MoEF allays fears of farming curbs in Western Ghats

In a move to pacify the farmers of Kerala who were agitated by people protesting against the G Kasturirangan committee report on biodiversity in the Western Ghats, the union ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) on Friday clarified that there is no restriction on plantation and agriculture activities in the Ghats, and landowners can continue their normal livelihood in the forest area.

There will however be restrictions on activities like mining, quarrying, sand mining, thermal power plants, big constructions and industries in the areas having tiger reserves and UN world heritage sites, the MoEF said.

Kerala State Biodiversity Board chairman Oommen V Oommen, who headed a three-member committee set up by the state government to interact with all concerned on the Kasturirangan report, said the new notification is clear and addresses all the fears raised by a cross-section of people upset with the earlier 16 November notification.

"One of the demands that the state government raised with MoEF was that the 123 villages that have been declared as ecologically sensitive areas will have to be physically verified. The previous order was based on assessing these areas using satellite imagery.

"They (the central ministry) have now clarified that the final notification will be issued after the boundary of the 123 villages has been fine-tuned after receiving inputs from stakeholders and state governments," said Oommen, who was recently in Delhi and met the central environment ministry officials on the issue.

Clarifying its stand, the MoEF in an order said the recommendations of the Kasturirangal panel do not prohibit or restrict any normal activities relating to plantations, agriculture or any other activity except those which have been specifically banned. The ministry also noted that there is no restriction on the land use.

A high-level working group under the chairmanship of Planning Commission member K Kasturirangan in April had declared 37 per cent of the Western Ghats as Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA). The area covered spanns six states - Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Goa, Gujarat and Maharashtra.

There were protests in the hilly regions of Kerala against the Kasturirangan panel report as people thought they would be evacuated once the area is restricted. The panel had declared 60,000 of 163,000 sqkm of area as ESA.

The MoEF would issue a draft notification declaring the identified region of the Western Ghats as ESA and seek the opinion of all stakeholders, including the state governments, before the ban order comes into effect.

''It is clarified that the final notification will be issued after the boundary of ESA has been fine-tuned after receiving inputs from stakeholders/state governments. Further, the state governments may suggest modifications based on physical verification,'' the order said.

The MoEF, which drew flak from the National Green Tribunal (NGT) for delaying implementation of the report, said it has decided to set up a ''high-level committee'' to monitor its implementation in a time-bound manner.

The panel was asked to study and make recommendations on how to protect, preserve and nurture the rich biodiversity and environmental integrity of the Western Ghats and suggest steps to prevent further degradation of the fragile ecology.

The panel was also tasked with the mandate to take a holistic view of the issue and to bring synergy between protection of environment and the imperatives of equity for the indigenous people, so that their rightful aspiration for inclusive growth and sustainable development is protected.