Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change in New Delhi on July 25, 2022. Photo: Special Arrangement

A delegation of MPs and MLAs led by Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai meets Bhupendra Yadav, Union Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change in New Delhi on July 25, 2022. Photo: Special Arrangement

Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai was swift in his action on the draft notification of ecologically sensitive areas (ESA) in the Western Ghats region. With Assembly elections nine months away, the ESA’s potential impact on poll prospects pushed his Cabinet to take a stand opposing the notification issued by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. There was immense pressure from his Cabinet colleagues and legislators representing the areas that form the proposed ESA, cutting across parties.

Mr. Bommai took a delegation to the Minister of MoEF, Bhupender Yadav, in New Delhi and later announced that there was no question of implementing it. For the last 10 years, successive governments have opposed the recommendations of the High-Level Working Group headed by Dr. K. Kasturirangan on the ESA. This is the fifth notification issued by the MoEF.

The Western Ghats are spread across six States — Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat. Karnataka has the largest ESA of 20,668 sq. km, as proposed in the draft notification. The area is spread over 1,572 villages across 10 districts. The notification proposes to completely ban mining activities and red-category industries in the area. New townships with 50 hectares of land or 1.5 lakh sq. metre of built-up area are prohibited. Hydropower projects and industries under the orange category are allowed after ensuring compliance with environmental regulations. There is no restriction on repair, extension or renovation of houses. All existing healthcare establishments can continue. The MoEF has made it clear that nobody would be evicted or relocated.

Every time a notification is issued, large sections of farmers, planters, and elected representatives oppose it. Their apprehensions are for varied reasons. Several villages in the hilly Malnad region have not got proper roads and access to electricity due to prevailing restrictions on cutting trees and laying roads in the forest area. As getting basic amenities had been a Herculean task under the existing rules, they are worried that the fresh notifications might worsen their situation.

Though elected representatives echo these sentiments, the real reason for their opposition is perceived to be the restriction on sand mining and quarrying that the notification proposes, considering that many politicians are into these trades. Environmentalists, who are in favour of the implementation of the notification, allege that politicians are misleading the public by spreading wrong information only to serve their vested interests. They also maintain that as the notification would not allow mega development projects in the ESA, politicians are worried about “losing their income” through kickbacks.

Several parts of the Malnad region have witnessed large-scale landslides during heavy rains in recent years. The environmentalists want the State to take appropriate steps for the conservation of the Western Ghats and they argue that implementation of the notification is crucial.

Fears over the ESA also stem from ignorance, as a majority of people in the villages listed in the notification are clueless about its contours. Many could not go through these documents because they were not available in the local language. There were hardly any meetings by the elected representatives or the government to spread awareness on the issue. There has been no effort to consult people at the grassroot level before taking a stand on the issue, which makes the politicians’ virulent opposition to the ESA even more suspicious.

sathish.gt@thehindu.co.in


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Printable version | Aug 4, 2022 12:40:18 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/more-than-what-meets-the-eye/article65721436.ece