Saturday, May 12, 2012
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Western Ghats are suffering irreparable damage but Indian govt is busy burying its own investigations

Image 1: More  than  30  bulldozers  and  100  JCBs  ply incessantly on a hill in Murbad tehsil of Maharashtra, excavating a huge foundation and simultaneously levelling the land to build a dam for which forest clearance has not been sanctioned yet. The  project  contractor  has  already  felled  thousands  of  trees  near  the  dam  site  in collusion with local authorities. Besides, the land on which all this is going on has not yet been acquired nor the consents of gram sabhas taken. The project, if cleared, will inundate around 1,000 hectares of forest land.

Image 2: Hundreds of windmills rotate willingly on the hills near Bhimashankar wild life sanctuary. The hills, tracts of heavy rainfall, used to house more than 28,000 trees, all part of biodiversity-rich evergreen forest and home to Maharashtra’s state animal, Giant Squirrel.

Despite the recommendation of local Range Forest Officer not to sanction the project, it was cleared. The traditional forest dwellers on these hills are now denied access to the area they have inhabited for centuries. The project has also triggered large scale erosion and landslides through poor construction of roads with steep gradients, and all this rubble is ending up on fertile farmland and in reservoirs of the tributaries of Krishna river.

The traditional forest dwellers on these hills are now denied access to the area they have inhabited for centuries. The project has also triggered large scale erosion and landslides through poor construction of roads with steep gradients, and all this rubble is ending up on fertile farmland and in reservoirs of the tributaries of Krishna river.

These are just two of the numerous instances from Western Ghats, a treasure trove of biodiversity, surpassed only by the Eastern Himalayas. Stretching 1490  km  from Tapi  Valley  in  the  north, they run through the states of Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamilnadu before ending at Kanyakumari. The Ghats are also called the water tower of Peninsular India.

It was to preserve and rejuvenate this natural resource that the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) constituted the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel in March 2010 but then went on to censure its findings from reaching the people. After an appeal filed under the Right To Information (RTI) Act, the Central Information Commission (CIC), ordered that the report be made public. However, the ministry is yet to do the needful. The report (which has been leaked since then) gives a damning account of the irreparable damage the ghats are being subjected to. Besides indicting the bureaucracy of colluding with the polluters, the report also threadbares the exploitation of local communities in the name of  environment protection. Here are the edited excerpts:

The Indian society has rich traditions of nature conservation, and some of the best preserved remnants of indigenous vegetation of Western Ghats are in the form of 'Sacred Groves'. Yet the official conservation efforts in the form of protected areas are being pursued on the assumption that it is the local people who are primarily responsible for loss of biodiversity and the highest priority should be given to excluding them. On the other hand, the wealthy and the powerful successfully flout the regulations. 

Goa, a mining paradise

The mining and quarrying industry in Goa is the second most important industry next to tourism. Most of the  mining in Goa is in the Western Ghats extending 65 km from southeast to northwest spanning some 700sq  km.  Goa is the only state in India, as a result of a historical regulatory legacy, where iron ore mines are concentrated in lease areas of  less than 100 hectares. Most mining leases are located in and around wildlife sanctuaries and forest areas. For example, 31 leases are within 2 km of sanctuaries, of which seven are working mines; 13 leases are within 1 km of  wildlife sanctuaries. Around 2,500 hectare of forest area were lost to mining in the period between 1988 and 1997. No studies to assess the loss in forest area in the Western Ghats have been done since then. 

The government has acknowledged that over half of the 300 odd mining leases are located close to water bodies. Data tabled in the Goa Assembly revealed that several of the 182 mining leases exist within one kilometer of a major irrigation  project, the Selaulim dam, which provides drinking water to six lakh people in south Goa, virtually half the population of  Goa. Dumps are located close to water bodies which contributes to the silt runoff into the water especially during Goa's heavy monsoons.

Several of the 182 mining leases exist within one kilometer of a major irrigation  project, which provides drinking water to six lakh people in south Goa, virtually half the population of  Goa. Dumps are located close to water bodies which contributes to the silt runoff into the water especially during Goa's heavy monsoons.

