The genial, lanky man who opens the door to greet you hardly looks like one who should be in the thick of a controversy. But the report of a panel chaired by Madhav Gadgilis today at the centre of a heated debate — that originally hinged on the Western Ghats, but has since been enlarged. Gadgil, in a free-wheeling interview with Subir Ghosh, dwells at length on the Ghats and minces no words about the so-called schism between development and environment.
The report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), which was chaired by you, is in cold storage. After all the work, where do you stand now? I think I managed to get a very good response, at least from civil society, besides some people in the administration as well as the political system. And possibly, for the first time, a lot of people are reading what has been very objectively recorded about what has happened (in the Western Ghats over the years). I see the report, apart from its specific recommendations, as being a fairly comprehensive documentation. This is something I think is worthwhile. It should reach out to people. Many people, especially the urban middle classes who certainly play a role in terms of public pressure, are simply not aware of the facts on the ground. Our report attempts to get this information out to people. It has certainly got people thinking. I think, in a way, it was a very good thing that they (the government) did not release it to the public, leading to demands that it should be released because people were very curious. Come to think of it, I was looking at a website a few days back and I was surprised to see that a private coaching centre for competitive exams had questions about the Ghats in a sample set. And, mind you, this was for a clerical grade exam for banks. So, if people studying for clerical positions in banks are aware of the issue, I must imagine there is a large number of people who must now be abreast with the (Western Ghats) issue. This is bound to be positive response from the government in the long run. I don’t think it can be dismissed that readily. This may lead to some debate and developments. Even the political class seems to have been taking cognisance. Let’s see what happens.
In other words, if not anything, people are definitely more aware of the Western Ghats issue, by and large? Definitely. A Malayalam language weekly in Kerala dedicated an entire issue devoted to the Western Ghats developments. Many of the panel members too contributed to the edition. I myself keep writing in a number of Marathi publications. There are some publications that are planning thematic special issues too. By seeing more people becoming aware, the government will eventually have to act.
Given the range of recommendations in the report, many of them were even seen as very stringent. Do you think it was too much for the governments (the Union and states) to take? The mandate itself was very clear, and we did not step outside the mandate at all. The mandate, among other things, included making recommendations about ecologically sensitive zones, their delineation, etc. The panel’s report has been accepted, though not acted upon. The conclusions were evident. But we certainly realised that all of it cannot be set aside, like those pertaining to the protected areas. We have suggested a set of guidelines, and we have also talked about a starting point for a grassroots level debate. And these are not to be taken as final. A people-oriented process should be set in motion to decide on the exact measures that need to be put in place. It was not a question just of regulatory measures; we have also made a lot of promotional suggestions. One of the positive steps that all the governments can readily accept is to start giving farmers special payments like Australia does for sequestering carbon in the soil. These are things where there is no question of being stringent. Maybe it goes against the interests of the chemicals and fertilisers industry, which is what the government wants to support (and not the farmers). But they cannot openly say that. This apart, we had pointed out that there are a number of laws which are being violated. We need proper monitoring of what is happening and we must have a system in place which will be effective.
Since you mention governments, which one do you think was the most vocal in going against the WGEEP report? None of them have communicated anything directly to me. Going just by newspaper reports, it is very difficult to judge. For instance, in Karnataka, they seem to be talking more about the UNESCO’s World Heritage Site (WHS) status to the Ghats than our report.