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Tuesday, Sep 27, 2022

Western Ghats its bastion, Karnataka BJP worried ESA draft notice may spell poll trouble

Party controls 28 of 33 Assembly seats in the region; worried that declaring 20,668 sq km as eco-sensitive area will hit local economy.

Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai will be meeting Union Minister of State for Environment Ashwini Kumar Choubey along with a delegation of MLAs and MPs from the state’s Western Ghats region during his visit to New Delhi for three days starting July 24. (Photo: Twitter/@BSBommai)

When Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai visits New Delhi for three days starting July 24, one of the items on his agenda will be meeting Union Minister of State for Environment Ashwini Kumar Choubey along with a delegation of MLAs and MPs from the state’s Western Ghats region. Bommai will be in the national Capital to attend the swearing-in of the new President, invite top BJP leaders for the first-anniversary celebration of his government, and discuss political strategy.

The CM has indicated that the delegation that will accompany him to the meeting with Choubey will have MLAs and MPs predominantly from constituencies in districts such as Shivamogga, Uttara Kannada, Dakshina Kannada, Udupi, Chikamagalur, and Kodagu that are in the Western Ghats. There are 33 Assembly constituencies in the region, of which 28 are held by the BJP. These legislators are up in arms over a draft notification that the Ministry of Environment issued on July 6 move to declare 20,668 sq km in the Western Ghats in Karnataka as an Ecologically Sensitive Area.

The issue of declaring large tracts of forest land in the Western Ghats as protected areas where economic and human activities are restricted has caused political churn cutting across party lines ever since the Kasturirangan Panel Report of 2014 sought to protect the Western Ghats. The report was met with strong political opposition from elected representatives in the region, leading to its non-implementation.

“With the persisting demand from the states to reduce/alter the ESA area from the recommendation of the Kasturirangan Panel (High-Level Working Group) Report, the final Notification for Western Ghat Eco-sensitive Area could not be issued so far. While consistent efforts to bring the 6 States on board have been underway, the Ministry has subsequently, republished the draft Notification four times dated 04.09.2015; 27.02.2017; 03.10.2018, and 06.07.2022,” Choubey said this week in Parliament while responding to a question on whether the Central government intended to implement the report’s proposals.

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With Assembly elections barely a year away, the announcement that the Union government intends to move towards issuing a final notification to declare parts of the Western Ghats as ecologically sensitive has elected representatives concerned about its effect on the polls. The legislators are afraid it will halt agriculture and its allied activities, tourism, and mining in the region, while also affecting the lives of people in the area.

Map of the ecologically sensitive area of the Western Ghats provided by Kasturirangan committee report.

“MLAs cutting across party lines have unanimously expressed their opposition to the notification by the Ministry of Environment and Forest. A delegation of Lok Sabha members and MLAs from the state, headed by the chief minister, will meet the environment minister (MoS),” said Karnataka Home Minister Araga Jnanendra, who hails from the Shivamogga region.

The minister added, “If this draft notification by the MoEF&CC (Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change) is accepted as it is, it will affect the lives of the people in rural areas. There will be strong opposition by the local people. We have also decided to go to court against the Centre’s move if necessary. Awareness activities will also be taken up to apprise people about the impact of the notification on them.”

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MPs and MLAs from the region have been lobbying hard for several years — along with legislators in constituencies with large tracts of forest land — to denotify protected forest land in Karnataka for economic and human activities. They have argued that no scientific yardsticks have been used to identify the ecologically sensitive and protected areas.

In its official response to the Kasturirangan Panel Report, the Congress-led state government in 2015 took the stand that ecotourism should be allowed in protected areas and existing power plants should be allowed to expand. The government accepted a ban on mining but was in favour of stone quarrying and sand mining on the grounds that it was needed for local development needs. Too many restrictions “in the absence of larger public appreciation and support, will defeat the very purpose of conserving ecology and environment in the Western Ghats”, the state claimed.

A State Level Expert Committee conducted meetings in the Western Ghats districts and said in a report in 2015 that only 153 (instead of 1,553 villages) in Karnataka should be declared as Ecologically Sensitive Areas.

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Lawmakers in the state have been pushing aggressively for the release of forest land in Karnataka for economic and human activities, including areas in the Western Ghats eco-sensitive zone. On September 25, 2020, the then state Forest Minister Anand Singh announced in the Assembly that the government would declassify 6.64 lakh hectares of the 9.94 lakh hectares of deemed forests in the state and hand them over to revenue authorities.

“In the past, officials classified a lot of land as deemed forests without considering whether it is needed for grazing, building a hospital, and other purposes. We are now taking back six lakh ha as revenue land. First preference over the land will be given to those using the land and we will give land to government departments,” Revenue Minister R Ashok said in 2020.

The announcement did not translate into action on account of the Supreme Court monitoring the enforcement of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, across the country since its intervention in the landmark TN Godavarman Thirumulpad v. Union of India case of 1995.

The Karnataka government recently informed the Supreme Court about its plans to reclassify the 6.64 lakh ha of deemed forest land as revenue land that can be used for economic and human activity.

“Considering the changes in climate (evident from recurring floods, droughts, landslides, increasing temperature, etc), which will 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. This costs less compared to a situation prone to calamities (with changes in the climate) than spending money on restoration and rejuvenation,” said Dr TV Ramachandra, Professor at the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science.

First published on: 21-07-2022 at 06:16:38 pm
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