The sun-bathed beaches, colourfully shacked and tourist-speckled. Happy, prosperous Goa, where everything seems to be nice. And it’s the state with the highest per capita GDP to boot. But wait, there’s another Goa too, its emerald greenery raked away by construction, mining and lopsided development. What this has entailed is not pretty: a kind of lawless, jobless economic growth; not trickle-down development, but suck-it-all-away development. The mining corporations are the most rapacious, their machines clawing into the red earth across thousands of acres, eroding agriculture and blighting communities closely linked to local ecosystems.
Goa is nestled in the Western Ghats, and, in the long run, what is happening in the state has a bearing on the rich and fragile biodiversity of the mountain range, known as the water tower of the Indian peninsula. It’s an issue the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel’s (WGEEP) report—later reviewed by the Kasturirangan committee—has raised. The lawlessness of the mining corporations has been starkly brought out in the Justice Shah commission report, which says “no inspection was carried out of iron ore mines, resulting in a fear-free environment which has caused loss to the ecology, environment, agriculture, groundwater, natural streams, ponds, rivers, biodiversity, etc.” The communities affected can hardly take on the power-wielding omnivores with resources from across the world and no stake in the health of any specific ecosystem.
Of late, with some action against illegal mining, estimated by the Goa government at about Rs 6,500 crore and by the Shah commission at Rs 35,000 crore, the mining groups are resorting to the plaintive tack that they are unable to offer jobs to local communities and that those they had employed had lost hope in life with the job loss. What they don’t want to consider is that mining was halted because it was illegal, the law-breaking aided and abetted by netas and babus at the state and the central level, as detailed in the Shah commission report. But the state hasn’t recovered any of the unlawful gains the miners made; it has meekly allowed the industry to lay off workers. There are no clear layoff figures, though the Goa government claims it is 1.25 lakh. That this is vastly exaggerated is evident from the fact that in the first month after the declaration of the Goa government’s mine-related unemployment compensation scheme, to be funded, mind you, not by the mining industry, but by ordinary taxpayers, only 18 people staked claim.
The distinguished mathematician and philosopher A.N. Whitehead had stressed science must be anchored firmly to the bedrock of empirical facts, however unpalatable. WGEEP has obviously been guilty of bringing out many such unpalatable facts, such as what has been happening at Lote and at Plachimada. There is suggestive, but not firm, evidence that while the Lote chemical industry in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra has created 11,000 new jobs, 20,000 fishermen have been rendered jobless as a result of river pollution.
We had urged that the western ghats environment report should be put before local communities. It wasn’t appreciated, for it would stall ‘development’.
But Plachimada in Palakkad, Kerala, is a rare case of careful assessment of the impact of industrial activity on the capital of natural resources and on the livelihoods of people. The Coca Cola plant at Plachimada has severely depleted and polluted the groundwater, leading to the drying up of wells, loss of agricultural productivity and negative impacts on health and livelihoods. While the state government had been ignoring these issues, the Plachimada panchayat successfully forced a proper scientific inquiry into the losses, now officially acknowledged at Rs 260 crore. The panchayat has argued that its duty is to protect the well-being of its subjects, and has the right to cancel—or refuse permission—to anything that affects its subjects adversely. The courts have accepted this argument and, consequently, the state legislature unanimously passed a bill to compensate the victims in 2011. Regrettably, the President of India has not yet signed the bill and the people are not being compensated for their losses. Meanwhile, Coca Cola, which owes the government Rs 84 crore in back taxes, has been awarded an income tax exemption of Rs 5 crore. The Kasturirangan committee, claiming to be greatly concerned with people’s livelihoods, fails to comment on the Lote and Plachimada experiences, both highlighted by WGEEP.
WGEEP is very mindful of the importance of the well-being of the people. Of course, as was its mandate, it has emphasised the link between people’s well-being and the health of environment. WGEEP has adopted a holistic ecosystem perspective, looking at the interlinkages between various ecosystems and different forms of human interventions, something the Kasturirangan committee fails to do. It has suggested many specific measures to enhance the quality of the environment and people’s lives, such as well-worked-out schemes for payments for ecosystem services. WGEEP has pleaded that its carefully and scientifically documented picture of the status of the Western Ghats ecology, the processes underlying the manifold degradation, and the measures it proposes, including the demarcation of ecologically sensitive zones (ESZ) and regulatory as well as promotional measures suggested for the various zones, are meant to be a starting point for wide-ranging discussions.
Since such discussions must involve all citizens, and not just the educated urban elite, the WGEEP report should be communicated to the people in their own languages and placed before all the gram sabhas for their considered feedback, as was done in the case of Goa Regional Plan, 2021. WGEEP suggests that all decisions should then be arrived at in a democratic fashion.
Allergic to WGEEP’s nature-friendly and people-oriented approach, the central government first suppressed the report, releasing it only when forced to do so. The central and state governments then refused to accept WGEEP’s suggestion that they reach out to the people with translations of the report in all state languages, but instead launched a campaign of misinformation, alleging that WGEEP wishes to impose draconian restrictions without taking people’s wishes or interests into account, diametrically opposite to what we propose in our report. Regrettably, the Kasturirangan committee is toeing the government line.
India is a deeply fissured land, with growing social disparities. The disruption of the livelihoods of communities is creating ecological refugees forced to live in the city slums. It is this clash between cultures of communities, ecological refugees and omnivores that our country must face up to in its quest for development. Countries like Germany, with its powerful Green Party, have demonstrated that industrial growth is perfectly compatible with environmental protection, reviving its once highly polluted Rhine. But this has called for genuine respect for laws, careful collection and application of scientific evidence, willingness to accept moderation of profits, and genuine devolution of democratic powers. If we are to follow this path, India has all the laws that we need; we need only start their honest implementation. This is what WGEEP urges, on the basis of extensive documentation, facts that are not to the liking of the powers that be. But I am delighted the report has stimulated a healthy debate, and am confident it will help us move towards genuinely sustainable and inclusive development.
(The writer, a professor at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and author of This Fissured Land, is a member of the National Advisory Committee.)