[op-ed snap] Kerala floods: The prescriptions for the Western Ghats

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Mains Paper 3: Environment | Conservation, environmental pollution and degradation, environmental impact assessment

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Gadgil & Kasturangan Committee report, Western Ghats (important geographic features)

Mains level: Flooding events in the recent past in India & how these type of disasters can be averted


Context

Unprecedented floods in Kerela: Gadgil Committee report

  1. The floods in Kerala have brought the focus back on an almost forgotten 2011 report on the Western Ghats that had made a set of recommendations for preserving the ecology and biodiversity of the fragile region along the Arabian Sea coast
  2. Madhav Gadgil, lead author of the report has publicly argued that had the report’s suggestions been implemented by the concerned state governments, the scale of the disaster in Kerala would not have been as huge as it is

Why was the Gadgil Committee set up?

  1. Seeing the threats to the ecosystem from construction, mining, industries, real estate, and hydropower the environment ministry had set up the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel under Gadgil
  2. The panel was asked to make an assessment of the ecology and biodiversity of the Western Ghats and suggest measures to conserve, protect and rejuvenate the entire range that stretches to over 1500 km along the coast, with its footprints in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu

What did the Gadgil Committee say?

  1. It defined the boundaries of the Western Ghats for the purposes of ecological management
  2. It proposed that this entire area be designated as ecologically sensitive area (ESA)
  3. Within this area, smaller regions were to be identified as ecologically sensitive zones (ESZ) I, II or III based on their existing condition and nature of threat
  4. It proposed to divide the area into about 2,200 grids, each approximately 9 km × 9 km, of which 75 per cent would fall under ESZ I or II or under already existing protected areas such as wildlife sanctuaries or natural parks
  5. The committee proposed a Western Ghats Ecology Authority to regulate these activities in the area

Major recommendations

  1. A ban on the cultivation of genetically modified in the entire area
  2. Plastic bags to be phased out in three years
  3. No new special economic zones or hill stations to be allowed
  4. Ban on conversion of public lands to private lands, and on diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes in ESZ I and II
  5. No new mining licences in ESZ I and II area
  6. No new dams, thermal power plants or large-scale wind power projects in ESZ I
  7. No new polluting industries in ESZ I and ESZ II areas
  8. No new railway lines or major roads in ESZ I and II areas
  9. Strict regulation of tourism
  10. Cumulative impact assessment for all new projects like dams, mines, tourism, housing
  11. Phase-out of all chemical pesticides within five to eight years in ESZ I and ESZ II

Kerela’s objections

  1. Kerala had objected to the proposed ban on sand mining and quarrying, restrictions on transport infrastructure and wind energy projects, embargos on hydroelectric projects, and inter-basin transfer of river waters, and also the complete ban on new polluting industries

Kasturirangan Committee & its proposals

  1. A High-Level Working Group on the Western Ghats was constituted under Kasturirangan to examine the Gadgil Committee report in a “holistic and multidisciplinary fashion in the light of responses received” from states, central ministries and others
  2. This committee submitted its report in April 2013
  3. It broadened the definition of Western Ghats and included a total of 1,64,280 square km in it
  4. It then classified it as comprising cultural landscape and natural landscape. It said nearly 60% of the Western Ghats was cultural landscape, where human settlements, agriculture and plantations existed
  5. The remaining was the natural landscape, of which the “biologically rich” area was only 37% or about 60,000 sq km
  6. It was only this part that the committee said needed to be classified as an ecologically sensitive area (ESA)

Recommendations of Kasturirangan Committee

  1. A ban on mining, quarrying and sand mining
  2. No new thermal power projects, but hydro power projects allowed with restrictions
  3. A ban on new polluting industries
  4. Building and construction projects up to 20,000 sq m was to be allowed but townships were to be banned
  5. Forest diversion could be allowed with extra safeguards

Way Forward

  1. The Kerala disaster essentially has been caused by extreme rainfall
  2.  Since the 2013 Uttarakhand flooding, such extreme rainfall events have led to one disaster-like situation in India every year
  3. Even in the Uttarakhand disaster, uncontrolled construction, large hydropower plants and deforestation were assessed to have aided the scale of destruction
  4. There is now a need to learn lessons from past tragedies and increase the resilience of disaster-struck areas through sustainable and long-term development that would involve minimal intervention in natural processes
Disasters and Disaster Management – Sendai Framework, Floods, Cyclones, etc.
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