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MoEF: For environment or economy?
By Sudhirendar Sharma

Jairam Ramesh as environment minister constituted an expert panel to submit report on conservation of ecologically critical Western Ghats. But his successor Jayanthi Natarajan has decided against making the report public citing economic interests of concerned states.

The Expert Panel under Madhav Gadgil worked hard to prepare the report on
Western Ghats

The Ministry of Environment & Forests is seeking judicial reprieve against the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) order of April 9, 2012, asking the ministry to make public the report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP). In its order, the CIC has noted 'if such reports are put in public domain, citizens’ views and concerns can be articulated in a scientific and reasonable manner. If the Government has reasons to ignore the reports, these should logically be put before people. Otherwise, citizens would believe that the Government’s decisions are arbitrary or corrupt. Such a trust deficit would never be in the interest of the nation'.

Why would the environment ministry which had constituted an expert panel on public demand shield its report from public gaze? The ministry has argued that premature release of the report into the public domain without adequate consultations with the state governments and central ministries to refine the boundaries of eco-sensitive areas may lead to a situation wherein there would be an influx of proposals for declaration of eco-sensitive zones in the Western Ghats by individuals/groups/organizations. Far from being a saviour of the 'environment', the ministry contends that making 'public' such a report would impact 'economic' progress and interests in the region.

In contrast, the ministry while constituting the expert panel had clearly stated the need for protecting the 1600-km long stretch of the Western Ghats passing through six states, from Gujarat to Tamil Nadu, for the fact that it neutralizes no less than 4 million tonnes of carbon, equivalent to 14 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. The diverse forests ecosystems in the region neutralize 10 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions neutralized by the country's forests. It had also put on record that the region has been one of the important global biodiversity hotspot that harbours 1,741 species of flowing plants and 403 species of birds among a vast variety of reptiles and large mammals.

1600-km long stretch of the Western Ghats passing through six states, neutralizes no less than 4 million tonnes of carbon, equivalent to 14 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually.

Recognizing the fact that the region has been under ecological stress on account of river valley projects, mining operations and infrastructural development, a 14-member Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel was constituted in March 2010 by the ministry under the chairmanship of noted ecologist Madhav Gadgil. It was designated certain functions which included an assessment of the ecological status of the entire region, demarcation of areas within the said region required to be notified as ecologically sensitive under the Environment (Protection) Act,1986, and recommendations for conservation, protection and rejuvenation of the pristine environment of the Western Ghats.

Ever since the panel submitted its report in August 2011, the same has been held captive by the officials of the ministry who apprehend that it would prejudicially affect the 'scientific and economic' interests of the country, Taking strong offence to such observations, the Chief Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi has directed the Ministry of Environment & Forests to henceforth make public all such reports of commission, special committees and panels within 30 days of their submissions because 'it involves public money and that such a move would bring greater trust in the government and its functionaries, and hurt only the corrupt'.

It was in response to the demand for setting up an autonomous Western Ghats Ecological Authority (WGEA) by the 'Save Western Ghats Movement' in Feb 2010 that then environment minister Jairam Ramesh had constituted the expert panel to seek recommendations to that effect.

Would the report been differently received had Jairam Ramesh continued to be the Environment Minister? It could be anybody's guess but for having thoughtfully constituted an expert panel for getting a scientific sense of the current ecological status of the Western Ghats, the then environment minister would have definitely been more considerate. It was in response to the demand for setting up an autonomous Western Ghats Ecological Authority (WGEA) by the 'Save Western Ghats Movement' in Feb 2010 that then environment minister Jairam Ramesh had constituted the expert panel to seek recommendations to that effect.

Had such an ecological authority, cutting across state boundaries, been created, it would have amounted to superimposing ecological map across political boundaries? The demarcation of eco-sensitive areas across the stretch of the Western Ghats by WGEEP would lay the foundation for the first-of-its-kind ecological authority in the country. That the region is an ecological continuum was even observed by Kalidasa who had found 'the Western Ghats akin to a comely young maiden, with Agasthyamalai her head, Nilgiris and Anamalais her breasts, Goa her waist, Arabian Sea her blue garment, and Satpuras her feet'. Can such a region be ever treated or conserved in parts?

Being active member of the small team, which had led the revival of the two-decade old save western ghats movement in 2009, I not only lament the crass attitude of the environment ministry but equally regret the manner in which the ‘save western ghats movement’ has so far allowed the opportunity of mobilizing people around the findings of a scientific panel slip away. While the CIC has made it clear that in a democracy, the masters of the government are the citizens and an argument that public servants will decide policy matters by not involving them - without disclosing the complete reasons to the masters - is specious. It is now for the masters to expose the doublespeak of the environment ministry!

The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Sudhirendar Sharma  |  sudhirendarsharma@gmail.com

Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is an environmentalist and development analyst based in New Delhi. Formerly with the World Bank, Dr Sharma is an expert on water, a keen observer on climate change dynamics, and a critic of the contemporary development processes.

Write to the Author  |  Write to d-sector  |  Editor's Note

 Other Articles by Sudhirendar Sharma in
Environment Development  > Conservation > National Policies and Programmes

Milestone or Millstone?
Tuesday, July 03, 2012

UNESCO's decision to include the Western Ghats to the World Heritage List has brought cheer to environmentalists. But since a heritage tag doesn't advocate a new legal framework to protect the designated property, putting all hopes on a heritage tag shall be erroneous.

Nothing green about 'green economy'
Monday, October 31, 2011

Market forces are keen to put price tag on natural services but such an initiative can open a Pandora's Box of conflicting situations. Can we rule out trade-off in a capitalist market once nature and its services are commodified?
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