Development pressures are threatening the very existence of this ecosystem. M.A. Siraj runs through some of the proposed conservation prescriptions

The new government in Delhi will have the most pressing task of finding a suitable formula for conservation of the environment in the Western Ghats. During the last five years, two panels, viz., Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) and High Level Working Group (HLWG) have come out with their reports recommending measures to conserve the environment. Though the latter report has been accepted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, discontent runs high among several sections of stakeholders.

The Western Ghats is the lifeline for the people inhabiting the vast peninsular India. Stretching over 1,600 km, it covers a 160,000 sq. km area. With annual rainfall ranging from 50 to 700 cm, major rivers of peninsular India descend from its eastern slopes and traverse the entire south India to drain into the Bay of Bengal, thereby ensuring farming and livelihood to almost 300 million Indians.

Bio-diversity hotspot

It has been designated as one among the world’s eight ‘Hotspots of Biodiversity” as it harbours nearly 4,000 species of flowering plants and over 1,350 vertebrates with high degree of endemism, besides great variety of insectsnestling in its lush green forests. Its ecological diversity ranges from wet evergreen forests and shola grasslands to tropical dry deciduous forest and dry thorn forest. Human presence here can be traced back to 12,000 years and is still home to traditional tribes like Todas, Kotas, Soligas, Kurumbas, Irulas, Kanis and numerous others.

Besides all these, the Western Ghats is today home to 50 million people in six States viz., Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. While its dense forests act as massive carbon sinks, farming in the entire Southern Peninsula depends on the rivers descending down its slopes. Majestic peaks of the mountain range also considerably influence the behaviour of monsoon in the region. But development and habitat pressures are threatening the very existence of this life supporting system. Developmental activities, plantations, transport networks, mining, dams etc., have led to considerable degradation of the environment of this vast hill ranges during the last 150 years. Livelihood and development issues have got so entwined with preservation and conservation of environment in the region that even reports by two panels have not satisfied all the stakeholders.

Discontented stakeholders

The WGEEP headed by noted ecologist Madhav Gadgil presented his report in August 2011 which was made public in 2012 following an order of the Central Information Commissioner (CIC). With dissatisfaction running high, the Government appointed the HLWG which presented its report in October 2013. While the Gadgil report wanted the entire Western Ghats declared as Environmentally Sensitive Area (under three levels of protection), the HWLG headed by scientist Kasturirangan suggested that 37 per cent of the total area, roughly 60,000 sq. km, be brought under the ESA. This is the major area of difference between the two reports.

Besides this, the HWLG recommended that the Planning Commission should create a special Western Ghats Development Fund, which shall be used to promote programmes targeted at implementing an effective ESA regime and encourage green growth in the region. All development projects located within 10 km of the Western Ghat ESA that require environment clearance shall be regulated as per the provision of the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification 2006. The HWLG makes the gram sabhas of the villages as the unit for taking decisions and issuance of NOC for future projects. The Kasturirangan Committee reportedly used higher resolution satellite imagery than the Gadgil Committee while demarcating the ESA. As a whole the HWLG has sought to balance the environmental concerns and development needs. But it has not gone down well with the environmentalist groups in the country.

The HWLG report has been received differently in different States. Kerala has rejected both the reports. With three-fifth of Kerala’s area falling under the Western Ghats region, the reaction is understandable. Moreover, Kerala has been pursuing its case for some major hydropower dams such as Ethirappally with the Ministry of Environment and Forests, so far without success.

Thirdly, settlers, who moved into hilly districts around 1940s and who contributed hugely to make the area habitable, will be the most affected if economic and developmental activity were to be banned.

Karnataka’s objections

Karnataka has accepted the HWLG report but not in toto. The State Government has accepted the ban on mining activity, but wants quarrying and sand extraction to be allowed. It also wants the number of villages identified as ecologically sensitive to be brought down from 1,576 to 850.

It has also sought clearance for hydropower and drinking water projects such as the 400 MW Gundya.

Of Karnataka’s total geographical area of 1,91,791 sq. km, Western Ghats taluks measure up to 44,448 sq. km involving 11 districts fully or partially.

Ecologist Raman Sukumar of the Indian Institute of Science, who was a member of the WGEEP, feels that the two reports could be reconciled rather than throwing away the WGEEP report. Speaking recently on the topic “Western Ghats: Confusion over Conservation” organised by the Karnataka Institute of Public Administration, he said the latter panel i.e., HWLG should have “refined” the recommendations. Bureaucrat A. Ravindra says the degradation in the Western Ghats is seen to be believed. He recalled that the forests covered 82 per cent of the land area of Uttara Kannada half a century ago while he was posted there.

“The fact that it had now shrunk to less than 50 per cent should be a sufficient alarm.”