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Kerala government nixes Gadgil report

By N P Chekkutty

The Kerala government has rejected the Madhav Gadgil Committee report on the preservation of the unique ecosystem of the Western Ghats, recently accorded World Heritage status. Kerala also continues to back the Athirappally hydro-electric project which the Committee has nixed

Western Ghats  World Heritage

The report of the Western Ghats Ecology Experts Panel (WGEEP 2011), submitted to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in August 2011, and published recently following an order from the Central Information Commission, has evoked a mixed response in Kerala, one of the major states to be affected by the wide-ranging and sweeping recommendations made in the report.

In a discussion in the state legislature on the report -- also known as the Madhav Gadgil Committee report -- on June 10, Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy declared that the state could not accept the report’s recommendations as “most of the suggestions were impractical to implement”. He added that Kerala was opposed to the formation of a new Western Ghats Ecology Authority (WGEA), a key recommendation, as “the state could ensure protection to its environment within provisions of the existing laws”. The chief minister told the assembly that the government of Kerala had written to the central government raising objections to as many as nine recommendations made by the committee towards the preservation of this unique ecosystem, including the setting up of a Western Ghats Ecology Authority and declaring the entire Western Ghats region as an ecologically sensitive area, divided into three different zones. And the government still hopes to implement the Athirappally hydro-electric project, despite a firm recommendation by the committee that environmental clearance should not be accorded to this controversial project proposed across the Chalakkudy river.

The Gadgil Committee report, made available to the public on the MoEF website on May 23 after much public pressure, brings back into focus critical aspects of protection and preservation of the Western Ghats, a fragile and extremely important ecological system spread across the states of Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Goa and Maharashtra. Among its key recommendations are:

  • Categorisation of the Western Ghats into three zones of varied ecological sensitivity.
  • Broad guidelines for each of these zones.
  • A broad framework for the establishment of a Western Ghats Ecological Authority with adequate legal and administrative powers.  

The Kerala government and various political parties in the state fear that these recommendations and restrictions on economic and development activities in the new zones notified as ‘ecologically fragile’ will impact on growth, as there is a lot of pressure on forest lands in Kerala. In fact, many of the areas mentioned by the committee as ecologically fragile are already being encroached on by a growing population and the land mafia; any move to evict them would elicit a violent and fierce reaction as has been witnessed in the grassland hills of Munnar, part of the Western Ghats ecosystem, where huge patches of land have been encroached upon by land-grabbers with political support. Former electricity minister of Kerala, A K Balan of the CPM, who was relentless in his campaign for the Athirappally power project during the previous LDF government, told the assembly that 15 talukas in the state would be listed ecologically fragile if the Gadgil Committee recommendations were to be accepted and implemented in full.

Despite the reservations expressed by mainstream parties and politicians about the Gadgil Committee report, there is growing public support in the state for stringent measures to be taken to protect and preserve the ecology, an opinion echoed by former Union Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh, on his visit to the state recently. Ramesh called the report a sensible one that would help take care of the long-term interests of the place and its people. As union minister in charge, Ramesh had been steadfast in his opposition to the Athirappally power project, on ecological grounds. He was supported by the state’s environment minister in the previous government, Benoy Biswam of the CPI, who also felt the Athirappally project would prove to be a huge setback to the ecology of the Western Ghats. Major environmental action groups in Kerala are also campaigning in defence of the Gadgil Committee recommendations, calling for their full implementation.

Madhav Gadgil Committee report on the preservationThe expert committee, in its 328-page report, gives a comprehensive and exhaustive analysis of the environmental problems that beset the Athirappally project, and dwells on the ecological significance of the region, impact of the project on the indigenous population that survives on resources from the forests etc, based on scientific studies, public hearings, submissions from the concerned agencies, authorities, civil society organisations, etc. In fact, the report contains one of the most comprehensive and authoritative studies on the ecological aspects of the Athirappally project, in an eight-page section, from pages 58 to 65.

The report points out that two hydropower projects -- Gundia in Karnataka and Athirappally in Kerala -- fall within Ecologically Sensitive Zone-1 (ESZ-1); it has recommended that no environmental clearance should be given to large-scale storage dams in ESZ-1 and ESZ-2. Hence both projects should be denied environmental clearance. The report also notes that the process of proper assignment of rights under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest-Dwellers (Rights over the Forest) Act has not been completed in either of these cases, a mandatory proviso for any environmental clearance of projects in such areas.

