Kasturirangan report: Breather for Karnataka as Centre orders physical land survey
Karnataka had objected to the Kasturirangan committee report on Western Ghats, claiming that its implementation would affect livelihoods of over a lakh people in 1,572 villages
Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai and over 30 MLAs cutting across party lines would have heaved a sigh of relief following the Union government’s decision to keep the Kasturirangan committee report in abeyance till a high-powered committee conducts physical landscaping and submits its report. The Kasturirangan committee report has been hanging fire since 2013 when it was submitted to the government.
The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF & CC) recently considered the objections of Karnataka against the implementation of the Kasturirangan committee report on the Western Ghats and asked a high-powered committee – to be headed by retired IFS officer Sanjay Kumar — to conduct a physical landscaping survey to submit a detailed report by July 2023.
With Assembly elections scheduled for April-May 2023, Karnataka leaders across parties were in a quandary over the notification of the Kasturirangan report on declaring eco-sensitive zones in Western Ghats — there were voices against implementation by politicians who feared losing votes and locals who feared losing their livelihood. And of course, contractors and business people feared losing their business.
Now that the state government has succeeded in convincing the Union government to delay any decision on the report till after Assembly elections next year, all these people must be resting easy.
Bommai had led a state delegation to meet Union Environment Minister Bhupendra Yadav and explained the stand taken by the state on the Kasturirangan report.
“The Kasturirangan report is unscientific as it is based on a satellite survey, following which the entire greenery, including plantations of farmers, are considered ESAs (ecologically sensitive areas). We have sought a physical landscape survey,” Bommai had said after meeting the minister.
The delegation’s visit followed a notification draft published by MoEF & CC on July 4 that and that had given 60 days to raise objections. According to the objections listed by the Karnataka government, no actual land survey was done by the committee except a satellite survey. The government further said that while the report says that green areas are to be declared as ESZ, a lot of people’s livelihoods are dependent on many such areas and they will be affected — farmers cultivate coconut, areca nut, coffee, rubber plantations and thus add to greenery. Therefore, the state government demanded that a land survey has to be conducted.
The Kasturirangan report has mentioned the importance of the ESAs in the Western Ghats, which are spread over around 46,832 sq km across Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Karnataka with 20,688 sq km has the highest ghat area compared to other states.
The ESA in Karnataka covers 10 districts where 30 MLAs from the BJP and Congress are under the pressure of the people who fear a threat to their livelihoods. State Home Minister Araga Jnanendra, who hails from the area, and other MPs and MLAs from all parties were thus against the implementation of the report.
Thousands of villages under ESA
There are 1,572 villages that come under the ESA in 10 districts of Karnataka, as per the draft notification of the Kasturirangan report. Though the actual area is to be finalised based on the recommendations of the state, it is going to be a tough ask keeping in view the fears of the stakeholders and strict conditions in the ESZ (Ecologically Sensitive Zone).
If the report is implemented, hundreds of villages will come under ESZ areas in Malnad and local leaders fear that 1.32 lakh people will lose basic amenities and will face severe problems in their life. The notified area will directly come under the Union government and tribals living in the forest will be evicted. There will be no possibility of starting new projects connected to power, water, etc., and ongoing projects will have to be completed within five years.
It may be noted that these states had also objected to the Madhav Gadgil Report, which was submitted before Kasturirangan report. It had even more stringent guidelines and Kasturirangan committee was formed to plug the loopholes in Gadgil report.
The Gadgil committee on western ghats was formed by the Union government and it had submitted the report in August 2011, recommending around 97 per cent of the area in the western ghats be declared an ESA. It recommended that any developmental works be undertaken on the condition of not harming nature and biological diversities of the western ghats.
According to the Karnataka chief minister, both the reports are unscientific.
An official of the state forest department said the government has a biodiversity policy as per which the opinion of local taluk and gram panchayats should have been taken while preparing the report by the Kasturirangan Committee. However, they did not seek opinion of the local people and failed in identifying the natural and cultural lands.
They also say that the Kasturirangan report or the draft notification does not talk about banning local livelihood practices such as farming or evicting residents from their land.
According to environmentalists, there are several vested interests – including stone mining, sand and real estate businesses where politicians are too involved — behind the demand for non-implementation of the report.
“The chief minister himself is leading the delegation against the Kasturirangan report. Then how can it be implemented? Whatever be the central laws on ESAs, it is on the state forest department to implement them… lawmakers have no intention to implement it,” said Ranjan Rao Yerdoor, a well-known activist in the Save Western Ghat campaign and founder trustee of Nagarika Seva Trust, Belthanagdy.
Environment activists also say that livelihood of farmers or any person depending on the forest will not be affected as there is no ban on collection of forest produce or using water resources. “The resistance to implementing the report is due to the mafia including sand mafia, stone crushing and construction firms that were pressuring politicians to oppose the ESA,” said Akhilesh Chipli, an environment activist.
37 per cent area as ESA
Kasturirangan report proposes that 37 per cent of the total area (around 60,000 square km) of western ghats be declared an ESA. As 46.50 per cent of the area falls in Karnataka, the state government has been telling the centre that it would adversely affect the livelihood of the people in the region.
The report recommendations include a ban on mining, quarrying, setting up of red/orange industries and thermal power plants, a ban on any construction more than 20,000 square metres, and no construction work in the surrounding 10-km area unless there is an approval from the environment department and local gram panchayats.
It also recommends that infrastructural projects in the forest or wildlife should be studied before any such projects. The report suggested that the UNESCO Heritage tag is an advantage to gain global and domestic recognition of the natural wealth that exists in the western ghats.
It says the boundary of ESA is legally demarcated into national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, tiger reserves and forest divisions. So, the state governments should view this development and build a plan to protect, conserve and value the resources and opportunities of the region.