‘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