This is a challenging time in India’s development history where a number of tenets of environmental governance are being questioned by the imperative of growth. Environmental governance in India is under assault, and is thus in need of both fresh thinking and a new focus, based on outcome and results. The Western Ghats are no ordinary ecosystem. They constitute the water tower of peninsular India, providing water to 245 million people and draining a large part of the land surface of India. They are also a treasure trove of biodiversity. The Convention on Biological Diversity confers sovereign rights over these elements of biodiversity for which we are a country of origin. India can play an important role in research relating to such biodiversity elements and claim a share in the commercial profits flowing out of their use. The elements of value not only include medicinal plants and cultivated species of plants and their wild relatives, but seemingly worthless creations such as spider cobwebs, which turn out to be sources of a new kind of silk stronger than steel. Notably enough, such elements of value are by no means confined to natural forests, but occur everywhere across the Western Ghats, underscoring the need to maintain connectivity amongst biodiversity-rich habitats.
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Today, however, it is estimated that only seven percent of the Ghats’ primary vegetation survives and there are many threatened species, of which 51 are critically endangered species. It was in this context of threats and in response to demands by people of the Western Ghats, that the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) was set up in March 2010 by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to assess the state of the Ghats and suggest ways for their “conservation, protection and rejuvenation” through a process of consultations with State governments, industry, and local people. Post submission of the report in August 2011, its “quarantine” until May 2012, and its subsequent release, the panel presumed that a more detailed public discussion would follow its translation into regional languages, and then finalised. This did not happen. Instead, an adversarial environment emerged or was created, resulting in hostility to the WGEEP report. State governments protested that development will be affected, without a careful reading of what it allows, promotes and seeks to protect. They chose to ignore, as did the MoEF, the tentativeness of the panel’s recommendations, the provisional nature of zone boundaries and sectoral guidelines, to be used for informed and inclusive deliberations, a point made repeatedly but which continues to be misrepresented. However, instead of there being a larger debate around the WGEEP report, the Ministry chose to appoint a High Level Working Group (HLWG) whose mandate it was to examine the WGEEP report “in a holistic and multidisciplinary fashion.” We would like to comment on three aspects of this examination: (i) the process followed (ii) analytical approach adopted, and (iii) recommendations made.
The stakeholder comments received by the MoEF (1,750 in a population of 50 million in the Working Group States) should have been shared with the panel. Instead, secrecy followed — inexplicable, given that the WGEEP was a MoEF appointed panel, not a fly-by-night operator as seen in the mining regions of the Ghats. The MoEF also summarily rejected the panel’s plea that any decision in the matter should be made only after the report is made available to people in regional languages and their feedback obtained. The HLWG’s examination of the WGEEP report ought surely to have commenced with a dialogue with the panel. This was not done, but for a meeting with the chairperson and some of the members, very late in the game. Instead, the HLWG had a limited consultative process and finalised the recommendations and submitted its report, without sharing this with the Gadgil Panel, suggesting that the intention was not to make the WGEEP recommendations “implementable,” but really to replace it by an alternative framework.
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The approach adopted for the examination combined a selective review of development issues in the WGEEP report with its own reasoning that insufficiently regarded the Western Ghats as an ecosystem from the perspective of “conservation, protection and rejuvenation.” An ecosystem such as the Western Ghats comprises both people and the ecology, and hence WGEEP carried out its mandate using a social-ecological lens. It is misleading then to suggest that the WGEEP did not have local people or the state’s development needs in mind in arriving at its recommendations. What WGEEP did was mainstream into development planning for the districts of the Western Ghats the more long-term needs of the people such as water and ecosystem services. With this in mind, it suggested not just the graded regulation of the more ecologically harmful activities, but the promotion of more benign, job creating activities, for example, agro and biomass based industry, regulated ecotourism, industries, and services that involve dematerialization, education hubs, etc. In energy provisioning, it recommended clean energy, “smart” demand side management campaigns, and more equitable distribution policies.