In commissioning a High-Level Working Group headed by the space scientist K. Kasturirangan to study the recommendations of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), the Ministry of Environment and Forests hoped to resolve an impasse. It now appears that far from nearing resolution, the question of preserving and ensuring holistic development of the Ghats is enmeshed in more controversy. The miraculous survival of this 1,500 km long mountainous and forested area into the 21st century in a populous country underscores the need for careful preservation. That must take place, however, without ignoring the development aspirations of millions of people who live in areas that are no longer part of the ‘natural landscape.’ The challenging task before the Centre now is to distil the output of the two expert panels and finalise a framework that keeps the ecologically fragile areas out of danger. Its first priority must be to save what is not already lost. This process requires patient assessment of scientific evidence on the flora, fauna and ecological significance of habitat, especially those involving proposed hydroelectric projects such as Athirapilly and Gundiya. Relying only on satellite remote sensing data would miss the value of solid research done on the ground.
The Madhav Gadgil WGEEP recommendations were opposed by States which host the Ghats on specific grounds such as restrictions on building roads, infrastructure and hydroelectric projects in vast Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESA). There is now an alternative view available from the HLWG, which has demarcated a smaller area for core protection as ESA, and suggested a mining ban there. But its sympathetic approach to hydroelectric projects in ESAs — even with conditionalities — is bound to alarm conservationists, since biodiversity loss and severe negative impacts for downstream communities are well-known outcomes of such activity. The States involved should remember that these forested mountains mediate the monsoon storm systems in peninsular India, providing an average of 3,000 mm of precipitation annually on the Western slopes. Moreover, as a globally-acclaimed biodiversity hotspot, these forests have priceless flora and fauna. In their totality, they are a small part of the land that is under protection. The Centre and the six endowed States have a duty to safeguard them. The suggestion made by the Kasturirangan group to institute a compensatory funding mechanism to offset losses suffered by States that cannot use natural resources — a debt for nature swap — is worthy of serious consideration. Relaxation of norms for intensive development, however, should be confined to non-forested areas.