Providing a background to the Athirappally project, the committee mentions that Stage 1 forest and environmental clearances that were accorded by the central government in 1997 and 1998 had been suspended by the Kerala High Court after public interest litigations. Ever since, all moves by the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) and the state government to get the clearances were challenged in the courts, either by interested public and/or by the local gram panchayat and the Kadar community, an indigenous tribe living in the region. The Kerala State Biodiversity Board (KSBB) -- a statutory body of the government -- has also taken a stand against the project because of the rich biodiversity in the area, and has filed an affidavit in the high court expressing its views. The high court division benches heard the case twice, in 2008 and 2009; the verdict is still awaited. It was in this context that the MoEF asked the WGEEP to study the case and give its views.

The committee, as part of its study, visited the proposed dam site, the reservoir area, primitive settlements at Pokalappara and Vazhachal and their surrounds, the downstream Thumburmuzhy Major Irrigation Project site etc on January 29, 2011. It held consultations at various levels, including with representatives of the primitive Kadar tribe, the local gram panchayat of Athirappally, and the general public that had responded to the WGEEP’s press note inviting public comments.

In addition, the committee organised a technical consultation attended by experts from the KSEB, KSBB, Chalakkudy Puzha Samrakshana Samiti (Chalakkudy River Protection Committee), River Research Centre, Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad, Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI), Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute (TBGRI), National Conservation Foundation (NCF), officers and experts from the government departments of irrigation, tribal development, forests and wildlife, tourism, and staff officers associations like the KSEB Officers Association, etc. The committee examined earlier reports and court documents, minutes of the three public hearings, EIA reports of 1996 and 2002, etc.

It considered the following aspects before arriving at a conclusion: biodiversity, impact on ecology, impact on drinking water and agriculture downstream, and impact on tribal populations in the region, besides considering the technical feasibility of the project, which itself had been challenged by various expert groups.

The committee’s verdict was a firm ‘No’ to the Athirappally project, and the data it has gathered as evidence in the course of its investigations is substantial. The report refers to 24 major points on the region’s biodiversity alone, and asserts: “The riparian vegetation in the Chalakkudy river system is unique in that there is no such riparian vegetation at such low elevation anywhere else in the Western Ghats, especially in Kerala.” The riparian vegetation in the proposed dam site contains 155 species of endemic plants and more than 33 species of plants belonging to rare, endangered, and threatened categories according to the IUCN. In fact, the region has a high degree of endemic species of several taxa; 21% of plants (out of 508 spp), 16% of butterflies (out of 54 spp), 53% of amphibians (out of 17 spp), 21% of reptiles (out of 19 spp), 13% of birds (out of 98 spp), and 14% of mammals (out of 22 spp) recorded in the area are endemic species, according to the EIA study done by an independent agency in 2002.

This is an area unique for bird conservation, the study finds. Of the 486 species of birds recorded in Kerala, 234 have been sighted in the Vazhachal-Athirappally area. All four species of hornbill found in Kerala (the Malabar grey hornbill, grey hornbill, Malabar pied hornbill and the great Indian hornbill) can be found here -- a very rare phenomenon. The riparian forests constitute one of only two breeding sites of the Malabar pied hornbill in Kerala, the other being Aralam Wildlife Sanctuary. Twelve of the 16 species (75%) of endemic birds seen in the Western Ghats are present in the Athirappally-Vazhachal region.

The Chalakkudy river is known for its rich fish diversity: out of 210 species of freshwater fish found in Kerala, the river hosts 104 species, 22 of them listed as endangered and nine critically endangered, according to the IUCN red data book. A recent survey also found that of these fish species, 23 were found only in the Chalakkudy river in Kerala -- five of them are new species, discovered for the first time. Populations of one of the fish species, Osteochilichthys longidorsalis, found only in this river and nowhere else in the world, have declined by 99% in the past two decades.

Building a dam on the river would destroy the fish habitat and also hamper migration, as some species migrate upstream and some downstream to complete their annual lifecycle. In view of the abundance of fish species and their unique nature, the National Bureau of Fish Genetic Resources has recommended the Chalakkudy river be declared a fish sanctuary.

This ecosystem provides sustenance to a number of other rare species, including amphibians like the torrent frog, Micrixalus saxicolus, confined to the boulders submerged in the water; the endemic and endangered cane turtle; the rare lion-tailed macaque -- another endemic and endangered species. The area is also part of the elephant migratory route through the Parambikkulam-Pooyamkutty forests.

Considering the conservation value of species endemic to the region, the biodiversity conservation strategy and action plan for Kerala, prepared by the French Institute, Pondicherry, has given it a conservation value as high as 75%, in the recent report. KFRI has classified Vazhachal, the project area, as a high value biodiversity area and has prepared a detailed biodiversity management plan for it.

(N P Chekkutty, a senior journalist based in Calicut, is editor, Thejas, a Malayalam daily newspaper)

Infochange News & Features, July 2012