'The Kasturirangan report is unconstitutional'

Protests have erupted over scientist Madhav Gadgil's report on balancing development with protecting the ecology in the Western Ghats. T.V. Jayan meets the environmentalist who is standing his ground

By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 29.12.13
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Tete a Tete Tete a Tete

It is not an answer I am prepared for. "I take this as a compliment," says Professor Madhav Gadgil, widely regarded as the father of ecology in India. He is responding to my comment that he is possibly the first Indian scientist to have his effigy burnt.

I look at him closely, and find that he is dead serious. The effigy was burnt in Kerala by protestors who reacted violently to a report on how to balance development pressures and the conservation needs of the ecologically fragile Western Ghats, prepared by a team of experts led by him. There is agitation, though so far rather muted, in other states such as Goa and Maharashtra too.

The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) report is not new. It was submitted to the Union ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) in August 2011. What triggered widespread protests last month, however, was the ministry's acceptance of a report by a high-level working group on the Western Ghats led by space scientist K. Kasturirangan, which suggested ways to implement the WGEEP recommendations.

I am sitting in Professor Gadgil's flat in Panchavati, a Pune suburb that can boast of having the highest concentration of illuminated brains. Surrounded by a large number of scientific and academic institutions, Panchavati is populated mainly by people who either work in or have retired from such centres of higher learning.

Gadgil, 71, relocated to Pune in 2006 after retiring from Bangalore's Indian Institute of Science (IISc), along with his wife Sulochana, who too was a professor at the IISc. Their daughter, a journalist, lives in the same apartment complex, with her entrepreneur husband, and their son is a mathematician like his mother.

"The Kasturirangan report is unconstitutional," Gadgil stresses. He has every reason to be peeved. The Gadgil committee report, which graded the whole Western Ghats region into three different ecologically sensitive zones, suggests how much area in each category can be left untouched. But it adds that the decision should be left to the local community (gram sabhas). The Kasturirangan committee, on the other hand, has brought down the area to be regarded as ecologically sensitive. And it also seeks to impose its decision on the local people.

"It questions how development can be based on decentralised planning and decision making. It asks how local communities, including tribals, can be allowed to play a greater role in deciding on the economic future of a region classified as ecologically sensitive. This is contrary to what is envisaged in the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution," he argues.

It was former environment minister Jairam Ramesh who persuaded Gadgil to head a panel of experts to suggest means to balance the competing demands of development and conservation in the Western Ghats, a rich reservoir of biodiversity and the source of over 50 rivers in peninsular India.

But by the time the Gadgil panel submitted its report, Ramesh had been replaced by Jayanthi Natarajan. The MoEF sat on the report till the Central Information Commission and the Delhi High Court instructed it to make it public. Subsequently, the ministry formed the Kasturirangan committee to recommend ways to implement the WGEEP report.

Gadgil knows the Western Ghats like the back of his hand. He has been visiting the region for 40 years, for both research and for unwinding. He knows the flora and fauna of this ecological hotspot like no other, and is also thoroughly familiar with the people who inhabit the terrain and their culture and customs.

Historian Ramachandra Guha stresses he is a pragmatic scientist who has also spoken for augmenting the productivity and incomes of people who live off the forests. Guha devoted a chapter in his 2006 book How much Should A Person Consume?: Thinking Through Environment to Gadgil, and the two had earlier co- authored two books.

In the 1980s, Gadgil argued against the practice of states supplying bamboo at a subsidised rate of Re 1 per tonne to paper mills — while charging poor bamboo weavers exorbitant amounts. Clearly, the environment scientist has always argued on behalf of India's people.

It was possibly this trait in him that prompted him to decline a lectureship in the US. Gadgil returned to India from Harvard after his doctorate in mathematical biology and briefly worked in research institutions in his hometown, Pune. His father, Dhananjaya Gadgil, was a well-known economist who spearheaded the co-operative movement in India. A Rajya Sabha member and deputy chairman of the Planning Commission between 1967 and 1971, he was also the vice-chancellor of the University of Poona.

