The Western Ghats, stretching over 1500 kms along six states of the country, is one of the magnificent mountain ranges of India. As eminent ecologist Prof Madhav Gadgil says, "Once the lady was adorned by a sari of rich green hues; today her mantle lies in shreds and tatters. This is a great tragedy, for this hill range is the backbone of the ecology and economy of south India".

It is in recognition of the great importance as well as the dire state of the Western Ghats that the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) constituted, on 4 March 2010, the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) under the chairmanship of Prof Gadgil. The mandate given to the Panel included assessing the current status of ecology of the Western Ghats, demarcating areas within the Western Ghats Region which need to be notified as ecologically sensitive and to make recommendations for the conservation, protection and rejuvenation of the Western Ghats.

The Committee submitted its report to the MoEF on 3 August 2011. However, the MoEF refused to make the report public, and sat on it for almost a year. It was only on 23 May 2012 that MoEF was forced to release the report, following the orders of the Central Information Commission and the Delhi High Court. Soon afterwards, on 17 August 2012 the MoEF constituted another committee, under the chairmanship of Dr. K Kasturirangan, Member, Planning Commission. This committee, called the High Level Working Group (HLWG), was tasked, among other things, to examine the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel Report in a holistic and multidisciplinary fashion in the light of the comments received from the concerned State Governments/Central Ministries/Stakeholders, to recommend further course of action with respect to the WGEEP, and to submit an action plan to implement WGEEP.

The fact that the WGEEP report was kept under wraps for so long and in spite of orders of the CIC, and that another committee was soon constituted to look at the WGEEP report raised strong suspicions that the MoEF and other powers that be had not liked the recommendations made by the WGEEP, and were looking at ways to bypass or dilute them.

A forest settlement in the Western Ghats. Pic: Smitha Krishnan via Wikimedia

The High Level Working Group (HLWG)

The HLWG’s recommendations differ substantially from the WGEEP.

First of all, the HLWG has veered a fair bit off its mandate; instead of examining and recommending ways to implement the WGEEP, it has come out with its own critique and has proceeded to provide an entirely different framework from the one presented by the WGEEP. In the process, it has significantly narrowed the approach to treating the Western Ghats as an ecologically sensitive area and the scope of protecting it.

The WGEEP had underscored the fact that the entire Western Ghats should be considered ecologically sensitive, and for operational purposes had suggested its division into three zones, namely Eco Sensitive Zones (ESZ) - ESZ 1, ESZ 2 and ESZ 3, with decreasing eco-sensitivity. The recommended ESZ1, along with existing protected areas like wildlife sanctuaries etc. totals about 60% of the total area of Western Ghats. On the other hand, the HLWG has recommended that about 37% of the area of the Western Ghats be considered as Eco Sensitive Area (ESA) and the rest as non-ESA. (While Western Ghats area as defined by HLWG at about 160,000 sq km is larger than that defined by WGEEP at 129,000 sq km, the ESZ1 of WGEEP still comes out as a much larger area than the ESA of HLWG).

The restrictions to be put on various activities in the ESA of HLWG and the ESZ1 of the WGEEP also differ significantly.

Given all this, and the fact that the HLWG has also critiqued the approach, methods and recommendations of the WGEEP, it is imperative that the WGEEP be allowed to present its own positions on the HLWG’s reading of its report. To do this, the MoEF should invite the WGEEP to formally respond to the HLWG. Moreover, given the sharp differences between the two reports, and the importance of the issue, the country has a right to know and understand the arguments of both the groups. Hence, it is important that the MoEF organize a public discussion between the two committees and make available its proceedings widely, so that the reasoning of both the committees can be better understood.


The total area to be considered eco-sensitive is not the only difference between the two committees. The very method of determining eco-sensitivity is different. The WGEEP has used the recommendations of the Pranob Sen committee that had been set up by the MoEF in 2000. This committee has recommended several primary and secondary criteria to measure eco-sensitivity. The WGEEP used biological criteria that included endemism, biodiversity richness, but also others such as slope of land, origin of rivers etc.

On the other hand, the HLWG first distinguished between “natural” landscape and “cultural” landscape. The latter, which includes settlements, agriculture, plantations etc. covers close to 60% of the total Western Ghats as per the HLWG, and all of it was kept out of the ESA. The ESA was to be demarcated only from the natural landscape. In this, they used two criteria, namely biological richness and forest fragmentation and arrived at close to 37% of the area of the Western Ghats as ESA.

