When Jairam Ramesh was minister, an expert panel set up in 2010 under sociologist Madhav Gadgil recommended that the entire Western Ghats be declared ecologically sensitive and suggested three categories of regulatory measures. The report led to protests from the six states where the Western Ghats fall as they felt the recommendations would halt all projects.
In 2012 the ministry, headed now by Jayanthi Natarajan, set up a working group under Dr K Kasturirangan to examine public responses to the Gadgil report and suggest the way ahead. The committee relaxed the restrictions, proposing that no more than 37 per cent of the area, some 60,000 sq km of 1.64 lakh sq km, be termed eco-sensitive for restrictions on projects that could harm the environment.
Accepted in principle last year, this report too has met with protests, particularly in Kerala and Maharashtra. The chief ministers of both states met new minister Veerappa Moily with their concerns the day he took charge. Environmentalists, on the other hand, have opposed the easing of norms.
As the ministry carries out the exercise of redrawing the eco-sensitive areas’ contours in consultation with the chief minister of each state, The Indian Express takes a look at the ramifications on the economy and people’s livelihood in three states — in Goa where agriculture is beginning to return after being practically blocked by mining for two decades, in Maharashtra where locals are fighting a losing battle for protecting the region’s biodiversity, and in Kerala that has seen violent protests against the restrictions even after they were relaxed.
The Kasturirangan report has come across as too stringent to villagers living along the Western Ghats, even though it frees large areas of the eco-sensitive tag given by the Gadgil report. After the ministry notified the report last November, villagers protested by setting forest and government offices on fire. Many are still agitating, though not as violently.
In the 123 revenue villages declared eco-sensitive, the predominant fear is of being forced to vacate the hills that have given residents their livelihood for decades. It is the restrictions on construction that worries them.
These villages are spread over 12 of the state’s 14 districts, 58 of the 123 in Idukki district. Christians, though not the majority population, form a major chunk of the landowners. Over the last two decades, Muslims too have been investing money earned from the Middle East in real estate here.
Many aspiring farmers had in any case abandoned their dwellings near the forests because of wild animals eating their crops and shifted to the small and medium towns that have come up along the Western Ghats. Those still engaged in farming were looking at real estate as an alternative. “If construction is curbed, land prices will fall and spoil our plans,” says Salim Sukumaran of Labbakkada, Idukki.
Even the remotest hills have road connectivity as crores have been pumped in by local bodies and under the Prime Minister’s Gram Sadak Yojana. In many of the notified areas, the government had plans to run a railway and highways through the forests.
These towns don’t house red- or orange-category industrial units, which would faced curbs. What still faces restrictions is the size of constructions. “The restrictions will force us to return to tribal life. When restrictions are imposed on construction of buildings larger than 20,000 square feet and townships, how can we get facilities?” says Mathew George, a CPM leader of Ayappankovil, near Kattappana, the fastest-growing city in Idukki district.
What the Kasturirangan report, which goes village by village, exempts is granite quarries in a large number of villages. Environment activists have been demanding the implementation of the Gadgil report on this ground, while farmers see the political influence of mining groups behind the relaxation. The Gadgil report, whose taluka-based report had covered most of the granite units, had estimated Kerala has 1,700 illegal quarries. Last week, the government told the assembly the state has 4,000-odd licensed quarries. The growth of tourism has taken investors to the hills, resulting in massive construction and in turn high demand for granite and river sand.
In the wake of the protests, the Kerala government appointed a new panel headed by Dr Oommen V Oommen, chairman of Kerala State Biodiversity Board, to find a way out. The panel has suggested exclusion of inhabited regions and plantations from ecologically sensitive areas. It has recommended the government clear doubts by clarifying that the protection of the Western Ghats would not hamper cultivation of rubber, coffee and other cash crops.
Even in activists’ demand for tougher conservation steps, farmers see a “larger conspiracy.” Simon Thonakkara, a social activist in Kozhikode, says, “Anti-farmer forces are eyeing foreign funds that would come to India through carbon credits. NGOs and environment activists see a windfall of funds as the Western Ghats have got UNESCO heritage status.”
Allow some, deny some
Gajanand Sawant, the sarpanch of Asniye village of Sawantwadi tehsil, Sindhudurg, is worried about what the Kasturirangan panel recommends for the next village. It upholds the ecologically sensitive status accorded to Asniye but Zolambe village, which falls in Dodamarg tehsil, has been stripped of the protective shield and is set to house one of the biggest mines in the belt. Sawant is anxious about the fragile ecology of Zolambe, and the effect on his village of the run-off from the mines uphill.
“Until now our village has had an abundance of vegetation, water and wildlife,” says Sawant. “This is why our gram sabha voted unanimously in favour of eco-sensitive status. Once mining is allowed in the villages of Dodamarg, it is only a matter of time before the entire corridor is destroyed.”