It was from his father, who was a member of the Bombay Natural History Society, that Gadgil inherited his love for nature. The wildlife journals that his father subscribed to kindled an interest in wildlife. From a very young age, Gadgil was an avid bird watcher and trekker. He was also quite an athlete — a university champion in high jump, he represented Maharasthra in the junior national games. His passion for swimming continues till date.

In the early 1970s, he joined the Centre for Theoretical Studies, then newly set up by theoretical physicist E.C.G. Sudarshan, at the IISc.

Even though he was part of the theoretical studies group, Gadgil was, much to his happiness, allowed to focus on field ecological studies. Some of the early studies conducted in the Western Ghats region abutting the state boundaries of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu led to the establishment of India's first biosphere reserve — the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve — in 1986. He set up the Centre for Ecological Studies at IISc and played a critical role in shaping many environmental laws.

Gadgil believes that when people work with the environment, it leads to the protection of both livelihood and the ecology. His report gives two examples of how local communities have taken charge of their environment.

The first one is Dahanu Taluka in Maharashtra. Since 1991, this taluka, which has considerable but fragmented tracts of reserve forest, has been declared an ecological sensitive area. Dahanu has a thermal power plant, a large number of horticultural plantations and vast agricultural tracts. "The declaration as an ecological sensitive area has affected none of these. This is one model we propagated."

The second example, he adds, is Plachimada in Kerala where the gram panchayat battled a multinational soft drink company when it was found to be polluting water resources.

Not surprisingly, Gadgil has powerful enemies. "Vested interests have been trying to misguide people on our report," he says, without elaborating who they are.

Is it true that former environment minister, Jayanthi Natarajan, refused to meet him when he sought an appointment? "Yes, in fact not once, but twice," he replies. "After the submission of the report, once when I was in Delhi to attend a monthly meeting of the National Advisory Council, of which I was a member, I sought an appointment with her. She refused to meet me. Subsequently Ram (Guha) wrote about this in The Hindu. She phoned him after reading the article and Ram told me she was willing to meet me. I sought an appointment again, but it was never granted," he says.

Guha is more scathing. "It actually shows the mentality of our government. A minister refusing to meet a world famous scientist, who has been commissioned to do a report by the same ministry, speaks volumes about the process of our governance," he says.

The problem, Gadgil stresses, is that political parties do not want to say they are wrong. "No political party — be it the Congress, the BJP or the CPI(M) — wants to let power slip from its hands. Our report will be very inconvenient for them as it is outspoken about what is going on in our forests and protected areas and strongly advocates deeper involvement of local communities."

Besides, blurred forest lines suit politicians in power as well as the forest bureaucracy, he argues. "Nearly seven decades have passed since Independence, but we haven't been able to delineate the boundaries of reserved forests or national parks. Why? Because it suits them. As the Justice Shah Commission which probed mining in Goa has pointed out, many mines are working inside national parks. If things are in black and white, allowing or abetting such illegal activities would be difficult," he says.

"The forest department in the country is the only department that has openly declared that people are their enemy," Gadgil stresses.

But some politicians, he adds, have supported his report — "Former Kerala chief minister V.S. Achuthanandan agreed with our recommendations. Former Kerala forest minister Binoy Viswam and a few Congress MLAs in Kerala have found value in our recommendations."

In some quarters, though, the WGEEP report has been branded "anti-people", based on fears that it would adversely affect livelihoods. "Not at all," Gadgil retorts. "On the contrary, people will benefit from (the implementation of) the report."

The destruction of the environment in the Western Ghats, he says, has actually led to the loss of meaningful livelihood. Gadgil quotes a study which showed how an industrial chemical complex in Maharashtra's Ratnagiri district gave employment to 11,000 people, but jeopardised the livelihood of 20,000 fisher folk.

As we wind up, Gadgil gets a call. It is from the DMK headquarters in Chennai. It seems M.K. Stalin, a senior DMK leader and M. Kanuranidhi's son, had read a newspaper article by Gadgil defending the panel's report. Stalin wants to know more about it, the caller adds. Clearly, despite efforts to bury it, the Gadgil report is alive — and kicking.