A petition has been filed in the Supreme Court challenging the 2018 draft notification of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change demarcating an area of 56,825 square kilometer spread across six states as the Western Ghats Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA).
The plea is filed by an NGO Karshaka Shabdam through advocate Suvidutt M S sought directions to the Centre and Kerala to not implement the recommendations of Western Ghats Ecologically Expert Panel (WGEEP), also called the Gadgil Committee, and of the High-Level Working Group, also called the Kasturirangan Committee. The petitioner herein has locus standi to file the instant Writ Petition as it stands for the wellbeing of farmers including protection of their rights, enlightening government with regard to policies and actions harmful to farmers and also works for afforestation across the region.
The Kerala-based NGO also sought that the 2018 notification of the ministry be declared as unconstitutional as it violates the right to life and livelihood of farmers guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution. The Western Ghats, spread across Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, are recognized by UNESCO as one of the world's eight most important biodiversity pots. In 2010, the ministry had constituted an expert panel (WGEEP) headed by Madhav Gadgil for strategizing and conserving the Ghats and to lay more emphasis on the sustainable aspects of the Ghats. The panel submitted its report in the year 2011. In the year 2013 following the criticism of the Gadgil Committee report from various quarters, a High-Level Working Group headed by K Kasturirangan was constituted to examine the report and recommendation of WGEEP, and it submitted a report the same year. The NGO said that the 2018 notification once implemented in Kerala would affect the livelihood of lakhs of farmers as their agricultural lands would come under the demarcated Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESA). It said that both the Gadgil committee and the Kasturirangan committee reports, which were aimed at preserving and conserving the Western Ghats, have made several recommendations for protection, preservation and conservation of the Western Ghats, butit vitiates aggressively in several aspects to the state of Kerala. The NGO said that though the Gadgil committee report was theoretically eco-friendly, factors such as population, practicality in displacement and source of livelihood were not considered. It said that the Gadgil panel's recommendation for declaring the complete area a protected zone was considered widely "as insensitive, and hindered the development and inhabiting aspects of human-hood". The NGO further said that the Kasturirangan report made some interesting and beneficial recommendations but it is widely criticized that the committee used remote sensing and aerial survey methods for area demarcation which fail to address the issues in reality. It said that as per this report, powers would vest with the bureaucrats and not with forest officials and village level officers, and many areas addressed under the report are agricultural lands. The petitioner NGO said that the needs and aspirations of the local and indigenous people, sustainable development and environmental integrity of the region and to suggest steps and the way forward to prevent further degradation of the fragile ecology of the Western Ghats get mentioned in the draft notification. "The rationale behind issuing the draft notification, without the inclusion of the measures to incentivize green growth advocated by the HLWG and those proposed in the National Agroforestry Policy, 2014, is questionable," it said. The petition alleged that instead of allowing people to continue with their livelihoods that have been pursued over centuries in consonance with nature, the intent of the draft notification seems to disrupt lives and discourage agriculture. The plea sought a direction to Kerala to not implement the recommendations of WGEEP and HLWG reports on the Western Ghats. The plea also sought implementation of the recommendations of the Oommen V Oommen committee constituted in 2014 by the Kerala government to review the Kasturirangan committee report. The projects and activities to be prohibited or regulated in the eco-sensitive area include mining, no new construction of thermal power plants and buildings.