April 17, 2012:
There are times when the government needlessly brings upon itself the embarrassment of a reminder from one of its own agencies, of a responsibility it has forgotten or ignored.
Set against its context, that reminder constitutes censure of neglect and, indirectly but no less potently, of an opportunity lost to retain the moral ground that has been rapidly slipping from under its feet.
Recently, a media report stated that in response to an appeal by a resident of Kerala, the Chief Information Commissioner, Mr Shailesh Gandhi, has directed the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to make public the report on the Western Ghats submitted last August, which the MoEF has kept under wraps.
The silence on, and suppression of, the report of the “Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel” chaired by eminent environment scientist Prof Madhav Gadgil is baffling at first sight. There is nothing in it that can be termed “classified” or inimical to national “security”.
In fact, the report remains true to its mandate. It’s job, described in the Ministry’s annual report on the environment for 2009-10, was to “assess the state of the ecology of the Western Ghats, demarcate areas which need to be notified as ecologically sensitive zones, recommend the modalities for the establishment of the Western Ghats Ecological Authority under the Environment Protection Act, 1986” a professional regulatory body no less, “…and to ensure sustainable development with the support of all concerned States.”
The WGEEP report was submitted last August some twelve months after the panel’s appointment; it is significant that the report came exactly a year after a panel headed by Mr N C Saxena had submitted his report on the Orissa Mining Company’s proposal for bauxite mining.
That report seems like a curtain raiser, a prelude to the larger exercise for the Western Ghats running down and affecting the eco-systems and economies of four States — Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and Kerala.
So why should the Madhav Gadgil report not get the attention, the sharp light of public scrutiny it richly deserves?
Challenging the order
Perhaps it is precisely because of its vastness, its breadth and depth of reforms for a more sustaining environment that has scared away policymakers from offering it to the public.
What the panel has done basically is to question two central props of current ‘top-down’ political and economic policy and practice: the ‘growth’ model and its administrative-bureaucratic apparatus. Its specific solutions and measures — from bans to promotions for “thoughtful” conservation — are clues to a model that can sustain growth because it conserves natural assets, and achieves both through an administrative machinery based on local validation, initiatives and participative governance.
What the panel, therefore, offers is a challenge to the existing order of growth as we have known it, with all its waste and spoliation wilfully or conveniently ignored.
The central dilemma
The starting point for the WGEEP, unstated but interstitially evident, is a central dilemma inherent in Niyamgarh and in the WG. The region is considered one of the world’s eight “hottest hot spots” of biodiversity but it is also rich in iron, manganese and bauxite ores.
This is a double-edged gift and has defined man’s uneasy relationship with nature. Since the last century but “particularly in recent decades” this “hotspot” of biodiversity has been in “continual decline” with “many biological communities and types” becoming extinct; mining, often “in violation of all laws” have wrecked “environmental damage and social disruption.”
The central dilemma of resource-rich hills leads to an inversion, a disequilibrium that is a consequence of industrialisation so far. As the WGEEP puts it, “By and large, the Western Ghats have been subjected to a rapid erosion of natural capital with the building up of man-made capital.”
With this indictment the panel strikes at the root of current development practice, its principal weakness. If development leads to depletion of the “stock” of natural capital, how sustainable can progress be?
The WGEEP classifies the entire WG into three Ecologically Sensitive Zones (ESZs) and suggests measures that are breathtaking in their sweep; some for all, others specific to each zone, depending on the level of environmental degradation.
There are three categories of measures which the detailed list of do’s and dont’s for the ESZs contain. The most radical because they are challenge some key “drivers” of current growth are the Interdictions “across the Western Ghats’: So no to Genetically Modified Crops: Special Economic Zones: New Hill Stations, Conversion of public lands to private ownership. In the case of ESZ-I and ESZ-II graded in order of their fragility the panel advocates a moratorium on new mining leases, on the use of hazardous or toxic waste processing units among others.
The second set of measures could be put under the rubric of Regulation. Again, across the Western Ghats the WGEEP suggests the use of “Building Codes consisting of green technology and green building materials, the implementation of the of Forest Rights Act “in its true spirit.”
The third perhaps the most innovative consist of Promotion: sustainable actions with incentives thrown in. The panel suggests payments such as “conservation service charges” to encourage indigenous stock of fish and the redeployment of chemical fertiliser subsidies towards usage of organic manure production of biogas and organic farming, the maintenance of “sacred groves.”
The panel challenges finally the way governments have worked (or do not). Its critique of existing bureaucratic forms of environment protection is countered by an emphasis on conservation, from the identification of resources to the their conservation, by local bodies from fishermen’s cooperatives to gram panchayats.
While proposing the Western Ghats Ecology Authority at three tiers of government down to the district-level, the panel considers local voluntary bodies to play an important role. It points out at one stage that environmental protection is not just a matter of scientific inquiry (or bureaucratic rules) but a “human concern.”
And that should be good enough reason for the report to be made public.