ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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A Tale of Two Committees and More

Conservation and Development in the Western Ghats

The Ministry of Environment and Forests by its hasty order of 20 December 2013 has set in motion events that go against the recommendations of the Western Ghats Ecology Experts Panel and the High Level Working Group. Decisions with respect to the Western Ghats - 39 sites within which now have the World Heritage tag and are the repository of unique biodiversity rich regions - will now go back into the hands of individual state governments, driven by their own short-term economic and electoral interests.

The Western Ghats, traversing over six states, are in the limelight lately in the context of the reports of two committees on their ecology and economy.1 This article aims to examine the unfolding scenario following in particular the responses of civil society, local populations, industry, governments and other stakeholders to the two reports.

It is generally agreed that ecologically sensitive areas (ESAs), including those in the Western Ghats, need to be protected at all costs, as some would say. After all, the mountain range is the repository of one of the most ecologically diversified landscapes and home to 39 World Heritage sites, apart from being the source of several rivers of the south. We claim we care about what we leave as a legacy for the future. Successive pieces of legislation in the last 20 years have endorsed such an understanding. We argue in international forums about the responsibility of the richer nations in the current impasse with respect to global climate change. Domestically too, the motivation to conserve at the cost of reckless development exists in several quarters. And this is undoubtedly the motivation behind the desire to use a slate of policy instruments introduced by the central government to conserve so-called “ecologically sensitive areas”, known also in the literature as “no-go” areas or as “inviolate areas”. Over the years, committees of experts have also been constituted to examine the issue and offer suggestions. The Sen Committee report way back in September 2000 had been mandated to “identify parameters for designating ecologically sensitive areas”. As recently as 2012, the report of the Committee on Inviolate Forest Areas had been submitted to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF). Its mandate was to “formulate broad parametres for identification of inviolate forest areas”. The latter was set up by the MOEF in pursuance of the directive of the group of ministers (GOM) on 20 September 2011 that identified pristine forest areas where mining would cause irreversible damage and so these locales should be barred from any kind of non-forest activity.

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