Open cast mining has induced significant changes in water quality and quantity besides causing topographical, morphological, and land use changes. Suspended particulate matter in the mine and tailings discharge water used for paddy cultivation can be major threats to sustainability of fertility of these agricultural lands. Direct surface runoff from the adjoining mine dumps into the agricultural lands adds to the problem of siltation. As water tables drop due to the drainage of water into mining pits in zones of unconfined aquifers, local wells go dry and affect availability of water for domestic needs and agriculture and this impacts local lives.

The environmental clearance granted stipulates that if there are any water courses, they should not be disturbed and that dense natural vegetation be maintained for a distance of 50 meters on either side of the water courses. However, field inspection revealed that these conditions were totally violated; that the streams are dammed, their flow diverted and  stream bank vegetation destroyed.

The Devapon Dongar mine of Caurem village in Quepem taluka of Goa is located on a hill sacred to the Velips, a Scheduled Tribe group, and to sanction a mine on this hill against serious local opposition, and without completing the implementation of the Forest Rights Act is thoroughly inexcusable. The environment impact assessment (EIA) report states there are no water courses in the mine lease area despite the presence of two perennial  springs. Several mines are operating without clearances, on fraudulent  environment impact assessments and/or  flouting of conditions of environmental clearances.  Many others are flouting environmental conditionalities in terms of extracting  ore beyond output limits. 

EIAs are prepared by agencies employed by project proponents and are therefore under tremendous pressure to tweak the information so as to facilitate clearance. They are consequently riddled with incomplete and often patently false information. Given that EIA reports are not to be trusted, the role of the Environmental Appraisal Committee (EAC) for the  sector becomes that much more important. However, the composition of the committee is considered inadequate since it does not always have representation from the region in which the project is to be located. Since EAC deliberations take place in Delhi, without, most often, a visit to the project site, local level pressures and concerns are not always understood, because the EIA report is defective and the public hearing minutes are manipulated.

The panel recommends an indefinite moratorium on new environmental clearances for mining in Ecologically Sensitive Zones 1 and 2 in Goa and a phasing out of mining by 2016 in highly sensitive layer of the area. No mining should be allowed in the Western Ghats in Goa in:national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, closure of all mines that have been extracting ore beyond limits allowed by environmental clearance and those operating in the catchment areas of dams used for drinking water.

The panel recommends an indefinite moratorium on new environmental clearances for mining in Ecologically Sensitive Zones 1 and 2 in Goa and a phasing out of mining by 2016 in highly sensitive layer of the area. No mining should be allowed in the Western Ghats in Goa in national parks and sanctuaries, closure of all mines that have been extracting ore beyond limits and those operating in catchment areas of dams used for drinking water.

Polluter or Protector?

A total of 25 gram sabhas from Sindhudurg district in Maharashtra have passed resolutions requesting that their panchayat areas be designated as ecologically sensitive areas. Notably, several other gram panchayats in the region  have passed resolutions to the contrary, namely, that they do not wish their gram panchayat areas to be constituted as  ecologically sensitive areas. On further discussion, it turns out that people are trying to balance two evils. They feel that  if their gram panchayat areas are constituted as ecologically-sensitive areas, it would reduce the threat of completely unwelcome mining activities. At the same time they are afraid that if their gram panchayat areas are constituted as ecologically sensitive areas, they will come under the stranglehold of the forest department, which is also unwelcome.

One such instance can be seen at the Panchgani-Mahabaleshwar area which has been selected as eco-sensitive zone. However, the programme operates in a highly centralised fashion with no involvement of  local communities. Many so‐called illegal constructions targeted were temporary sheds or cowsheds of people who refused to give bribes. On the other hand, a hotel which had undertaken construction without permission was not touched. Even elected members on local bodies had  no idea whatsoever of the intention behind the eco-sensitive zone.

Forest dwellers were alienated from their access to the forest, with negative consequences. At the same time, large scale constructions continued to set up hotels. Broader  considerations including stream conservation or restoration, promotion of organic farming, soil carbon sequestration and promotion of bridle paths have been completely ignored and all the focus in on regulation of construction and tree felling. Suresh Pingale, a local nursery owner, wished to propagate and popularise indigenous species that do well locally. There was no response from officials to such a proposal who are more inclined towards construction and commercial tourism. 

