“At the ground level people are really interested and they want to get involved and our report if nothing else, seem to have serve the purpose of triggering such kind of an interest” said Prof. Madhav Gadgil who delivered a lecture on “Democracy and ecology in contemporary India” at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) on 17th July 2013. His lecture was part of the public lecture series on ‘Science Society and Nature’ and the event was attended by more than 400 people, the second highest audience NMML has witnessed for public lecture as Director Mahesh Rangarajan revealed at the end of the lecture. The lecture was chaired by Jairam Ramesh, the former Minister of Environment and Forests and currently the minister for Rural Development and also in charge of Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation.
Prof. Gadgil in his lecture presented several case studies through which he showed how in the name of ‘development’ only lip service has been paid to the environmental norms and all democratic processes have been sidelined. Dr. Gadgil also shared his experiences of working for the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (the report submitted by this panel can be accessed here – http://moef.nic.in/downloads/public-information/wg-23052012.pdf) which was formed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to study the ecological and environmental concerns of the Western Ghats under his aegis.
Talking about iron mining in Goa, Prof Gadgil said the government of Goa even does not have any account of how much ore has been extracted by the mining contractors, leaving aside environmental concerns. Bringing the issue of unprecedented dam construction in Western Ghats, he gave the example of Athirappilly dam in ChalakudyRiver in Kerela which was the eight dam proposed in the river. There was a clear violation of Forest Rights Act, as construction of this dam would lead to displacement and subsequent extinction of the ‘primitive tribal’ community named Kadar. The government officials were claiming that if this dam was not constructed Kerela would starve for electricity. But a detailed presentation by RiverResearchCenter, Kerela covering technical, economic and social aspects of the proposed dam showed this dam was not viable as there would be not be sufficient water left in the river for this dam as the water would already be harnessed in the seven upstream dams. The government officials, who were claiming that Kerela would go power hungry, had no reply to this.
Presenting the case of Plachimada village in Perumatti Panchayat in Palakkad district of same state, he said that Coca Cola Company had not paid any compensation that it was supposed to pay to the farmers of Plachimada as ordered by the Supreme Court. Coca Cola was also supposed to pay a tax of Rs 60 cores to the government of Kerela but the government had surprisingly given tax exemption of Rs 6 crores to the company. In both these examples he showed how the acts of democratically elected government were actually against people and environment. But he hailed the Plachimada struggle against Coca Cola as a ray of hope since this was a struggle led by a Panchayat, a local level democratic institution which brought a multi-national company to its knees. He also pointed out how law and order mechanism of state had been used to suppress people’s protests against illegal pollution in Lotte, in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra.
Throughout his lecture Dr. Gadgil strongly argued for decentralization of power in order to protect ecology and environment. He mentioned about the powers given in the hands of the local bodies through the 73rd and 74th amendment of the constitution of India. He said that there are several laws and policies e.g. Bio-logical Diversity Act (2002), National Gene Funds which talked about participation of citizens in the decision making but this was never implemented on the ground. He said that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) documents and the whole environmental clearance process should be reconsidered and reviewed (a press release on the functioning of Expert Appraisal Committee which grants environment clearance termed the committee as Expert Approval Committee – https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/02/05/analysis-of-moefs-eac-on-river-valley-projects-the-expert-approval-committee-has-zero-rejection-in-six-years/).
Taking the case of mining in Goa, he said that his team of the Ecology Expert Panel reviewed EIA documents of 75 mines and found that all the mines had made fraudulent statements about how the mines would impact the rivers and rivulets. There were EIA documents of these mines which even denied the existence of perennial streams in the hill plateau where these mines existed. In one case when he wrote to one of the mine managers about the existence of a famous stream near that mine, but the reply was that since there were no blue lines in the geological map of Goa, there are no streams.
He stressed on the need to engage local people in the decision making process and increase dissemination of information. He took the example of ‘Australian River Watch’ programme where the citizens are trained to monitor the health of a river just by looking at the bio-logical indicators. He opined that India should take lessons from this and should initiate such programmes. He said that in our democracy we have many possibilities of engaging in decision making. He ended his speech by saying that for India to progress, India should take bottom up approach and strengthen its democracy, rule of law, scientific temperament and traditional ecological knowledge.
Q&A session brought out more issues – The question-answer session which followed the lecture also brought several important issues in to the foray. Answering a question about how much scientific peoples’ knowledge is, he said that one must understand that peoples’ knowledge is historical and locality specific and traditional. So the people of a certain locality would know better about the ecology and environment of a specific place rather than experts or engineers. Here again he emphasized on the need to include of common people in the decision making process.
Answering a question about the climate change impacts in the Western Ghats, he said that there are no immediately visible impacts of climate change in Western Ghats. But he said that Himalayan range already had visible impacts of climate change in the form of glacier melting and increased precipitation. But he warned that Western Ghats will surely have climate change impacts in the future.
