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Drought in the Western Ghats Part 1: Urbanisation demands see hills sacrificed to whims of mining, industry lobbies

Editor's note: This is the opening piece in a multi-part series on the nature of human excesses that have imperiled the fragile ecosystem of the Western Ghats, home to at least 325 globally threatened species of flora and fauna, by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's reckoning

The towering Western Ghats, one of the world's largest natural areas of biodiversity, and providing magnificent green cover over south India, is under threat. And with its destruction, south India is becoming more and more parched every year.

 Drought in the Western Ghats Part 1: Urbanisation demands see hills sacrificed to whims of mining, industry lobbies

The Western Ghats are among the world’s largest natural area of biodiversity. AFP file image

The Western Ghats, declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2012, is succumbing rapidly to urbanisation, mining and real estate lobbies, as different state governments and the Centre play ball over the extent of protected forest area in the sprawling 1.62 lakh hectares of the Ghats.

The Ghats are a fount for perennial rivers like Cauvery, Krishna, Godavari, and smaller rivers that flow through Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, while tributaries of these rivers arrive to provide succour to Tamil Nadu. The fertile catchment areas of these rivers have become rapidly urbanised, the forests mined, green cover denuded and soil eroded, as resorts and commercial establishments come up in feverish haste. Even a spiritual guru in Tamil Nadu has contributed his bit to the destruction of these protected forests.

What began with the buckling of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in 2011 has emboldened the capitulation of state governments and the current National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre to the powerful mining, industry and real estate lobbies.

And in the midst of it all, the locals suffer — with shrinking, drying rivers and almost non-existent ground water.

The Gadgil Report

Gadgil Report by Firstpost on Scribd

​In 2009, the then UPA government set up a committee headed by renowned environmentalist Professor Madhav Gadgil for a comprehensive legislation for the entire Western Ghats. Gadgil's 13-member team toiled for a year and a half and produced a paper titled 'Report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel'. This report recommended the Western Ghats be divided into four ecologically sensitive zones or ESZs.

In areas demarcated as Protected Areas (PAs), the Ghats would remain untouched and in pristine form. In areas demarcated as ESZ 1, no mining would be allowed, as any disturbance of the natural ecosystem there would lead to severe and resounding ramifications for the environment at large.

Other recommendations were: "(b) A phasing out of mining from ESZ 1 by 2016; (c) Continuation of existing mining in Ecologically Sensitive Zone 2 under strict regulation with an effective system of social audit (d) No new red and orange category industries, which would include coal-based power plants, should be permitted to be established in Ecologically Sensitive Zones 1 and 2; (e) The existing red and orange category industries should be asked to switch to zero pollution in Ecologically Sensitive Zones 1 and 2 by 2016, and be operated only under an effective system of social audit."

Furthermore, ESZ 3 would be referred to as a moderately sensitive area and would come under the existing legislation governing "protected forests".

But with protests breaking out in states like Kerala, where the church strongly opposed the recommendations, as well as mounting pressure from the powerful mining and real estate lobbies in all south Indian states, the UPA buckled. The Gadgil report was binned and a new committee was set up under the aegis of Kasturirangan, a space science expert.

The Kasturirangan report, submitted in 2012, drastically shrank the areas to be protected in the Ghats. Only 37 percent of the Ghats needed to be brought under Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESAs) as per the report. The UPA quickly accepted the report and left the onus on the state governments to delineate ESAs in their portion of the Ghats.

The original notification asking states to submit their ESAs was in September 2015. Despite repeated reminders and re-notifications, however, Tamil Nadu is yet to submit its ESA to the Centre. Kerala has aggressively objected to the Centre classifying 887 square kilometres of Ecologically Fragile Land as per the Kasturirangan Report. The Kerala government insists that it is non-forest land, as classifying it as forests imposes restrictions on industry and real estate.

The watered down Kasturirangan report states that 9,993.7 square kilometres of ESA falls in Kerala, 17,340 sq km in Maharashtra, 6,914 sq km in Tamil Nadu and 1,461 sq km in Goa. The Gadgil report had recommended an additional 3,000 sq km in all of these states be considered as part of the Ghats and therefore ecologically sensitive.