With the mining industry in Goa at a standstill, open cast iron-ore mining is now geared to shift north to Sindhudurg district of Maharashtra. Of the 49 proposed mining leases here, 30 fall in the Western Ghats region of Sawantwadi and Dodamarg. Some are held by Goa-based companies, the others by aides of political strongmen.
The Gadgil recommendations would have required phasing out of existing mines in both tehsils by 2016, while no new mines would have been allowed. After the Kasturirangan report left the Dodamarg region out, the ministry has allowed all mining proposals submitted before April 2013 to be processed.
Currently only one mine, in Kalne village of Dodamarg and run by Vinay Patil, son of former Congress minister Rohitdas Patil, is operational in the entire stretch while the rest await the decision of the ministry. The mine, which started amid opposition from locals, has drastically altered the landscape. “Kalne used to produce 40 tonnes cashew nuts per year; this has gone down by almost half since mining began,” says Sampada Desai, whose factory in Kalne processes cashew from 10 villages.
The vegetation bears a coat of red dust as over 500 dumpers ferry ore to the port every day. With farms closer to the mines turning to wastelands, a few farmers have lodged cases in local courts to claim back their land.
“The decision to exclude villages in Dodamarg seems to have been arrived at very arbitrarily, as both tehsils form one contiguous wildlife corridor from Maharashtra to Karnataka and Goa,” says Stalin D of NGO Vanashakti, which has been pursuing the issue up to the ministry level.
The 200-km-long corridor with dense forests and water bodies is home to 22 tigers as per the latest census, besides elephants, sambar and leopards. Most locals are engaged in farming and the Gadgil report had noted that the jobs on offer once mining took over would be low-paying such as those of mine helpers, labourers and security. It had also warned of air and water pollution.
Back to farming, for now
IT IS the first time in more than two decades that Hanumant Parab and a few other villagers of Sattari taluka have tilled their four-acre paddy farm. The once-fertile fields in this stretch had long disappeared under rejects and silt from mines uphill, forcing the traditional farming community to take up jobs with the two mines in the village. With an interim ban on mining in place since September 2012, Parab, who used to ferry dumpers to the mines, is hopeful his efforts at desilting the fields and sowing rabi crops will soon pay off.
The Economic Survey of Goa 2013 notes agriculture is on the road to recovery in this mining belt “where farmers had given up their traditional occupation due to increasing dust pollution and sludge”. It records a threefold annual increase in bank disbursements to agriculture. Between 2009-10 and 2011-12, agricultural growth (in terms of real GSDP at constant prices of 2004-05) rose from 1.20 per cent to 2.59 per cent, and forestry growth from minus 3.71 per cent to 6.01 per cent, while the growth of mining fell from 24.65 per cent to minus 6.43 per cent.
The outcome of a case filed by the Goa Foundation in the Supreme Court will decide the fate of mining in Goa. The group has also filed a case with the National Green Tribunal for implementation of the Gadgil and Kasturirangan reports that advocate closure of all mines in Sattari, Sanquem and Cancona, three of 12 talukas of Goa covered by the Western Ghats.
Parab’s three trucks are parked unused in his front-yard for more than a year but he is relieved he and his family no longer have to endure the threat of respiratory ailments. Petitioner Claude Alvares of Goa Foundation says 22,000 trucks were lying idle due to the clampdown on mines but when the government announced a rehabilitation package, only 6,500 genuine cases came forward. “This is because the rest are owned by politicians, cops and local officials.” He adds that unlike the Gadgil report that had a “democratic approach”, the Kasturirangan report is a “technocratic exercise” that disregards the constitutional guarantee of giving gram sabhas a say on whether their villages should get the eco-sensitive tag.
Goa constitutes only 0.11 per cent of the country’s area, but as per the latest figures of the Goa Mineral Ore Association, at its peak in 2011 it accounted for 70 per cent of India’s iron ore exports. It has been mined for half a century but it was only in the 1990s that manual extraction gave way to a mechanised process.
Since the interim mining ban, an October 2013 survey by the Delhi-based EIA Resource and Response Centre has found a decrease in pollution levels, increased wildlife sightings, better catches by fishermen and improved horticultural yield as the mining dust no longer hampered pollination.
However, Parab says, “It is still impossible to have kharif crops as the rains bring more sediments from the now non-operational mining pits in the hills.” As hills were gouged out to create 300-metre mining pits, it disfigured the topography. Water from many streams collects in mining pits uphill, depleting groundwater reserves and leaving villagers dependent on tankers.
Sadashiv Parab, who bought a tipper for mining six years ago, has gone back to his dairy business. It fetches him only a third of the milk that it used to two decades ago. Also, most farmers are still saddled with vehicle loans even as the vehicles lie unused. Suraj Savaikar of Panse village says, “We can’t expect a great yield overnight unless the mining companies desilt our farms that are submerged in 3 m to 15 m of silt and the government provides us enough water.”
The shop had stored over 20 drums of kerosene that fuelled the blaze and it quickly spread through the entire building.