Extreme disaster events like Kerala floods are now not too rare:
- The 2018 floods and landslides in Kerala that caused huge financial losses and human tragedy was thought of as a once-in-a-century calamity.
- The probability of two such back-to-back events was only 1 in 10,000.
- Yet, there was a repeat of intense floods and landslides in 2019.
Cannot continue business as usual:
- This made people realise that it is unwise to continue business as usual, and that we must think afresh of the options before us.
Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) suggested a fresh approach:
- One set of fresh possibilities is provided by the recommendations of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP).
- Implementation of the recommendations would have helped reduce the scale of devastation caused by the downpours of 2018 and 2019.
Recommended devolution of powers for environmental protection:
- The most significant recommendation was that the existing laws relating to environmental protection and devolution of powers, right down to the gram sabha and ward sabha level, be followed.
WGEEP model of ‘Develop Sustainably, Conserve Thoughtfully’:
- The WGEEP called for a model of conservation and development compatible with each other.
- It sought a replacement of the prevailing ‘Develop Recklessly, Conserve Thoughtlessly’ pattern with one of ‘Develop Sustainably, Conserve Thoughtfully.’
Involvement of local communities:
- This fine-tuning of development practices to the local context would have required the full involvement of local communities.
Dealing with Ecologically Sensitive Zones:
- The WGEEP’s mandate asked it “to demarcate areas within the Western Ghats Region which need to be notified as ecologically sensitive and to recommend for notification of such areas as ecologically sensitive zones under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.”
Preserving the ESZ1 areas or the ‘sensitive zones’:
- In line with the National Forest Policy, the panel assigned 60% of the total area of Western Ghats in Kerala, including the region housing wildlife sanctuaries and national parks, as ‘ESZ1’.
- ESZ1 was categorized as a zone of highest ecological sensitivity.
- Sensitivity indicators:
- The panel proposed ‘elevation’ and ‘slope’ as two indicators of sensitivity.
- In Kerala, rainfall increases rapidly with elevation, and high rainfall and steep slopes render localities vulnerable to landslides.
- Hence, areas prone to landslides would come under ESZ1.
- Natural vegetation as another indicator:
- The extent and quality of natural vegetation was the third indicator for classifying an area as ESZ1.
- Landslides are under check in areas with intact natural vegetation because the roots bind the soil.
- Any disturbance to such vegetation would render any locality that has steep slopes and experiences high rainfall susceptible to landslides.
- Stopping of certain activities in these areas:
- Disturbances may include quarrying or mining, replacement of natural vegetation by new plantations, levelling of the land using heavy machinery, and construction of houses and roads.
- Therefore, the panel recommended that such activities be avoided in ESZ1 areas.
- The WGEEP report recommended ecological sensitivity as the starting point for a bottom-up democratic process for deciding on how to safeguard Western Ghats – a global biodiversity hotspot and water tower of peninsular India.
- The panel noted that government agencies cannot have the exclusive power for deciding on and managing Ecologically Sensitive Zones, and that people must be involved.
Implementation would have reduced the damage:
- The WGEEP’s recommendations were not implemented as the recommendations were deemed “impractical”.
- Had the recommendations been accepted and implemented, the extent and intensity of landslides being encountered in the last two years would have been much lower.
Way ahead – Implementing the panel’s recommendations to involve local communities:
- It would surely be wise to apply the panel’s recommendations now to build on India’s greatest strength – its deep-rooted democracy.
- The true meaning of Democracy is the active involvement of us citizens in governing the country at all levels, most importantly at the local level.
- Local bodies should have the authority to decide on the course of development in their own localities.
- Citizens must take full advantage of powers and responsibilities conferred on them under provisions such as the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution, and the Biological Diversity Act, 2002.
- The sovereign people are the real rulers of India and must engage more actively in the governance of the country and lead it on to a path of people-friendly and nature-friendly development.
GS Paper III: Environment