Saving Western Ghats
On February 27, the government issued a draft notification which will be open to public comment for 60 days — allows the Centre to create an Ecological Sensitive Area (ESA) in the Western Ghats, a 1500 km, ecologically-rich strip along the west coast spanning Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Goa, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
- Regions declared as the ESA will not be allowed to host mining and quarrying projects and building thermal power plants.
- It would pave the way for fresh representation from States on how much area could be demarcated as the ESA.
Some commentators say thishesitation 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.
Importance of Western Ghats
- Ghats play an irreplaceable role in mediating the monsoon over the country.
- 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 sq km remains in the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka taken together.
- UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee inscribed the Western Ghats of India as a world heritage site ensuring the mountain range, spread across seven states, gets international support for its conservation.
- Older than the Himalayas, the Western Ghats mountain chain is recognised as one of the world’s eight “hottest hot spots” of biological diversity.
- The Western Ghats are very important to peninsular India. They are home to the sources of major rivers like the Krishna and Godavari. It has important horticultural and agricultural species and rich bio-diversity that helps in climate-proofing the region.
- They form the major watershed in peninsular India affecting rainfall patterns across the country.
- They also neutralize an estimated 4 million tonnes of carbon every year – about 10% of the emissions neutralized by all of India’s forests.
Dangers in Western Ghats
- The Ghats have shrunk by 25% over the past decadesaffecting rainfall patterns, river flow, water supply and climate across large swathes of the country.
- Illegal mining, quarrying, thermal power projects and red-category industries within sections of the Ghats threatening all forests.
- Projects in these corridors will drive away wildlife and increase the incidences of man-animal conflict.
- With the government intent on maintaining the state’s image as industry-friendly at any cost, environmentalists say further development will see the Ghats shrink further, affecting rainfall patterns across the country and placing endangered species in further danger.
- The main threats impacting freshwater biodiversity in the Western Ghats include: pollutionwith approximately 50% of fish threatened, and with urban and domestic pollution ranking as the worst threats followed by agricultural and industrial sources of pollution;
Madhav Gadgil Report recommendations
- On the basis of careful and extensive compilation of information, and wide-ranging field visits, consultations and analysis, the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) under Madhav Gadgil has designated the entire Western Ghats as an Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA) and, assigned three levels of Ecological Sensitivity to different regions of it. These are termed as
- Ecologically Sensitive Zone1 (ESZ1),
- Ecologically Sensitive Zone 2 (ESZ2) and
- Ecologically Sensitive Zone 3 (ESZ3).
- A number of specific proposals received by the Panel from individual Gram Panchayats as well as NGOs from different parts of the Western Ghatsare referred to as Ecologically Sensitive Localities (ESL).
- Establishing a Western Ghats Ecology Authority through a broad-based participatory process when it is put in place.
- WGEEP advocates agraded or layered approach, with regulatory as well as promotional measures appropriately fine-tuned to local ecological and social contextswithin the broad framework of ESZ1, ESZ2 and ESZ3.
- WGEEP recommends that no new dams based on large scale storage be permitted in Ecologically Sensitive Zone 1 as defined by the Panel.
- For Goa, WGEEP recommended an indefinite moratorium on new environmental clearances for mining in Ecologically Sensitive Zones 1 and 2, a phasing out of mining in Ecologically Sensitive Zone 1 by 2016 and continuation of existing mining in Ecologically Sensitive Zone 2 under strict regulation with an effective system of social audit.
- It also recommended that in Ecologically Sensitive Zones 1 and 2, no new polluting (red and orange category) industries, which would include coal-based power plants, should be permitted to be established; the existing red and orange category industries should be asked to switch to zero pollution by 2016, again with an effective system of social audit.
- The Panel urges the Ministry of Environment and Forests to take a number of critical steps toinvolve citizens. These would include:
- Pro-active and sympathetic implementation of the provisions of the Community Forest Resources of the Forest Rights Act,
- Establishment of fully empowered Biodiversity Management Committees in all local bodies,
- Promotion of programmes on the pattern of ‘Conservation of biodiversity rich areas of Udumbanchola taluka’ formulated by the Kerala State Biodiversity Board,
- A radical reform of Environmental Impact Analysis and Clearance processes,
- Pro-active disclosure of all information of public interest interpreted in the broadest possible sense,
- A revival of the Paryavaran Vahini programme, and
- Institution of a social audit process for all environmental issues on the model of that for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in Andhra Pradesh
Kasturirangan Panel report on Western Ghats
- It makes a distinction between the so called ‘cultural landscape’ and ‘natural landscape’ with 41% as “natural landscape”, having low population impact and rich biodiversity.
- Rest of the 59% as “cultural landscape” with human settlements and agricultural fields
- So, they took a stand that instead of declaring entire Western Ghats as ESA, the panel said that 90 per cent of the “natural landscape” should be protected based on the percentage of forests, population density of villages and the richness of the biodiversity in villages.
- Effectively as per the Kasturirangan committee ~37.5 % of the total area of the Western Ghats is ecologically sensitive.
- Other Recommendations
- Supervising forests and bettering their productivity to ascertain inclusive growth and economical gains for local communities.
- Removal of the cash crop plantations such as rubber, agricultural fields and settlements should be from the protection regime.
- Integrating forest accounts into state and national economic assessments
- Initiating an ecosystem service fund to help villages around the forests
- Promoting sustainable agriculture Encouraging ecotourism for local benefits.
- Establish a Decision Support and Monitoring Centre for Geospatial Analysis and Policy Support in the Western Ghats, which will supervise changes and propose state government on policy reform and all such reports must be in the public domain.
- High-resolution map, delimiting ecologically sensitive areas, down to each village settlement, must be put in the public domain so that people can be involved in taking decisions about environment.
- A ban on all polluting industries (including mining) categorised as most hazardous in the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, and Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.
- The Forest Rights Act, 2006, that recognises the rights of dwellers on forest resources, will be implemented in letter and spirit and the consent of Gram Sabhas concerned will be mandatory for any project. Strict regime for Hydro-power projects. These include cumulative impact assessment of such projects and ensuring minimum water flow in the rivers in the lean season.
- Set up a body to assess and report on the ecology of the region and to support the implementation of ESA to be set up.
- Ban on mining, quarrying, thermal power plants and highly polluting industries within 60,000 sq km of the Ghats. Projects will be allowed only after the approval of the gram Sabhas concerned.
Criticism of the Government
- 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.
- The issue is being framed as one of development-versus-conservation.
- The weak effort at forging a consensus, there is little purpose in the Centre issuing notification to identify ecologically sensitive areas when what it needs is a framework under which scientific evidence and public concerns are debated democratically and the baseline for ESAs arrived at.
- Neglect of the Madhav Gadgil Report and Kasturirangan Panel report on protection of Western Ghats. 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.
All these points need 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 agro-ecological farming. A national consultative process is urgently called for.
- In view of their wealth of endemic species, the Western Ghats form a genetic reserve of fundamental importance that has to be preserved at all costs. Critically evaluate the stance of the government in conservation of it.
- We are a developing country with huge energy needs but there are looming dangers of climate change and erratic monsoons due to anthropogenic causes. How to balance this in the latest conundrum of the context of Western Ghats?