The Supreme Court on Friday issued notice to the Centre and the Environment Ministry on a plea to quash a recommendation by a government-formed High-Level Working Group treating the entire Western Ghats into patches for protection, thereby excluding around 72,000 square kilometres of area, legal news website BarandBench.com has reported.
Notice was issued by a Bench of Chief Justice SA Bobde and Justices Dinesh Maheswari and AS Bopanna.
The plea has been filed by seven minors, four rights-based organizations and sixteen individuals from the six states where the Western Ghats are situated.
The petitioners urge the court to implement the recommendations submitted by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) to treat the entire ghats as a whole.
The petition states that "despite its critical importance, the Western Ghats is not protected as a contiguous range. Significant parts of the Western Ghats are open to wanton deforestation and destruction for mining, quarrying, industrial use, power generation etc."
According to the petition, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) set up the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) in 2010 and the High Level Working Group (HLWG) in 2012. The plea points out that the government had also recommended the inclusion of various Western Ghats sites in the World Living Heritage list.
The WGEEP in its 2011 report identified an area of 1,29,037 sq. km. to be part of the Western Ghats. However, the HLWG recommended that only 59,940 sq. km. of the Western Ghats should be protected – this was 37% of the total area of the Western Ghats of 1,64,280 sq. km. identified by the HLWG.
Even in the limited 37% of the Western Ghats area that the HLWG recommended for protection, the bulk of the area falls either under Protected Area or forest land.
The plea argues that such areas are already protected under the provisions of the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 and the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980.
Substantiating its case, the plea states that after accepting the HLWG’s report ‘in principle’, till date the Central Government has only issued directions under Section 5 of the Environment (Protection) Act 1986 regulating certain activities first in an area of 59,940 sq. km.
"The area of 59,940 sq. km. was later reduced to 56,825 sq. km. by an amendment dated 03.12.2018 to the directions. Significantly, an area of 72, 212 sq. km. that had been identified by the WGEEP as part of the Western Ghats has been arbitrarily excluded from any form of legal protection from the Section 5 directions,"reads the petition.
The petition has also accused the Central Government and the Governments of the six states in which the Western Ghats is situated – Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu "to have completely failed in their duty to protect the Ghats, and have instead allowed its destruction over the years."
The primary grievance of the petitioners is that the criteria adopted by HLWG for demarcation of Western Ghats area and Ecologically Sensitive Areas would lead to breaking up the Western Ghats into a series of patches of natural vegetation.
"The viability of these stretches is therefore undermined in the long term. Protection cannot be afforded in patches as such protection is not sustainable in the long run," urges the petitioners.
The plea demands that not only should the WGEEP recommendations be implemented but that the government direction which excludes an area of 72,212 sq km of land from protection should be quashed or stayed.