On August 16, the day Karnataka’s Kodagu district was battered by heavy rain and devastating landslides, the state government wrote to the Centre refusing to set up a committee to survey its part of the Western Ghats in preparation for implementing the K Kasturirangan Committee to conserve the ecologically sensitive mountain range. In neighbouring Kerala, the worst floods in a century had already caused widespread devastation by then.

Yet, The Hindu reported, the state had refused to help the Centre notify a list of areas to be declared ecologically sensitive and so bring them under strict development guidelines. But if the Centre were to form such a committee on its own, Karnataka said in its letter, the state would cooperate with it.

Karnataka has been strongly resistant to the idea of regulating the Western Ghats. In 2015, and again in 2017, the central government issued a draft notification to implement the Kasturirangan Committee’s report. The notification designated 20,668 sq km of the Western Ghats in Karnakata as ecologically sensitive, including Kodagu. But on April 22, 2017, the state rejected the draft in its entirety and requested the Centre to withdraw it.

The state claims it already regulates 22,000 sq km of the ecologically sensitive area through its own regulations and, therefore, the Centre’s oversight is not necessary. The state’s laws permit quarrying and mining in the region and it does not want to give that up because of its importance to the political economy.

Karnataka is not the only state to push back against attempts to regulate the Ghats. Kerala, in fact, has been resisting just as forcefully.

Kodagu is included in the ecologically sensitive zone recommended by the K Kasturirangan Committee on Western Ghats. Photo credit: S Gopikrishna Warrier

Kerala’s resistance

The environmentalist Madhav Gadgil, who led an earlier commission on the Western Ghats, has blamed the devastation caused by the floods in Kerala partly on unchecked development. “I am quite convinced that the last several years’ developments in the state have materially compromised its ability to deal with events like this and greatly increased the magnitude of the suffering that we are seeing today,” he said in a interview to The Indian Express on Monday. “Had proper steps been taken, the scale of the disaster would have been nowhere near what it is today.”

The Gadgil Commission submitted its lengthy report to the environment ministry in 2011. Notably, it divided 64% of the Western Ghats into three Ecologically Sensitive Zones and specified the activities that must be curtailed in each. The report led to an outcry from all six states that share the Western Ghats. They decried the “draconian recommendations” they claimed would hurt the livelihoods and welfare of millions of people.

A year later, the Centre formed the Kasturirangan Committee, which went on to change the Gadgil Commission’s definition of an ecologically sensitive zone, and reduced the area covered by these zones to 37% of the Western Ghats. But even under the diluted standards, Kerala seemed set see nearly a third of its total area notified as ecologically sensitive. Not surprisingly, the reports of both the Gadgil Commission and the Kasturirangan Committee were met with resistance in Kerala. In 2013, the state formed an expert committee under Oommen V Oommen, chairman of the Kerala State Biodiversity Board, to review the Kasturirangan panel’s recommendations.

The Oommen committee suggested doing away with the 10-km buffer zone around ecologically sensitive areas; excluding rubber, tea, coffee and cardamom plantations from the proposed new rules; allowing quarrying in low biodiversity areas and low scale sand mining by the government to continue.

The Kerala government has since negotiated down the ecologically sensitive area from 13,108 sq km in the Kasturirangan report to 9,993 sq km in the Centre’s draft notification. Before the floods struck this month, it was trying to get the Centre to reduce this area further to 9,107 sq km, according to the minutes of the last meeting on the Western Ghats, held in Delhi on April 11.

Since the draft notification sub-divides the ecologically sensitive zones into forest and non-forest areas, the state argued, the 886 sq km listed as non-forest areas should not be deemed ecologically sensitive.

A house damaged by the flooded in Kerala's Wayanad, which is in the Western Ghats. Photo credit: PTI

Views of other states

At the April meeting, Tamil Nadu argued, as Karnataka has, that it already regulates the Western Ghats. After a survey by its forest department, the state asked for including certain areas in the draft notification to preserve tiger and elephant corridors. It, however, also asked for several critical exemptions. The state wants a 66.65 hectare limestone quarry leased to ACC Cement by the forest department in Madukkarai, Coimbatore, to operating indefinitely instead of being phased out in five years. It also wants new hydel projects with capacity of more than 25 megawatts to continue to be sanctioned, though these are red category industries as defined by both the state and central pollution control boards and would hence be curtailed after ecologically sensitive areas are notified.

Maharashtra has proposed reducing its ecologically sensitive area from 17,340 sq km to 15,613 sq km. This reduction involves some jugglery, with a proposed 2,318 sq km from the draft notification deleted and 1,742 sq k not in it added. The governments of Goa and Gujarat did not attend the meeting in April.

The Centre plans to issue a new draft notification, reflecting the final views of the states, after the deadline for filing objections to the previous notification ends on August 25.

Sustainable rebuilding

Despite vast differences, the reports of the Gadgil Commission and the Kasturirangan Committee both recommend curtailing destructive human activities in the Western Ghats, a biodiversity hotspot. The activities include quarrying, mining, construction of large hydel projects, creation of new settlements, deforestation, mismanagement of effluents.

Quarrying and mining has been going on in the Ghats for decades now. As Scroll.in reported in June, extensive quarrying and development is contributing to landslides in the region.

According to a satellite mapping survey conducted in 2017 by TV Sajeev of the Kerala Forest Research Institute, the highest number of granite quarries in the state are in Palakkad, with 867 quarries spread over 1,166 hectares. Ernakulam has the highest area covered by quarries, with 774 spread over 1,261 hectares. Sajeev could not ascertain whether these quarries were active or not.

Nearly 96% of the granite quarries surveyed are within less than half a kilometre of drainage networks. Of these, 2,553 are less than 100 metres away from the drainage, and 4,072 less than 200 metres. This has contributed to the devastation caused by the floods.

But the devastation in the state is not limited to the hilly regions. “Callousness about the rivers and the ghats has caused this dam-induced disaster,” said C Jayakumar, an environmentalist at Thanal Trust. While one cause of the havoc was landslides in the Western Ghats, he noted, even the backwaters in the plains have been built on. The Kochi airport, for one, is built on a floodplain. When the gates of the Idukki dam were opened for the first time in 26 years, the airport too was flooded. Because floodplains were blocked, the floodwaters accumulated in the plains as well, instead of draining out quickly into the sea.

Jayakumar also pointed out that low rainfall in the state last year and in 2015 had eroded the topsoil, making it looser and unable to absorb the unexpectedly heavy rainfall this year, leading to devastating landslides.

As Kerala starts rebuilding now, ecologists are hoping to influence the policymakers to ensure more sustainable construction. “Administrators have to think right now about how they can rebuild the state,” said SD Biju, a herpetologist working in the Western Ghats. “This is an appropriate time to educate the people about encroachment and to talk about how to approach conservation.”