Karela Fry

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The Western Ghats

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The western ghats has been in the news over the last few months. Today, TOI reports with disappointment:

The Western Ghats, a hotspot for biodiversity that spans seven states, is out of the race for Unesco’s Natural Heritage Status for the second year in a row. The Unesco Heritage Committee had at its meeting in Paris in 2011 also rejected India’s application.

Unesco carries out annual audits to check if heritage sites maintain the criteria based on which they are granted the tag, said Jagadish of Atree, a Bangalore-based NGO involved in the survey of the designated sites along with IUCN. “This would have led to protection of the sites and prevented encroachments,” he said. “Also, roads or dams cannot be constructed on these sites.”

The 39 sites are spread over 7,95,315 hectares in Maharashtra (with four sites), Karnataka (10), Kerala (19) and Tamil Nadu (six). Many politicians in these states, especially in Karnataka, have opposed the move to seek heritage status for the 39 sites, saying no development project would be possible in these areas.

The International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has suggested that India “review and refine the scope and composition” of the sites, chosen by the state governments, and take serious note of recommendations by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP).

The regulatory body asked India to “further refine the boundaries” of the sites to ensure the “exclusion of disturbed areas” and “enhance the contiguity and buffer zones of the nominated sites”, based on recommendations from WGEEP.

This report was blocked from the public by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, until it was order to make it public by the Chief Information Commissioner. The report of the WGEEP is now published on the website of the MoEF. A policy for conservation is being formulated, and the public has been given a deadline of July 5, 2012 to present its views to the government. So, if you have strong feelings about the ghats, then please read the document and write to the government.

Madhav Gadgil writes in the Hindu to clarify several statements which have been made in the press:

WGEEP has clearly stated that what is proposed are only provisional boundaries and provisional guidelines, both to serve as a basis of informed deliberations through an inclusive process reaching down to all gram sabhas/ward sabhas throughout the Western Ghats region. Our using talukas to draw boundaries of eco-sensitive zones was forced on us by the lack of readily available detailed information, and the report recommends that these must be immediately redrawn taking the gram panchayat boundaries and watershed boundaries into account. We not only suggest regulatory measures, but also promotional measures such as payments to farmers for building up carbon stocks in farm soils. These measures too are meant to be taken up for consideration by people going down right to the grass-roots. The report suggests that an excellent precedent for this exists whereby the Goa government placed the database prepared for Goa Regional Plan 2021 before all gram sabhas for correction of any errors as well as suggestions.

An important action point that emerges from this approach is dissemination of the information and understanding contained in the report in regional languages, and soliciting feedback from the gram sabhas/ward sabhas as a first step in a down-up planning process. It is suggested that the State governments should follow up on this by taking appropriate actions to implement devolution of powers to local bodies as required by the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution, and ensure that all levels of the government are properly involved in implementing such proposals of WGEEP report as are found to be acceptable through a broad based democratic decision-making process.

Governments should initiate a series of steps to remove deficit in environmental governance as pointed out in the WGEEP report:

— Strictly enforce environmental laws such as Air and Water Acts to control pollution

— Facilitate, not suppress, freedom of expression and assembly of people drawing attention to issues of environmental degradation

— Empower local bodies, i.e. gram, taluk and zilla panchayats and nagarpalikas and mahanagarpalikas to take decisions on environmental issues

— Put in place Biodiversity Management Committees (BMC) in all local bodies, fully empowered under the Biological Diversity Act, 2002, to regulate use of local biodiversity resources, and to charge Collection Fees

— Initiate registration of crop cultivars as called for by Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act, 2001, and give grants to panchayats to build capacity for in situ conservation of crop genetic resources

— Implement fully the Forest Rights Act

— Reinstate the system of empowering citizens to monitor the status of environment under the Paryavaran Vahini scheme

— Carry out a radical reform of environmental clearance process through (a) assigning preparation of EIA statements to a neutral competent body that does not depend on payment by project proponents, (b) making mandatory involvement of local BMCs in the process of EIA preparation, (c) making mandatory taking on board all information submitted and suggestions made during public hearings, (d) making mandatory periodic environmental clearance requirement, preferably every five years, (e) making mandatory involvement of BMCs in the process of monitoring of implementation of conditions laid down while granting environmental clearances, (f) make mandatory preparation of regional Cumulative Environmental Impact Analyses

— Enhance the scope of regional development plans to include key environmental concerns and make mandatory involvement of local BMCs in the process of preparation of regional plans.

It is clear from this article that the committee felt that proper use of the environment involves the people at the local level. This is the precise point at which environment and politics intersect.

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