Whether such a rigid division between “cultural” and “natural” landscape is appropriate with regard to the determination of eco-sensitivity, and whether it is advisable when the objective is to protect the ecology, is a very important question. The cultural landscape itself harbours many an important element of biodiversity. For example, Prof Gadgil makes a very important point that in terms of vulnerability and threats, aquatic biodiversity is more sensitive than forest biodiversity. The HLWG’s forest based categorization of the ESA is likely to leave many of the water resources out of its purview.

In an open letter to Dr. Kasturirangan, Prof Gadgil substantiates his point, writing: “Moreover, freshwater biodiversity is far more threatened than forest biodiversity and lies largely in what you term cultural landscapes. Freshwater biodiversity is also vital to livelihoods and nutrition of large sections of our people. That is why we had provided a detailed case study of Lote Chemical Industry complex in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra, where pollution exceeding all legal limits has devastated fisheries so that 20,000 people have been rendered jobless, while only 11,000 have obtained industrial employment. Yet the Government wants to set up further polluting industries in the same area, and has therefore deliberately suppressed its own Zonal Atlas for Siting of Industries.”

Whether rigid division between 'cultural' and 'natural' landscape is appropriate with regard to the determination of eco-sensitivity, or whether it is even advisable when the objective is to protect the ecology, is a very important question. The cultural landscape itself harbours many an important element of biodiversity.

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As important as the demarcation of eco-sensitive areas are the restrictions that are proposed to be imposed to protect them.

As mentioned earlier, the WGEEP has a graded three-tier classification of eco-sensitivity and this is reflected in a graded set of restrictions with decreasing stringency across the ESZ1, ESZ 2 and ESZ 3. The HLWG on the other hand specifies certain activities that are completely banned in the ESA and others are to be undertaken with due caution. It has also suggested financial and other incentives to promote green growth. Outside the ESA, all activities can be undertaken as per current rules and regulations.

While the HLWG claims that “In this way, HLWG has deviated from WGEEP by not recommending a blanket prescriptive on what constitutes good development, which will be implemented through a prohibitory regime,” actually they have done precisely that, the difference being that the set of activities they have prohibited is smaller.

Thus, HLWG completely bans mining, thermal power plants, building and construction projects over 20,000 sq metres, township projects and red-category industries in the ESA. These are important recommendations. The WGEEP shares these recommendations in mining, thermal power plants, red category industries and also goes beyond them in prohibiting orange category industries, genetically modified organisms, large scale wind power etc. in the ESZ1.

Apart from this, there are two important differences between the proposed restrictions by the two committees. The WGEEP’s set of restrictions come up with much more detailed prescriptions of what should be done along with what should not be done, reflecting a nuanced understanding of development and preservation of the ecology together. The HLWG comes out as narrow and somewhat technocratic in its approach.

The section on water will illustrate this further. The HLWG’s entire recommendation in the water sector is centered around hydropower, which it allows in the ESA, albeit, subject to certain important conditions. It describes hydropower as “clean and renewable”, a categorization which has been globally rejected particularly in case of large dam projects. It makes a general recommendation about the “need to redesign and re-evaluate small hydropower projects – below 25 MW - as these often have limited impact on energy generation and can lead to huge impact on ecology.”

The WGEEP on the other hand has water related recommendations in sections on land-use, fishery, power, area treatment / landscaping, water and science and technology. Its recommendations include prohibitory ones, starting with a clear distinction between large and smaller hydro projects to say that “no new dams based on large scale storage be permitted in Ecologically Sensitive Zone 1.” Others include making water courses and water bodies ‘no-go area’, no forest clearance or stream diversion for new projects, and prohobition of run of the river schemes in first order or second order streams.

A satellite view of the forest-covered Western Ghats. Pic: NASA

On the other hand, there are many recommendations such as: Management of decentralized water resources at Local Self Government level; Catchment area treatment plans of hydroelectric and major irrigation projects that would improve their life span; Scientific riparian management programmes involving community participation that would improve river flows and water quality; Allowing run of the river schemes with a maximum height of 3 metres so as to serve local energy needs of tribal/ local communities/plantation colonies subject to consent of gram sabha; Permitting small hydro-projects of up to 10 MW and the like.