When asked about his opinion on the future of Western Ghats if the diluted version of his report, i.e. Report of the High Level Working Group headed by Dr Kasturirangan (A blog that compares Kasturirangan and Gadgil Panel report can be found here – https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/how-much-does-the-kasturirangan-committee-understand-about-water-issues-in-western-ghats/) gets accepted by the government, Dr. Gadgil laughingly said that he knew that his report would not be accepted but he was sure that Kasturirangan’s report would also not be implemented (A letter by Prof Gadgil on Kasturirangan committee can be found here: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/05/18/prof-madhav-gadgil-writes-to-dr-kasturirangan/). But he expressed his surprise on the fact that after his report, people are really awakened and they are now paying attention to these issues. He is happy to see that at the people in the ground level are really interested to know about the environmental issues. He said that the report by his group, had served the purpose of triggering this interest if not anything else. He expressed his optimism about the report. (SANDRP comment on Kasturirangan Committee submitted to MoEF can be found at: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/05/20/comments-on-hlwg-report-submitted-to-ministry-of-environment-and-forests/)
Talking about gender imbalance he narrated an experience of 1984 of a Zila Parishad in Uttar Kannada district in Karnataka. There he organized a meeting of all the Zila Parishad members to know their views on environmental issues in their zila (district). In that meeting it was mainly the women members who vociferously talked about the environmental concerns and they gave excellent feedback on the issue. He added that from his experience of working on such issues all these years, he has found that in the local elected bodies it is the women members who are more concerned with environmental issues.
Answering a question regarding dam construction in northeast he said that very less knowledge is available about the geology of young HimalayanMountain. Giving the example of the recent Uttarakhand disaster he said that one of renowned environmentalist from the state, Dr. K. S. Valdiya have been completely ignored and was never consulted for any of the developmental activity in the state even though he has written extensively about the geology of the hilly state. This is actually ignoring scientific knowledge about the area and he expressed his fear that similar things might be happening in the northeast as well.
Answering a question about recent flood devastation in Uttarakhand, he said that from Dr. K. S. Valdiya what he had come to know is that lawless and a mindless construction activity like dhabas and hotels, in the river bed of Mandakini in Uttarakhand is one of the major reasons for the increased amount of devastation in the recent flood. He said that traditionally the people of Uttarakhand used to construct houses far from the river in order to save themselves from the fury of floods. He was also informed that for hydroelectric dam the residences of project engineers and labour have been constructed at wrong places and in the recent floods these constructions must have been affected (a detailed report on Uttarakhand floods is available here – https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/06/21/uttarakhand-deluge-how-human-actions-and-neglect-converted-a-natural-phenomenon-into-a-massive-disaster/).
Answering a question about whether inter-linking of rivers in justified or not and if environmental movements have taken a view of ‘changelessness’, Professor Gadgil said he is not sure whether environmental movements are trying to suppress debate and pushing for only one kind of debate, which is undermining scientific spirit. Regarding inter-linking of rivers, he said that all the pros and cons should be thoroughly studied and then only the decision should be taken. However what he has been informed by Dr. K. S. Valdiya that those who are in favour of pushing through the projects are often suppressing all kinds of debates. Here he brought the issue of Athirappilly dam again and said that River Research Centre which had been long talking about the pros and cons of the project, their voices had been suppressed. He said that if environmentalists are trying to suppress the debate then that is clearly wrong but he has got no evidence of that. But he has seen evidences of things happening in the other way round where project proponents are suppressing questioning of project proposals.
On a question regarding faster growth versus sustainable growth, he said that if faster growth is genuinely leading to employment generation and improve quality of life, then following the path of faster growth is right. But if this is not happening, he said there were many evidences that faster is obviously not better. He ended the question answer session by quoting a German proverb which said ‘if you are running in the wrong direction then it is better to run slowly than fast.’
Concluding Remarks by Former MoEF – Jairam Ramesh in his concluding remarks highlighted couple of points which Prof. Gadgil has raised. He said that the greatest contribution of the work done by Prof. Gadgil is that it had brought high levels of ecological sensitivity which is grounded in the primacy of local democratic institutions and anchored in a belief on the scientific method. He said for the younger generation Prof. Gadgil is a role model. But he also points out that as a democracy India has to make a choice between growth and environmental concerns and he warned against the romanticization with environmental movements. He pointed out that India faces a unique challenge of adding 10 million jobs to its labour force every year. He opined that India cannot choose between faster or sustainable growth but India’s growth has to be faster and sustainable. The responsibility of the scholars, activists and government here, according to him is to find ways and means to reach this. The twin pillars to reach this have to be what Prof. Gadgil has mentioned in his talk – 1. Organized skepticism or the respect for the scientific methods and 2. Respect for full functioning of democratic institutions at all levels, from bottom to the top. Emphasizing on the need for laws to implement environment policies in a fast growing economy, he said that Indian Parliament has passed some of the most progressive laws in the world but it is in the implementation and enforcement of these laws where India has failed again and again.
Parag Jyoti Saikia (firstname.lastname@example.org)