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6 March 2017 Editorial


6 MARCH 2017

Saving the Ghats

The hesitation shown by the Central government in deciding upon full legal protection for one of its most prized natural assets, the Western Ghats in their totality, is a major disappointment. The idea that whatever is left of these fragile mountainous forests should be protected from unsustainable exploitation in the interests of present and future generations, while presenting sustainable ways of living to the communities that inhabit these landscapes, is being lost sight of. Quite unscientifically, the issue is being framed as one of development-versus-conservation. Given the weak effort at forging a consensus, there is little purpose in the Centre returning to the drawing board with another draft notification to identify ecologically sensitive areas. What it needs is a framework under which scientific evidence and public concerns are debated democratically and the baseline for ESAs arrived at. It is accepted, for instance, that the Ghats play an irreplaceable role in mediating the monsoon over the country and the forests harbour a rich biodiversity that has not even been fully studied. New species continue to emerge each year in an area that has endemic plants and animals, although, as the scientist Norman Myers wrote nearly two decades ago, only 6.8% of primary vegetation out of the original 182,500 sqkm remains in the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka taken together. The ecologically sensitive nature of the forests stretching 1,600 km along the western coast as a global biodiversity hotspot was emphasised by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel headed by Madhav Gadgil, while for conservation purposes, the Kasturirangan Committee identified only a third of the total area. Both expert groups have encountered resistance from State governments and industries, although they mutually differ in their recommendations.

The question that needs speedy resolution is how much of the Western Ghats can be demarcated as ecologically sensitive, going beyond the system of national parks and sanctuaries that already exist. As a corollary, are other areas free to be exploited for industrial activity, including mining and deforestation, with no environmental consequences? A frequently cited example of destruction is the loss of ecology in Goa due to rampant, illegal mining. More complicated is the assessment of ecosystem services delivered by the forests, lakes, rivers and their biodiversity to communities. Mr. Gadgil, for instance, has underscored the unique value of some locations, such as those with fish or medicinal plant diversity peculiar to a small area, which should not get lost in the assessment process. All this points to the need for wider and more open consultation with people at all levels, imbuing the process with scientific insights. The sooner this is done the better. Several options to spare sensitive areas will emerge, such as community-led ecological tourism and agroecological farming. A national consultative process is urgently called for.





Elusive reconciliation

A United Nations report released last week on the progress of reconciliation efforts by the Sri Lankan government should be awake-up call for President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Raising serious concerns about the delay in addressing allegations of war crimes and in meeting other promises Colombo made when it cosponsored a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council in 2015, the report warns the government that the lack of accountability threatens the momentum towards lasting peace. It also alleges that cases of excessive use of force, torture and arbitrary arrests still continue in Sri Lanka, almost eight years after the country′s brutal civil war ended. Mr. Sirisena came to power on a promise that he would restore the rule of law, end the country′s international isolation and take steps towards reconciliation with the Tamil ethnic minority. The political momentum was also in favour of the government as it had the support of the dominant sections of the two largest parties in the country. In 2015, when Sri Lanka agreed to a host of measures at the UNHRC, including a judicial process to look into the war crimes, hopes were high.

Undeniably, the government has made some slow progress in addressing the issue of reconciliation. Compared to the previous regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Sirisena administration has reached out to Tamils and initiated constitutional and legal reforms. It has also passed enabling legislation to establish an Office of Missing Persons to help find some of the 65,000 people reported missing during the war. But on key issues such as establishing a hybrid judicial mechanism with domestic and foreign judges and returning the military occupied lands to Tamil civilians in the north and east, there has been no tangible progress. The latest UN report comes at a time when over a hundred displaced Tamil families are protesting at administrative offices in the north and east asking for their lands to be returned. For its part, the government may be wary of taking quick decisions for fear of giving some leeway to Sinhala nationalist factions at a time when Mr. Rajapaksa is trying to revive his political fortunes. But this delay is alienating the government′s allies, eroding the faith of the public, especially war victims, and giving more time to the opposition to regroup itself. And issues such as continuing use of excessive force and arbitrary arrests suggest that the government is either not serious in changing the way the police system works or is incapable of doing so. The Sirisena-Wikremesinghe government should seize the moment and start addressing the core issues, keeping reconciliation and the future of Sri Lanka in mind.

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