In fact, even for ESZ3, the WGEEP has several important recommendations such as those requiring existing dams’ reservoir operations to be rescheduled for allowing more water downstream, or large dam projects to be subjected to conditions of cumulative impact assessments. They also make suggestions on the carrying capacity and needs of downstream flows.

Probably the biggest weakness of the HLWG is the faith and trust it has put in the existing regulation and governance mechanisms to help protect the environment. For example, the HLWG has taken the view that it will “recommend a framework for governance and regulation of ESA, which draws on current regulatory institutions for decision-making, but simultaneously, will strengthen the data monitoring systems and the participation and involvement of local communities in decision-making.”

Its recommendations for strengthening regulatory institutions are also not new, and include training, sensitization and so on. This is not to deny the importance of these methods or the need to strengthen the institutions but to reiterate that these methods have been recommended and tried several times earlier but have not shown very encouraging results.

Strengthening the participation of the local communities is absolutely essential. The HLWG makes a recommendation that “The villages falling under ESA will be involved in taking decisions on future projects. All projects will require prior-informed consent and no-objection from the gram sabha of the village. The provision for prior informed consent under the Forest Rights Act will also be strictly enforced.” This recommendation is very important, but it is somewhat strange that it finds mention only in the conclusions of the HLWG report, and there is no discussion related to this critical recommendation in any other part of the report.

Another example is the recommendation to include wind energy projects in the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification and subject it to the EIA and environmental clearance regime. While, in itself, this is a very important and necessary recommendation, it is not sufficient. It is an accepted fact that the EIA/EC regime has been an abject failure in controlling environmental degradation due to developmental interventions. Thus, merely accepting the existing regulatory regime and recommending some improvements in it is not going to make a difference.


Since we cannot wish away the existing regime, and indeed in the long run there is no other way but to put in place a strong, credible regulatory mechanism, what other option did the HLWG have? Drawing from some recommendations of the WGEEP, one can suggest a way that the HLWG could have taken, and which the MoEF should now take.

For all areas in the Western Ghats falling in the ESZ 1 or 2 as designated by the WGEEP, or under the ESA defined by HLWG, there should be a moratorium on all damaging interventions. Such a list can be a combination of the WGEEP and HLWG lists. The MoEF and state governments should first initiate a process of “clean-up” in these areas by addressing the severe environmental and social impacts of the developmental interventions that have already taken place till date. Such a clean-up would include addressing pollution as well as the ecological degradation of forests, rivers and other areas. Simultaneously, a program of strengthening regulatory and governance institutions and regimes can be taken up. The moratorium would remain in place till the clean-up is over and the institutions brought up to par.

Such an approach would have two important advantages. One, the process of cleaning up would itself generate large employment opportunities and economic activity. Thus, a moratorium would not affect the benefits that are expected from economic activity. Secondly, the process would give enough exposure to institutions to help them devise a stronger regulatory process and opportunities to test how well they are shaping up.

It may be pointed out that the WGEEP itself has suggested such an approach in some cases. For example, for mining in Goa, the WGEEP has recommended “an indefinite moratorium on new environmental clearances for mining in ESZ 1 and 2 …. and continuation of existing mining in ESZ 2 under strict regulation with an effective system of social audit. The moratorium on new clearances in ESZ 2 can be revisited as and when the situation improves and when a comprehensive study on the impact of mining has been concluded.” The WGEEP should extend such moratorium to other areas too.

The MoEF has also partially used such an approach in dealing with the Critically Polluted Areas, where a moratorium on new clearances is declared. Of course, the MoEF expects only an “action plan” before it lifts the moratorium.

The way forward

Given the context, there is a need to have widespread discussion before the MoEF takes further steps. Even as the HLWG has come out with a different framework and different recommendations, the WGEEP clearly remains the more comprehensive document, with its vast sweep of ideas, nuanced attention to detail and the insistence on fine-tuning its recommendations through wide-ranging discussion.

Thus, any further process should be carried out with the WGEEP report as its core. Discussions should be organized around it, including the public discussion suggested above between HLWG and WGEEP. WGEEP and other documents should be translated into local languages, and consultations should take place in several locations in the Western Ghats, with local communities as key participants. Decisions about the implementation should be taken only through such a process. The HLWG can be one of the inputs to this discussion, and that will be entirely appropriate to its mandate, which is “to recommend further course of action with respect to WGEEP” and “submit action plan to implement WGEEP.”