‘Entire Western Ghats ecologically sensitive'

The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) has designated the entire hill range as an Ecologically Sensitive Area.

The panel, in its report, has classified the 142 taluks in the Western Ghats boundary into Ecologically Sensitive Zones (ESZ) 1, 2 and 3. It recommended that “no new dams based on large-scale storage be permitted in Ecologically Sensitive Zone 1. Since both the Athirappilly of Kerala and Gundia of Karnataka hydel project sites fall in Ecologically Sensitive Zone 1, these projects should not be accorded environmental clearance,” it said.

For Goa, the committee headed by eminent ecologist Madhav Gadgil, suggested an “indefinite moratorium on new environmental clearances for mining in ESZ 1 and 2, phasing out of mining in ESZ 1 by 2016 and continuation of existing mining in ESZ 2 under strict regulation with an effective system of social audit.”

“The moratorium on new clearances in ESZ 2 can be revisited when the situation improves and a comprehensive study on the impact of mining on the ecology, environment, human health, and biodiversity by a competent multidisciplinary team, working along with people's institutions, has been concluded,” it said.

No new polluting industries, including coal-based power plants, should be allowed in ESZ 1 and 2. The existing red and orange category industries should be asked to switch to zero pollution by 2016, with an effective system of social audit, the report said.

Regarding the mining and related activities in Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts, the panel said investigations in the plains and coastal tracts “suggested that these are under severe environmental and social stress.” It is essential that a “cumulative impact analysis of various development activities in these tracts, ideally in conjunction with Raigad district of Maharashtra and Goa, must be undertaken,” preferably by the National Institute of Oceanography, Goa.

The panel recommended that “the current moratorium on new environmental clearances for mining, and red and orange category polluting industries and power plants in the plains and coastal tracts of Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts should be extended till satisfactory completion of a carrying capacity analysis. The moratorium may then be reviewed in the light of the findings of the study,” it recommended.

It suggested the formation of a Western Ghats Ecology Authority (WGEA), a statutory authority which enjoys the powers under the Environment (Protection) Act. “As the Ghats is an extensive region spanning over six States, 44 districts, and 142 taluks, the WGEA should function in a networked fashion with six constituent State Western Ghats Ecology Authorities, appointed jointly by the State Governments and the Central Ministry of Environment and Forests,” it has proposed.

The panel was asked to assess the current status of ecology of the Ghats region, demarcate areas within the region that were to be notified as ecologically sensitive ones and make recommendations for the conservation, protection and rejuvenation of the entire area. The suggestions for the formation of the WGEA were also among its mandate.

It was subsequently asked to study the entire stretch of Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts, including the coastal region and to specifically examine the Gundia and Athirappilly hydroelectric projects. The views of the panel regarding the moratorium on new mining licences in Goa were also sought by the Ministry.