The report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) headed by renowned ecologist professor Madhav Gadgil was over-dramatically viewed as some sort of a 'cultish' tome that called for a return to the Stone Age. Kerala society in general, the Church and politicians in particular, shuddered from the report. For development hawks, Gadgil nearly became a cuss word. Anti-Gadgil rhetoric even won the Left a Parliament seat in the Kerala Congress territory of Idukki in 2014.
Now, after the second consecutive floods and landslides, there is clamour to re-read Gadgil. The man, however, is not amused. “Our report was deliberately misinterpreted,” Madhav Gadgil told Onmanorama. “For those who have read the report it should have been very clear that ours were mere recommendations that should have been used as starting points for further deliberation at the grassroots level,” Gadgil said.
What was in truth a blueprint to initiate a dialogue at the local level was seen as the last word. Fear was whipped up saying no development would be possible in places branded Ecologically Sensitive Zone (ESZ) by the Gadgil report. Some of the thriving towns in Kerala like Ranni, Devikulam, Nedumangad, Punalur and Peerumedu were included in ESZ-1, the most fragile zone which the Gadgil committee said was as sacrosanct as protected areas like wild life sanctuaries and parks.
The Gadgil report had branded the whole of Western Ghats that fell outside protected areas like wildlife sanctuaries and national parks as ESA. It then divided the area into three zones ESZ-1, ESZ-2 and ESZ-3 based on their ecological value. The report treated the ESZ-1 areas on a par with protected areas.
But this did not mean that the Gadgil committee wanted all development activities in these areas to be stopped, as was widely propagated. “Life has to go on but we also want the ecology restored,” Gadgil said. The committee has not recommended the shut-down of quarries even in ESZ-1, the most fragile zone. It has only recommended effective control of existing ones. A big charge hurled at Gadgil was that he had asked for the shutting down of coffee plantation in Kodagu. “It is a big lie. We had only recommended that there should not be further extension of plantations,” Gadgil said.
“Ours was a small panel and we were too short of time. Such a panel cannot be expected to go into details. We do not have the authority to impose things either. All decisions have to be taken at the local level with people's participation,” Gadgil said. Instead, strange rumours began to spread. It was said that all houses in ESZs will have to be painted green. Another lie that did cause some panic was that all cultivation in areas demarcated as ESAs will have to be stopped. Yet another gossip was that all houses in ESZ areas should dismantle their roofs and replace them with thatch.
The report was both ridiculed and demonised by politicians cutting across party lines that virtually no panchayat- or ward-level discussion on the report took place. V S Vijayan, a member of the Gadgil committee and the former chairman of Kerala State Biodiversity Board, said people had also mistook ESZ for the EFL (Ecologically Fragile Lands) Act. “The EFL Act was envisaged to areas bordering protected forest areas. The Act had provision to evict people from EFL areas. People confused ecologically sensitive zones with ecologically fragile lands,” Vijayan said.
Since the report was badly misread, Vijayan had met the then Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and told him of the need to translate the operational part of the report and distribute it among the local bodies in the Western Ghats. It was not done.
Wherever the translated report was read and discussed, the misconceptions were cleared. (Kerala Shashtra Sahithya Parishad had come up with a translation.) “We had initiated discussions on the report in over 24 grama sabhas in Vythiri taluk. All of them unanimously said the recommendations should be implemented,” said N Badusha of Wayanad Prakriti Samrakshana Samithi.
Gadgil, the anti-activist
Contrary to perception, the Gadgil committee had taken an anti-activist position. Here is what the report said: “Our insistence on 'not a blade of grass shall be removed from PAs' is as inappropriate as complete disregard for pollution control laws outside of PAs. WGEEP would like to propose that we should instead attempt to develop a model of conservation and development compatible with each other encompassing the whole of the Western Ghats region, to replace the prevailing 'Develop recklessly – conserve thoughtlessly' pattern with one of 'Develop sustainably – conserve thoughtfully'.”
Suja Vishnudas of M S Swaminathan Research Foundation based in Wayanad said the state could ignore the Gadgil report only at its peril. “The areas in Wayanad that were devastated by landslides this year and last like Puthumala, Kurichirmala and Thirunelli fall within the ESZ-1 zone marked by the Gadgil committee,” Suja said. “Gadgil is not against people. His report merely states that certain areas are fragile and therefore we need to take serious precautions. But it is up to the people to brainstorm on the precautions to be taken,” she said.
Gadgil, in fact, has proposed a 'people first' conservation strategy, and he is disappointed that he has been misunderstood. No matter that the report is eight years old, Gadgil wants to put the record straight. “I know people are not going to sit and read 500 odd pages. So I myself will come out with a clarification in the first week of September when I reach Kerala,” Gadgil said. Of course, there will be a Malayalam translation.