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The Politics of Ecosensitivity

Kerala has squandered the chance to be a role model for conserving biodiversity.

Politics usually trumps environmental concerns in India. This has been the state of play for decades whether we speak of conserving forests, rivers or other ecologically important resources. The latest victim in this game of political football is the chain of the Western Ghats that stretches over 1,500 km across six states. No politician has dared question the science that informed the important report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), led by noted scientist Madhav Gadgil, that was submitted last year to the government. But instead of understanding the arguments that lay behind the various recommendations made in the report to protect what Science magazine terms as the world’s second-most “irreplaceable” site of threatened species, politicians of all persuasions have ensured that this report is first diluted, then misrepresented, and finally tied up in political knots. The latter will guarantee that what little could still be salvaged of the original report will now be firmly buried.

The course the WGEEP report has taken is instructive, and predictable. Gadgil and his team studied the biodiversity richness of the Western Ghats and then came up with a set of recommendations to ensure that these resources are properly managed and protected. There was no blanket advice to cordon off the entire region, given that it covers 44 districts and 142 talukas in the six states. What it suggested instead was to divide the Western Ghats into three “ecologically sensitive zones” (ESZ). Only ESZ 1 would be closed to any interference by way of mining, power generation (thermal or hydel) and industry. Zones 2 and 3 would be permitted these industrial activities on a graded basis and on condition that they conformed to environmentally benign criteria.

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