‘This could hap­pen again.’

In­ter­view with the ecol­o­gist Mad­hav Gadgil.


IT is al­most seven years to the date since the Western Ghats Ecol­ogy Ex­pert Panel (WGEEP) set up by the Gov­ern­ment of In­dia un­der the em­i­nent ecol­o­gist Mad­hav Gadgil rec­om­mended that sev­eral ar­eas in Ker­ala and all of Kodagu district, which come un­der the Western Ghats, be clas­si­fied as eco­log­i­cally sen­si­tive zones. Both ar­eas were re­cently rav­aged by floods and land­slides. In Septem­ber 2011, in its vo­lu­mi­nous and well-re­searched re­port based on data from the ground and satel­lite im­agery (all of which were made avail­able to the pub­lic), the Gadgil panel rec­om­mended a slew of mea­sures for the preser­va­tion of the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment in the eco­log­i­cally frag­ile Western Ghats, in­clud­ing strict curbs on min­ing, tim­ber felling, quar­ry­ing and on the use of land for non-for­est pur­poses. Of course, the re­port was un­palat­able to suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments in the six stake­holder States.

Faced with ob­jec­tions from them and ad­verse re­sponses from oth­ers, the Union En­vi­ron­ment Min­istry thought it best to ap­point an­other panel, this time one headed by the space scientist K. Kas­turi­ran­gan, to “ex­am­ine” the Gadgil com­mit­tee re­port in a “holis­tic and mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary” man­ner. The Kas­turi­ran­gan com­mit­tee, which sub­mit­ted its re­port in 2013, wa­tered down the rec­om­men­da­tions of the Gadgil panel. In ef­fect, it sug­gested that only a third of the Western Ghats need be iden­ti­fied as eco­log­i­cally sen­si­tive, dif­fer­en­ti­ated be­tween “nat­u­ral land­scapes” and “cul­tural land­scapes” and, in Gadgil’s words, “de­stroyed the spirit of [his] panel’s re­port”. Ex­cerpts from an in­ter­view the 73-year-old Gadgil gave Front­line.

Ker­ala has seen its worst floods in al­most a cen­tury, Kodagu some of the worst land­slides in liv­ing mem­ory Are these nat­u­ral or man-made dis­as­ters?

Ad­mit­tedly, there was in­tense and ex­cess rain­fall in both Ker­ala and Kodagu. Sci­en­tists have been say­ing that on ac­count of global warm­ing there has been an in­creased preva­lence of ex­treme cli­matic pat­terns both in fre­quency and mag­ni­tude… ex­cess and low rain­fall. But the dis­as­ter in Ker­ala and prob­a­bly in Kodagu has been also caused by ma­jor and un­jus­ti­fied hu­man in­ter­ven­tion in the nat­u­ral pro­cesses, which has gone on un­abated [for many years]. This hu­man in­ter­ven­tion has in­creased the mag­ni­tude of the dam­age, be it flood­ing or land­slides, man­i­fold. In Ker­ala, for ex­am­ple, the pro­lif­er­a­tion and quan­tum in­crease in illegal stonequar­ry­ing ac­tiv­ity has re­sulted in stones and rub­ble get­ting into streams and even the rivers, silt­ing them up badly. There has also been large-scale con­struc­tion, much of it illegal. You have been quoted many a time as op­pos­ing the illegal stone-quar­ry­ing ac­tiv­ity in Ker­ala. But it is as ram­pant as ever.

Yes. Way back in 2013 af­ter we had sub­mit­ted our re­port, there were many demon­stra­tions against the stone-quar­ry­ing ac­tiv­ity. And in one of the demon­stra­tions in Kozhikode district against the quar­ry­ing, a boy died af­ter he was in­jured dur­ing the stone throw­ing re­port­edly or­gan­ised by the stone-quar­ry­ing mafia against the demon­stra­tors. But no­body was brought to book. Peo­ple re­alised they were go­ing to be com­pletely un­sup­ported by the au­thor­i­ties. In re­cent years, stone quar­ry­ing has be­come even more ram­pant, ex­ceed­ing all lim­its. Quar­ry­ing and min­ing are tak­ing place in a very im­proper fash­ion.

Tim­ber felling, im­proper tree cut­ting has also had an ad­verse im­pact. The for­est de­part­ment’s de­ci­sion to re­place nat­u­ral forests with mono­cul­ture or forests of ex­otic species has also dis­turbed the hy­dro­log­i­cal bal­ance.

Your re­port also high­lights the pre­ma­ture silt­ing up of reser­voirs, es­pe­cially those in the steep val­leys in the Western Ghats States, be­cause of mas­sive

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