Forest dwellers were alienated from their access to the forest, with negative consequences. At the same time, large scale constructions continued to set up hotels. Broader  considerations including stream conservation or restoration, promotion of organic farming, soil carbon sequestration and promotion of bridle paths have been completely ignored and all the focus in on regulation of construction, tree felling and tourism.

People complain that they have to pay a bribe of Rs  20,000 for permission to dig a bore well; for an open well even  larger amounts are demanded. Farms on hilly lands may be split on two levels; levelling of land is then permitted only on   payment of bribes. A bribe of at least Rs 1000-1500 from small farmers is demanded for a small extension of verandas. Citizens are harassed by closure of roads to old villages in areas surrounded by forests in existence for a long time. The roads previously traversed by bullock carts are now made unusable by trenches dug by the Forest Department. These  are allowed to be repaired on payment of bribes. 

The Forest Department has gone about the business of formulating the management regime around these protected areas with little or no dialogue with local communities consequently resulting in much confusion. For instance, 'No artificial lighting will be used' can be interpreted as no electric lights, not even kerosene lanterns or oil lanterns with wicks will be permitted even inside residences in the 10 km zone. This zone includes large numbers of villages, and many other establishments. People interpret such regulations in only one way;; that these will create opportunities for officials to harass and extort bribes.

Development by exclusion

The  experience  the  world  over  is  that  people,  and  not  government  or  industry,  have  led  movements  to  protect  the  environment.  In  this  context,  during 1990s the  Ministry  of  Environment  and  Forests  had  an  excellent  scheme  of  district‐level  Paryavaran  Vahinis under which concerned  citizens  were  conferred  authority  to  monitor  environmental  degradation  such  as  pollution  and  deforestation,  and  report  to  the  District  Collector,  who  would  then  enquire  into  the  matter.  The  Maharashtra officials  claim to involve the communities in a similar manner in  Ratnagiri district and there was a very active 'Lott  Abhiyas  Gat'  attached to  Lote  MIDC,  a  chemical  industries  complex.  However, it was found that the much acclaimed Ratnagiri  District  Environment  Committee  does not exist at all and the  Abhyas  Gat  had  been  totally  inactive,  with  no  meetings  over  more  than  two  years. 

In spite of their demand, a representative of Kotavale village,which has suffered maximally from the pollution,  is not included in the Abhyas Gat. It was revealed that the effluent treatment plant for the Lote chemical industries complex has been lying defective polluting the streams serving Kotavale village. People also reported that solid toxic sludge from industries was mixed with soil and dumped in the Ghat area. Recently,  toxic wastes were dumped via a tanker in the Boraj Dam which is the water supply of Khed town. The town water supply had to be stopped for several weeks, but nobody has been brought to book. 

Effluent treatment plant for the Lote chemical industries complex has been lying defective polluting the streams  serving Kotavale  village. Recently, toxic wastes were dumped via a tanker in the Boraj dam which is the water supply of Khed town. The town water supply had to be stopped for several  weeks, but nobody has been brought to book. 

There  has  been  significant  decline  in  fish  landings  from  Dabhol  creek  due  to  Lote  chemical  pollution,  and  severe  loss  of  employment  opportunities  for  members  of  fishing  communities. It  is  reported  that  this  industrial  complex  employs  11,000  people;  while  the  local  fishermen  claim  that  the  resultant  pollution  has  rendered  20,000  people  from  their  community  jobless. Despite all  these  persistent  and  unrectified  problems,  the authorities are planning to set up a  new  petrochemical  complex in the area nearby . 

Dams be damned

In 2009, the number of existing dams and construction of  on‐going  ones  had  reached  a  total  of  1,821  structures,  out  of  which  approximately  200  of  the  large  dams  lay  in  north western ghats. Construction  of  dams  are often  followed  by  the  construction  of  roads,  connecting  remote  areas  in  the  Western  Ghats  to  the  cities,  thereby  exposing  the  virgin  forests  to  more  and  more  exploitation.

