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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 26, June 15, 2013

From the Western Ghats to the Andamans, We’re Playing a Greedy, Losing Game

Saturday 15 June 2013, by T J S George


Prepare to lose not only our mountain-protected west coast but also the Andamans. Not because of terrorists or China, but because the greed of our politicians and business lobbies will make them go under the sea. So reckless is

the exploitation of these regions that we can already see signs of the ultimate catastrophe taking shape.

The Western Ghats is the water source of the south, the Himalayas of the south. If there are no Himalayas, there will be no Ganga, and if there is no Ganga, there will be no Gangetic plane and no human settlements from Haridwar to Kolkata. Similarly, if there are no Western Ghats, there will not be any of the great rivers of the south or the rains that sustain coastal Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and Kerala.

Irresponsible handling of these life-giving natural resources became a scandal in Maha-rashtra recently because unprecedented drought conditions and farmer suicides drew attention to Irrigation Minister Ajit Pawar’s shenanigans.

The tragedy was handled politically and the chapter closed with a “clean chit” to the Minister. But the tragedy on the ground continued because Pawar remained unrepentant and unreformed.

Warning signals from Kerala are worse. Last December, for the first time in history, all the districts of the State were declared drought-affected. Previously drought was experienced only in one or two districts and only once in a decade. Perhaps the warning signals were heard in the proper quarters. Delhi appointed a team headed by Madhav Gadgil to study the Western Ghats from the sustainability angle.

India’s most authoritative ecological scientist, Gadgil proposed a series of protection plans including a ban on big construction projects like dams. Immediately vested interests rose in revolt. Delhi quickly appointed a new committee

under former ISRO chief Kasturi Rangan. No ecologist, the career physicist gave the government what it wanted: A report rejecting most of Gadgil’s recommendations. Now there can be more destruction of forests, of rivers (by the sand mafia) and of paddy fields (by the real estate mafia). Stretches of the coast are already going under the Arabian Sea’s angry waters every year.

The Andaman Sea is angrier than the Arabian Sea. Its remoteness from the mainland—it is beyond the range of even our fierce television anchors—has for long allowed government leaders to exploit the Andamans with impunity. Whole forests have been felled to feed plywood mills. Copper and chromite quarrying have left stretches of land looking like craters.

Coal allocations by Delhi’s mandarins became a big scandal because the media followed the story. In Andamans the arbitrariness of the authorities was worse, but no one—except those in the islands—became aware of it. Last

December 38 quarry sites were auctioned off. Not only was “auctioning” something new; it was done in secrecy. The rewards that went into private pockets can be imagined. Even imagination will fail if we try to go into the details of the concessions and facilities given by the authorities to the quarry lobby. Andamans is on the way to becoming, like Goa and Bellary, a hole in the ground.

The sea is watching. Andaman beaches, famous once for its clear blue waters, are now toxic. In the most popular areas swimmers feel itchiness, burning eyes and sliminess on the skin. The rubbish from Port Blair is haphazardly dumped near a beachside site from where poisonous chemical fumes spread and solid wastes quickly turn harmful. Some of the major quarries are also along the seafront. Only a rock wall left by the quarriers stand between the sea and the hollowed land. If the quarrying picks up as a result of the recent “green signal” or if a tidal surge comes, the sea will devour the land.

What’s puzzling is the attitude of our politicians. After all, they make money for the next five and ten generations of their families. Shouldn’t they also preserve the land for all those generations to enjoy? What’s the use of all the money if the country disappears? Politicians are a mystery inside an enigma.

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