The Ministry of Environment & Forests is expected to approve the K Kasturirangan panel report on Western Ghats and declare around 60,000 square kilometers of the southern hills — spanning across six states — as no-go area for mining, thermal power plants and heavily polluting industries.

Sources in the ministry said, the process has begun to finalise the decision after receiving comments from public and state governments on the panel report.

The panel — headed by the Planning Commission member K Kasturirangan — had been set up by the central government after an earlier report of a team of ecologists, headed by NAC member Madhav Gadgil, had suggested almost 75% of the ghats to be put under various levels of restrictions much to the opposition of the states and other interest groups alike. The Gadgil committee had suggested a blanket ban on mining and pitched for the powerful Western Ghats Authority to be the final arbiter of development activities in the region.

The Kasturirangan panel had scaled down the area that was recommended for providing protection under the eco-sensitive zone provisions of the Environment Protection Act. Disagreeing with the Gadgil report it also recommended against setting up a centralised authority that would override all existing decision-making mechanisms under the green laws and the federal structure.

Even when the environment ministry does accept the Kasturirangan panel report the process of declaring eco-sensitive zones is bound to take long as it requires extensive regional and on-the-ground due diligence.

The Kasturirangan panel had also recommended against bringing farmlands, plantations and habitations under the restrictive regime, or Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA) of the Environment Protection Act, 1976. It has instead suggested that 90% of the natural forests in the Western Ghats complex - adding up to 60,000 sq kilometers and constituting 37% of the entire hilly belt — be conserved under the ESA provisions of the green law. The forest area falling within the ESA would also cover 4,156 villages across six states. The panel has said, "The villages falling under ESA will be involved in decision making on the future projects. All projects will require prior-informed consent and no-objection from the gram sabha (village council) of the village."

While the Kasturirangan panel may have taken a more moderate stand as compared to the Gadgil committee, the Centre is unlikely to have an easy time convincing the state governments even now.

The second panel report has recommended that there should be a complete ban on mining activity in this zone and current mining activities should be phased out within five years, or at the time of expiry of the mining lease. It has banned development of any township or construction over the size of 20,000 square metres in the ESA zone. It has not recommended a ban on hydroelectric projects in the zone, but put a regime of stricter clearances for dams and other projects. For dams it has demanded an uninterrupted ecological flow of at least 30% level of the rivers flow till individual baselines for dams are set. Cumulative studies to assess impact of dams on a river and ensuring that the minimum distance between projects is maintained at 3km, and that not more than 50% of the river basin is affected at any time.

Source: The Economic Times