To know, is to protect

On May 23, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) posted the report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) on its website honouring a landmark judgment of the Central Information Commission triggered by an activist seeking access to the material. In this judgment, the CIC noted that the Ministry argues that the release of the report, containing the methodology for demarcation of ecologically sensitive areas (ESA), to the public without adequate consultations at governmental level to refine the boundaries may lead to an influx of public proposals for declaration of eco-sensitive zones. The Ministry contended that this would impact economic progress and interests. The CIC noted that implementation of ESA proposals, before or after the finalisation of the WGEEP report, is an executive decision. Mere apprehension of proposals being put forth by citizens committed to environmental protection cannot be said to prejudicially affect the scientific and economic interests of the country. Given this background, we are being naturally asked to explain the whole issue of ESAs. While the Report discusses this in detail, we attempt to provide here a brief explanation. While doing so, we wish to emphasise that WGEEP has not come up with a set of rigid prescriptions, but seeks to provide a basis for informed discussion involving the various levels of governance including the gram sabhas/ward sabhas.

WGEEP mandate

The MoEF constituted WGEEP in March 2010 with a mandate to demarcate areas within the Western Ghats Region which need to be notified as ecologically sensitive, and make recommendations for conservation, protection and rejuvenation of the Western Ghats following consultations involving people and State governments. It was also required to recommend the modalities for the establishment of the Western Ghats Ecology Authority (WGEA) under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 (EPA).

Ecologically sensitive areas

The concept of ecologically sensitive areas is very much an Indian invention, rooted in attempts by civil society to use the EPA to promote sustainable development alongside protection of the natural heritage. The term ‘Ecologically Fragile Area' was first used in 1991 for Dahanu Taluka in Maharashtra, followed by the declaration of other ESAs like Mahabaleshwar-Panchgani and Matheran. These are all initiatives of civil society organisations or are a consequence of a resolution of the Indian Board for Wildlife in 2002 to protect areas up to 10 kilometres from the boundaries of wildlife sanctuaries and national parks.

Initially, there were no guidelines available on what areas may be considered ecologically sensitive, nor on working out an appropriate management regime. These issues were addressed in 2000 by the Pronab Sen Committee. The Sen Committee's foremost criterion for identification of ESA is endemism. Western Ghats harbours well over two thousand endemic species of flowering plants, fish, frogs, birds and mammals amongst the better known groups of organisms, and thousands more amongst less studied groups. Amongst themselves these span the entire Western Ghats and all conceivable habitats, including highly disturbed ones. The Western Ghats region also qualifies as an ESA under several other Sen Committee criteria.

A layered approach

WGEEP fully endorsed the conclusion that the entire Western Ghats tract should be considered ecologically sensitive. However, the tremendous heterogeneity of environmental, social and economic conditions in the region led WGEEP to follow a layered approach: firstly, to recognise three levels of ecological sensitivity over the region, designated as ESZ1, ESZ2 and ESZ3; secondly, to suggest that the final delimitation of the zones as well as formulation of locality specific management regimes be undertaken by involving local bodies. This requires going beyond the Sen Committee's qualitative criteria and assigning quantitative sensitivity scores to specific localities. In its 2000 report, the Sen Committee had called for systematically mapping and recording base-line ecological data for the country, as also to design and operationalise a comprehensive ecological monitoring programme and network through a participative approach. Unfortunately, neither had happened. There had, however, been one development of significance, that of district-wise Zoning Atlases for Siting of Industries (ZASI) by Central and State Pollution Control Boards. However, MoEF has not released this exercise; as a result, WGEEP had to start from scratch.

Manifold challenges

WGEEP thus needed to address manifold challenges; formulate the non-standard concept of ESAs, solicit suggestions from civil society and gram sabhas on constituting ESAs, develop a database on ecological parameters for the Western Ghats region, assign Ecological Sensitivity scores and delineate zones of different levels of Ecological Sensitivity over the region, suggest management strategies and, finally, suggest mechanisms for building upon what was necessarily a preliminary exercise. WGEEP attempted this in a fully transparent, participatory mode, at the same time observing due scientific discipline.

Ecological Sensitivity being a non-standard concept, WGEEP began by organising a web-based discussion, and publishing a paper in Current Science. The following working definition was arrived at: ESAs as those areas that are ecologically and economically important, but vulnerable even to mild disturbances and hence demand careful management. Since sensitivity scores had to be arrived at within a year over this extensive tract, our focus was on accessing pertinent computerised databases. Fortunately, several were available: the Western Ghats boundary, boundaries of States, districts, talukas, Shuttle Radar Topographic Mission (SRTM) 90 m resolution data, Protected Areas, forest types of India, percent forest, unique evergreen elements, forest with low edge, Enhanced Vegetation Index of MODIS, riverine forests derived through drainage and forest cover, data on endemic plants, vertebrates, and dragonflies-damselflies, Red list Mammals, Important Bird Areas, and Elephant Corridors.

Such exercises, like the globally accepted Important Bird Areas, naturally involve subjective elements, but we sought to put it on an objective scientific basis by explicitly stating the methodology and making public the nature and quality of the information used, along with its limitations. Amongst the major lacunae in our information base was of habitat continuity, and weakness of information on streams, rivers, wetlands, and ground water and leaving out issues of significance for the coast and coastal plains, such as mangrove forests and khajan lands.

Using the most readily quantifiable of the data, we have assigned gridwise scores. Thus, the highest maximum altitude within any grid for a State is assigned the maximal score, and all other grids are ranked relative to this score. An average of scores for all other quantifiable parameters is then calculated to assign a sensitivity score to each grid. The scores are calculated separately for each state since there is a marked north-south gradient in terms of ecological variables from river Tapi to Kanyakumari.

Grids with scores at the level of Protected Areas and above within the same State were assigned to ESZ1 category. This threshold is appropriate since the government has accepted since 2002 that areas adjoining Protected Areas need to be constituted as ESZs. About 25 per cent of grids with scores at the lower end were assigned to ESZ3 category to cater to development needs, and the balance to ESZ2. This implied a decision to treat up to 60 per cent of grids as belonging to PAs and ESZ1, and about 75 per cent of the grids as belonging to PAs, ESZ1 or ESZ2.

Given that the national goal is to maintain 66 per cent of area under forest cover in all hill tracts and that the Western Ghats is a region of special significance, we considered it appropriate to aim at 75 per cent being treated as areas of high or highest significance.

Next steps

The data base, methodology and conclusions of WGEEP relating to ESZs need to be widely exposed to scientific, as well as public scrutiny. All this material should be made available in all regional languages as well, communicated to every local body and feedback obtained from people at grass roots. Such an exercise is not a pipe-dream; it was successfully accomplished for Goa Regional Plan 2021. The feedback should then be compiled, assimilated and appropriate decisions arrived at to ensure that the rich natural heritage of the Western Ghats is protected and utilised in a sustainable fashion, while equitably sharing in the benefits that flow.

(Madhav Gadgil, a former Professor of Ecology at the Indian Institute of Science is Member, National Advisory Council; Ligia Noronha is Director, Resources, Regulation and Global Security, The Energy and Resources Institute. They were members of WGEEP.)

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