Maharashtra, Kerala, Karnataka and Goa have all rejected the ESAs recommended by the Kasturirangan Committee, in their "ground truthing" reports submitted to the Union Environment Ministry. The Centre continues to sit on these reports without taking a decision on them.

"In the short term, these problems of water scarcity in peninsular India, are very much related to serious mismanagement of water resources," said Madhav Gadgil, author of the original report, speaking to Firstpost. "All of this has nothing to do with climate change per se. The immediate issues are in the regions of the Western Ghats from which the rivers originate. There is a huge catchment area on the Western Ghats. There are several kinds of changes in the land view of this area. Proliferation of roads, the way the water courses are unnecessarily disrupted, and water sources disrupted in the name of real estate development. The Kasturirangan panel was trying to please those in power and completely sidelined all of these issues," he pointed out.

Prophecies Come True?

In the Gadgil Report, several issues are dealt with, including the construction of the contentious Athirapally hydropower project in Kerala and the Gundi hydel project in Karnataka. The Gadgil Committee had recommended that the state governments must not go ahead with either of these. On the Athirapally project, the report said, "Construction of the dam will completely alter the ecology of the river system, both upstream and downstream of the proposed dam site (from a dynamic and vital ecosystem to merely a physical water transporting system)… The proposal to regulate the water flow to 7.75 cumec, consequent to the construction of dam. This diversion of water for power generation would certainly affect the ecology of the system, especially the area between the dam site and the point where the tail race waters joins the Chalakudy river, a stretch of 7.89 km. The water flow in this sector would be only 7.75 cumec throughout the year… It may also be noted that water scarcity is already experienced in the downstream Panchayats, and salinity intrusion is reported up to 20 km from the coast. Construction of one more dam and changes in the flow pattern would aggravate the situation."

Kerala's LDF government in February 2017 announced its plans to revive the project in view of the severe power crisis faced by the state. This announcement came while the state was facing its worst drought in 114 years. "Since the state is facing severe power shortage, the government is looking at all options to improve production," state electricity minister MM Mani told the Assembly. "Tapping solar and wind power and setting up hydroelectric and thermal plants, including Athirapally, are under consideration," he added.

State Congress president VN Sudheeran vehemently opposed the move. "It will affect drinking water supply in 20 panchayats in the state and also destroy the environment," he said at the time to reporters.

Meanwhile, Karnataka was shocked to find out that ignoring the Gadgil committee recommendations can lead to severe consequences. "The Gundia River is an important tributary of the Kumaradhara originating at an elevation of about 1,400 m in Sakleshpura taluk in Hassan district. The Netravathi and Kumaradhara rivers are two west-flowing rivers of the central Western Ghats in Karnataka. Gundia River is formed by the Yettinahole and Kemphole streams, to which Kadumanehole and Hongadahalla streams join along the course of the river."

The report went on to explain why the Gundia hydel project was a bad idea. "Kumaradhara River, a perennial source of water to the important temple township at Subramanya, will lose water due to its diversion to the Bettakumari dam… Current perennial streams could become seasonal (as has happened in the Sharavathi river basin), while the altered hydrology downstream could affect livelihoods of local people," it said.

And yet, the Karnataka government went ahead. Today, the Kemphole has gone dry for the first time in decades, as the water in the Netravati river reduced drastically. Karnataka is facing drought for the third consecutive year, as all of the catchment areas of its bountiful rivers are encroached upon and killed.

"Basically, contractor lobbies are working in the country to a very significant extent," said Gadgil. "These are powerful lobbies involved in sand mining, construction — all of them are illegal and all this activity is destroying our water sources. These lobbies are actually running the states," he charged.

The solution, according to Gadgil, is simple. "The only way forward is to establish reign of law in the country. A very striking example is that of the Justice Shah Commission in Goa — Rs 35,000 crores of illegal mining in Goa in different districts, which pointed fingers at people including the former chief ministers. All of them are again being allowed to mine today, completely setting aside the Justice Shah report. Just implement the law and all will be well," he said.

Part 2:How deforestation saved ecologically-sensitive hills in Kerala
Part 3: Ambulance service supplies water to 700 families in Kerala's Kottayam
Part 4: In Kerala's Wayanad, acute water scarcity leading to man-animal conflict

Updated Date: May 11, 2017 15:51:11 IST