The Gundia river basin in Karnataka is a hotspot of biodiversity with a repository of biological wealth of rare kinds, both in its aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. The construction of hydroelectricity project on Gundia river will cause large scale land cover changes impacting the biodiversity of the region which is also part of an elephant reserve. The project would alter the hydrological regime. Kumaradhara River, a perennial source of water to the important Subramanya temple, will lose water due to its diversion to the Bettakumri dam. The catchment yield will dwindle and current perennial streams will become seasonal.

The Athirappilly Hydroelectric project also falls in a region with high biodiversity richness. The  impact on downstream irrigation and drinking water, questionable technical feasibility, meager amount of power that could be generated  and impact on the habitats of the  primitive tribes of the area make the project unfeasible,  The panel recommended that environmental  clearance  should  not  be  given  to  any  large  scale  storage  dams  in  two topmost eco-sensitive layers of the gradient system defined for western ghats. 

Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg

The Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts of Maharashtra have been seriously impacted, both environmentally and socially by a number of mining and power projects, and polluting industries. Only eastern portions of the region lies in western ghats. The impacts are manifold; depletion and pollution of ground water, siltation of water bodies, increased flood frequencies, loss of fertile agricultural land, depletion of fisheries, deforestation, loss of unique biodiversity elements such as herbaceous plants of lateritic plateaus, air pollution, noise pollution, traffic congestion and accidents, increase in respiratory ailments, and so on.

An indefinite moratorium on new environmental clearances for mining in the two most sensitive eco zones of the area, phasing out of mining from the most sensitive zone by 2015  and continuation of existing mining in the second zone under strict regulation with an effective system of social audit is required. No new highly polluting industries, including coal based power plants, should be permitted in the eco-sensitive zones while the existing industries should be asked to switch to zero pollution by 2015.

An indefinite moratorium on new environmental clearances for mining in the two most sensitive eco zones of the area, phasing out of mining from the most sensitive zone by 2015  and continuation of existing mining in the second zone under strict regulation with an effective system of social audit is required. 

What the panel proposed

Besides the mining, big dams and windmill projects, the Western Ghats are also being subjected to large scale construction activities. Apart from huge projects  like Amby Valley and Lavasa, several farm houses and resort projects are being set up all over the Western Ghats on land holdings ranging from 10 acres to 500 acres. Developmental activities associated with these projects are roads, terracing,  vegetation  cutting,  construction and landscaping, all proving dangerous to biodiversity. Such impacts cannot be measured or compensated by any amount of greening activities. 

Apart from huge projects like Amby Valley and Lavasa, several farm houses and resort projects are being set up all over the Western Ghats on land holdings ranging from 10 acres to 500 acres. Developmental activities associated with these projects are all proving dangerous to biodiversity. Such impacts cannot be measured or compensated. 

The panel proposed that the entire Western Ghats region be declared as an ecologically sensitive area (ESA) with four grades or layers.These layers will allow regulation and development depending on local ecological and social contexts.The perceptions of all people and institutions on the labelling as well as regulations to be put in place were invited. The panel proposed setting up of district ecology committees in all Western Ghats districts which should work in collaboration with the district level zila parishad/ zila panchayat, Biodiversity Management Committees, as well as District Planning Committees. Revival of Paryavaran Vahinis, or committees of concerned citizens to serve as environmental watchdogs was also suggested.

The panel proposed setting up of district ecology committees in all Western Ghats districts which should work in collaboration with the district level zila parishad/ zila panchayat, Biodiversity Management Committees, as well as District Planning Committees. Revival of committees of citizens to serve as environmental watchdogs was also suggested.

Environmental impact analysis and clearance process should be radically reformed with wind mills and small scale hydroelectric projects also required to get clearances. A transition from regulations and negative incentives to promotion of nature conservation oriented activities and positive incentives to encourage continued conservation-oriented action in the context of traditional practices was emphasised upon. Organic agricultural practices, incentives for maintenance of select traditional varieties, ban on genetically-modified crops and monoculture should be put in place.

The report went on suggest a very lean bureaucratic apparatus just as a coordinator and facilitator to ensure that local communities can effectively enforce a desired system of protection and management of the natural resource base.

Read the original executive summary report

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