December 9, 2021
Nature versus livelihoods
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Good morning. The unfortunate deaths of 13 people including the Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat and his wife in a helicopter crash yesterday have shaken our nation. We join our fellow citizens in mourning their untimely demise. We also wish the lone survivor Group Captain Varun Singh a speedy recovery.
📰 FEATURE STORY
Is the Kasturirangan Committee Report worth implementing?
Growing up, even if you didn’t pay a lot of attention in geography class, you know that the Western Ghats are important. Covering just under 6% of India’s land area, this gargantuan range of tropical hills is home to more than 30% of India’s flora and fauna. In fact, 50% of our amphibians and 67% of all our fish species are endemic to this region. It’s needless to say that these Ghats definitely need to be looked after.
Unfortunately, this is easier said than done as simply focusing on the environment would jeopardise the livelihood of the people living in the Ghats. Things like agriculture, horticulture and development for a better quality of life immediately get hampered with more eco-protective laws. After all, it is a government’s job to look after its people.
In 2013, a high-level working group (HLWG) led by K. Kasturirangan submitted a report to the Centre. It said that the Western Ghats were incredibly important and to protect it, about 37% of its total area needs to be declared as eco-sensitive areas (ESAs). Considering UNESCO’s declaration of it being a “natural world heritage site”, this didn’t seem too surprising. In fact, the report also mentioned that this “heritage” tag must be used to grow “global and domestic recognition of the enormous natural wealth” that already exists there.
Now, you have to remember that the Western Ghats cover a number of states and, as widely established, nature doesn’t care about lines on a map. About 46.50% of the ESAs mapped out by the committee happen to fall within the boundaries of Karnataka. This is the highest among all the states mentioned in the report. Along with this, the report also called for a blanket ban on mining, quarrying, thermal power projects, etc.
While this seems like great news to environmentalists, certain state governments definitely don’t believe the hype. Since the report’s submission, the Karnataka and Kerala governments have been pretty vocal about their disapproval of the same. Just this Saturday, Karnataka CM B. Bommai told the Centre that the Kasturirangan Committee report’s recommendations lacked nuance. Therefore, implementing them would “adversely affect the livelihood of the people in the region.”
Anti-farmer, anti-people, anti-development
The whole argument against the committee’s report can be summed up as follows: “The Kasturirangan report has been prepared based on the satellite images, but the ground reality is different. People of the region have adopted agriculture and horticultural activities in an eco-friendly manner. Priority has been accorded for environment protection under the Forest Protection Act. In this background bringing one more law that would affect the livelihood of the local people is not appropriate.” This is what CM Bommai said to the Centre over an official Zoom call about the implementation of the report.
The fact that the report used “remote sensing and aerial survey methods” plays a major part in its criticisms. Turns out, surveying anything from a bird’s eye view will provide just that – the perspective of a distant passerby. So, when the ESAs were being marked out on a map, several villages and plantations got thrown into the mix. Now, villages and plantations are not forest lands. And calling them ESAs would eventually result in the displacement of way too many people. This issue arose in Kerala as well, but what they’ve questioned more is the report’s lack of clarity around certain terms.
The Kasturirangan Committee called for 9,993.7 square km of Kerala’s portion of the Western Ghats to be demarcated as ESAs. As per the Kerala-appointed Kurian Committee, this would include 92 villages in the ESA. Now, a “relaxation in Western Ghats environmental protection regulations is applicable” to any space described as a “non-core area”. But the problem is that the Kasturirangan report doesn’t really go over what a “non-core area” is. In general terms, the government believes that 1,337.24 square km of the 9,993.7 square km are technically “non-core areas”. But unless the Centre provides a working definition, this will hurt a lot of people.
We’ve got a big storm coming, literally
The argument for the Kasturirangan Committee’s report can be summed up as follows: “Considering the changes in climate (evident from recurring floods, droughts, landslides, increasing temperature, etc), which would affect the livelihood of all people (irrespective of poor or rich) and hurt the nation’s economy, it is prudent to conserve the fragile ecosystems that cost less compared to the situation prone to calamities (with changes in the climate) than spending money/resources for restoration/rejuvenation.” This is Dr T.V. Ramachandra’s stand on it, as someone who has spent more than 30 years studying the Western Ghats.
Environmentalist Dinesh Holla believes that the opposition from the state governments, especially Karnataka’s, is more about protecting the “unscientific” projects that have popped up by the forests than actually protecting the people. Over the years, the state government has been steadily decreasing “forest area” which is currently standing at 2 lakh hectares. And according to Holla, the recent cloudbursts and landslides in the districts of Kodagu, Chikkamagaluru and Dakshina Kannada are a direct result of that. If the government was trying to protect people, deterring calamities should have been a major priority.
Environmentalists have even pointed out that the people of the region are being misguided by officials and lobbyists about displacement. In fact, the several projects that have been encroaching on forest land are more likely to displace them than the declaration of ESAs. Even removing “non-core areas” from the ESAs “will trigger more landslides”. The state governments haven’t even distributed the report among gram panchayats in their native languages. Clearly, no benevolent administration would do such a thing if the goal really is to benefit the people.
In the words of conservationist Joseph Hoover, “If the government truly cares for the welfare of 22 crore people who are sustained by the Western Ghats, it would accept at least 85 per cent of the recommendations of the Kasturirangan Committee. Else, it would be the reason for the sufferings of the people.”
🕵️ BEYOND ECHO CHAMBERS
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🏴 STATE OF THE STATES
Elephant deaths (Odisha) – The state’s Forest and Environment Minister Bikram Keshari Arukh told the state assembly that 406 elephants died in Odisha in the last five years. Among the causes of deaths were electrocution, being hit by a train, and other accidents. Biswajit Mohanty, secretary, Wildlife Society of Odisha, said the state is known as the elephant graveyard of India as the state has failed to protect elephants. He said the actual number of deaths is much higher.
Plays on Ambedkar (Delhi) – BR Ambedkar, the chief architect of the Indian Constitution, will now be celebrated through the theatre. The Delhi government announced that it will organise plays on his life to spread his teachings. It will be staged at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium from January 5 and restaged 50 times. It will be free to the public. The government announced that preparations are underway with the construction of a 100-feet wide stage, and the production will be of international standards.
Ex-gratia for kin of Covid victims (Tamil Nadu) – The government announced ₹50,000 for the families who lost loved ones to COVID-19. The money will come from the State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF). The cause of death has to be certified as COVID-19 per guidelines by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and the Indian Council of Medical Research. Since the pandemic began, the state has had a death toll of 36,539 from COVID-19.
School vandalised (Madhya Pradesh) – In the Vidisha district, members of the Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad vandalised the premises of Saint Joseph School. They alleged that eight students converted to Christianity in the school, which the administration has denied. The police have filed cases against the members under the IPC. State VHP office-bearer Nilesh Agrawal said they only organised a peaceful protest outside the school.
Unicode for Assamese script (Assam) – The state government has formed a fourteen-member committee to look into ways to prepare a separate Unicode chart for the Assamese script. For years, various individuals, NGOs, and the state have lobbied to recognise the Assamese script as a separate entity. For this, a unique code is needed for each alphabet so that it can be recognised by the Unicode consortium.
🔢 KEY NUMBER
21.8% – The average annual increase in India’s plastic waste generation over the past five years. Over this period, plastic waste generation has more than doubled.