Regulate development in Western Ghats, says panel

New Delhi, April 17 (IANS) Moving away from ecologist Madhav Gadgil’s report calling for declaring the entire Western Ghats ecologically sensitive, a panel headed by Planning Commission member K. Kasturirangan Wednesday limited the area to 37 percent and sought a regulatory regime on development activities.

The 10-member working group was constituted to advise the government on the recommendations of Gadgil-led Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP).

The WGEEP had recommended that the entire Western Ghats should be declared an ecologically sensitive area.

Calling the Western Ghats – spread in six states – a biological treasure trove, the report says that environmentally sound development cannot preclude livelihood and economic options for the region.

“The answer (to how to manage and conserve the Ghats) will not lie in removing these economic options, but in providing better incentives to move them towards greener and more sustainable practices,” WGEEP said in a statement.

“In doing this, the working group has moved away from the suggestions of the expert panel (Gadgil), which had recommended a blanket approach consisting of guidelines for sector-wise activities, which would be permitted in the ecologically sensitive zones,” it said.

The Western Ghats stretch across 1,500 km from southern Gujarat and Maharashtra to Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu over six states, including Karnataka, Kerala, and Goa. They also account for six major rivers which flow out of the mountains into the plains of the above mentioned states.

“About 60,000 sq km of natural landscape (approximately 37 percent of the total geographical area of Western Ghats Region) has been identified as ecologically sensitive area (ESA) by the high level working group,” it said.

“All other infrastructure development activities, necessary for the region, will be carefully scrutinized and assessed for cumulative impact and development needs, before clearance,” it said.

The panel has called for a complete ban on mining, quarrying and sand mining in ESA.

“All current mining areas should be phased out within the next five years, or at the time of expiry of mining lease, whichever is earlier. No thermal power projects should be allowed in ESA. Hydropower projects may be allowed but subject to various conditions,” it said.

The final decision on the report will be taken by the environment ministry.

Calling the situation in the area alarming, Kasturirangan said: “It is imperative that we protect, manage and regenerate the lands now remaining in the Western Ghats as biologically rich, diverse, natural landscapes.”

“We have reached a threshold from which we cannot slip further. This has to be the objective of future planning and regulation in this recognized centre of biodiversity in our country,” he said.

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