The Gadgil dilemma: Kerala floods a result of governance failures?

The death toll in Kerala floods has touched over 250 since August 8
Last week, a well-recognised doyen of ecological studies, Madhav Gadgil sparked a controversy by saying that the Kerala floods were partly a result of governance failures. He took a side-swipe at state authorities claiming the damage from extreme rains would not have been as bad had the states implemented recommendations of a committee he chaired in 2011 — the Western Ghats Ecology Experts Group.

He said, “Our recommendations would have been accepted in any law-abiding society that believes in good governance. Unfortunately, we have a lawless society and extremely poor governance.”

Gadgil’s words found immediate resonance with many. He could not be contested on his assessment that a more sustainable development growth pathway in Kerala could have ensured the damage from the extreme precipitation was not as bad. 

But, was Gadgil right in claiming that implementing his report was the path to sustainable development for Kerala?  

The Gadgil group was tasked by the Union government to demarcate an “Ecological Sensitive Zone” or ESZ of over 175,000 square km of the Western Ghats cutting across six states. The committee recommended notifying 75 per cent of the Western Ghats (132,000 square km) into an ESZ where economic and development activities would be banned, restricted and regulated to an unprecedented degree. 

Further, 60 per cent of this 175,000 square km was to be notified as protected areas (ESZ1). This implied the highest level of restrictions would be imposed: the use of pesticides and fertilisers in agriculture over five years; no land-use change except to increase size of existing villages; an end to mining in five years; a phased ban on quarrying; no new hydro and thermal power plants; a stop to diversion of surface waters to existing thermal plants; and a ban on new railway lines and major roads. 

How was this to be ordered and implemented? By establishing a new over-arching authority. The panel had also been asked by the government for a blueprint to set up an effective authority under the Environment Protection Act to regulate development activity in the vast region cutting across political boundaries of the six states. 

The Gadgil committee suggested a legally empowered central authority of experts, headed by either a retired judge or an ecologist, to permanently oversee, approve and regulate all development activity in the ecological sensitive area. The committee suggested a super-structure from the central authority down to the district level, which would run parallel to the existing administration, and a political executive that would have a veto power over projects and activities in the region.

Such authorities had existed under the Environment Protection Act but had only been deployed at state levels. Their functioning had been patchy at best. What Gadgil recommended was an administration of nominated experts, which would operate across state boundaries and veto any activity that it found ecologically damaging. 

To some, this sounded like a parallel executive – that too, one that would prioritise ecological security, be run by nominated and ethically clean people who had not been sullied by the reality of India’s political economy, which is dominated by the elected representatives.

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The Gadgil panel believed it was a bottom-up approach to governance. But others believed it was short-circuiting democratic processes instead of finding a slow but more valuable way of factoring in ecological values in the democratic processes, which would necessarily involve negotiation and accommodation with other economic functions of a society. 

Of course, the Gadgil panel’s report faced opposition from those whose economic interests would be hurt, especially industry. But it also faced opposition from state governments, including Kerala, and some local communities (Gadgil maintained that the communities had been misled by vested interests). 

Had the Gadgil panel jumped the gun even in practical terms? 

The committee had identified the ESZ using satellite imagery at a relatively crude level. The authors acknowledged this shortcoming, suggesting that finer granular maps could be drawn up later. But showing impatience, the committee recommended that entire talukas provisionally be notified as protected areas based on these crude estimates. It said the fine granular boundaries at village level could be drawn up later, once the authorities had been set up and village level consultations held. This method — to first establish a blanket ban and then gradually relax it – the states and partly the Union government too thought was a recipe for disaster. 

In Kerala’s case alone, that meant putting 41 per cent of its total geographic area under a strict, restrictive regime and 69 per cent of its land demarcated as part of the Western Ghats under various levels of restrictions. This would include 17,214 square kilometres of “cultural landscape” where human habitation, cultivation and economic activity were already being practised, besides the “natural landscape”. 

Thiagarajan Jayaraman of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) recently wrote, “The top-down approach of the Gadgil committee constrains development first, begins with bans and prohibitions, to then resort to pious allusions of participatory development. In this view ecological concerns take first place...while the economic consequences and the economic costs of such a transformation are not even subject to a minimum of reasoned analysis.”

Responding to the overwhelming opposition from the six states, the Centre set up another expert committee under K Kasturirangan. The committee recommended demarcating only 37 per cent of what it defined as Western Ghats as an ESZ  compared to the 75 per cent the Gadgil panel had asked for. It used finer satellite imagery to segregate “cultural” and “natural” landscapes. Most importantly, it kept quiet on the formation of a central authority holding veto powers, and the Centre did not form one either. 

Kerala carried out an elaborate taluk-level exercise to ground-truth the Kasturirangan recommendations, and notified 9,997 square kilometres of land as ESZ and removed the “cultural landscapes” of 17,214 sq km from its ambit. There is no detailed study as yet to understand whether this exclusion was done to protect legitimate livelihoods.  

But the argument over the efficacy of the Gadgil panel’s plans to protect the Western Ghats in the face of global warming connects to the heart of a debate that engulfs the climate change discourse: between the need to balance intra-generational and long-term inter-generational equity. And, that both basic short-term economic growth and the long-term climate and ecological security should not work in tandem as a double whammy against those economically less powerful or endowed. 

Jayaraman of TISS adds in his note, “What eco-warriors always miss, and even the more sober sections of the environmentally concerned do not pay heed to, is the fundamentally important aspect of the economic drivers that lead to environmental damage.” 

It is useful to remember that Gadgil’s report did not get implemented, with the largest-ever ecological sensitive zone covering 57,000 square kilometres across six states being identified but not notified. His report did arguably create a marginally larger space for environmental priorities in the political economy of these six states but it did not end up setting an ecologists’ dream team at the helm of economic decision-making. 

But it also did not end up making the current executive and its processes any more sensitive to the need for environmental integrity of growth than they were before.


Gadgil Panel
  • Cover 75% of the Western Ghats under Ecologically Sensitive Zone
  • Set up a Western Ghats Authority with state and district level structures holding veto over economic activity

Kasturirangan Panel
  • Cover 37% of the Western Ghats under Ecologically Sensitive Zone
  • Keep 'Cultural landscapes' out of the ambit of the restrictive regime

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