The inclusion of the Western Ghats in the World Heritage List by UNESCO is a fitting tribute to one of the most fragile and ecologically sensitive areas of the world. These montane forests and their rich biological diversity were included in the very first list of ‘global biodiversity hotspots’ drawn up by scientists at the turn of the century. Today, the Ghats are considered one of eight “hottest hotspots”. With their official listing as natural heritage, India commits itself under the UNESCO Convention to conserve, protect and transmit the 39 chosen sites spread across nearly 8,000 square kilometres to future generations. The challenge to protect the Western Ghats, however, is much bigger because the area of these mountains assessed by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel encompasses a total of 129,037 sq km. This is a vast swathe of ecologically unique habitat, which significantly influences the Indian monsoon. The WGEEP has, in its report, treated the entire region as an ecologically sensitive zone, while recommending that some sub-regions be treated as more sensitive and given higher levels of protection.
India is required by virtue of its participation in the UNESCO Convention to let the listed natural heritage sites “function in the life of the community” and promote scientific and technical studies to counteract harm. The national record on both these counts has been uninspiring and often negative. On the one hand, the Centre has been unable to foster an effective people-driven conservation paradigm using the Forest Rights Act, while on the other, it has been consistently hostile to independent scientific research in protected areas. The new global recognition accorded to some parts of the Western Ghats should help change that, and secure international assistance for conservation. What comes as a source of worry is the approach of some State governments to the larger question of nature protection. Karnataka wanted 10 sites withdrawn from the list submitted to UNESCO, presumably because it wanted to avoid greater scrutiny of incompatible activities such as mining. Kerala, which is keen to have a hydroelectric project at Athirapilly in the forests, has also reacted negatively to the idea of conservation. These trends do not bode well for natural heritage protection. It is beyond argument that the Western Ghats in their entirety represent irreplaceable natural capital, and any people-friendly policy should spare them damaging, extractive pressures that can only aid short-term commerce. Moreover, it should be less problematic now to compensate any financial loss resulting from protection, as India can seek international assistance for a World Heritage site.