The Western Ghats is one of 14 biodiversity hotspots in the world, stretching from the Tapti River to Kanyakumari through Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. 63 rivers originate from different locations of the stretch and the lives of the people of the entire Indian peninsula are dependent on them. The area comprises of gentle to steep slopes and supports a huge biodiversity of flora and fauna.
Population growth has resulted in expansion of human areas and consequently diversion of forest lands for development projects such as roads, railway lines, transmission lines, reservoirs for irrigation and power projects, etc. Forests are also denuded and degraded due to heavy anthropogenic pressure of encroachments, grazing, forest fires, illicit cutting of trees for timber, poles and firewood, and illegal collection of non-timber forest products (NTFP) and medicinal plants.
The Forest Rights Act 2006, to safeguard the rights of scheduled tribes and other forest dwellers, was enacted with good intent, but the implementation was tardy as officers came under pressure to accept all claims. In forested districts like North Kanara, Haveri, Kodagu and Shimoga, there was aggressive clearing of forest growth. The communities had the patronage of political masters. Politicians conducted public meetings and encouraged villagers to clear more and more forests and claim title. When the cases were rejected by Deputy Commissioners, they were pressured. Forest officers were silent spectators as tree-growth clearing continued unabated. Areas, where encroachments were evicted, were reoccupied and titles were claimed. It may be time to take a relook at the Forest Rights Act.
The Karnataka (Preservation) of Trees Act was meant to regulate permissions for tree-felling on private lands in the Western Ghats. Not all wooded areas were reserved. Vast stretches, especially in Chikkamagaluru, Hassan and Kodagu districts, were under the control of the Revenue Department. Kodagu district had a number of confusing land tenures; officers, politicians and timber merchants have enjoyed this confusion. Some areas were encroached and much more were allotted for coffee cultivation. Wooded areas lost their character as varieties of timber species were extracted by merchants. Coffee plantations have now a monoculture of silver oak trees. A series of reports by the French Institute of Pondicherry suggest that Kodagu district lost 30% of tree cover between 1967 and 2007. The granting of tree-felling permission on steep slopes in hilly districts is the reason for the flood and landslides that Kodagu faced recently.
The parent soil in the region is ‘banded hematite quartzite’ (BHQ), barring patches where it is of unstable clay origin. Accordingly, soil is lateritic on the top, which is stable, as indicated by the presence of Xylia xylocarpa trees. Kodagu and vast stretches of Kerala belong to this exceptional group of clayey parent material. The absence of Xylia xylocarpa tree in Kodagu indicates that soil is relatively unstable. It is necessary in such tracts that miscellaneous tree species are not extracted, as a precaution against landslides. Unstable soil structure is the reason for failure in fixing Shiradi Ghat road.
In such a fragile ecosystem, large-scale development projects have made matters worse. When we attempt to change the landscape, we clear the tree growth, use JCBs to demolish the hillock, take up construction of tourist resorts, disturb the natural drainage pattern, make layouts in paddy fields, construct ever more roads in the ghat section, etc. The recent flood and landslide were the consequences of our actions.
In Sakleshpur taluk, forest is diverted for a number of mini-hydel projects, which hardly contribute to power generation. We have sacrificed an elephant corridor in an ecologically fragile area. The widening of roads, taking railway line to Kerala through the forests of Kodagu, reviving the Hubbali-Ankola railway line are disasters in the making. The elephant population in the Dandeli Elephant Reserve is steadily increasing. A railway project in North Kanara will fragment the forests, resulting in increased conflict with wild animals. The destruction of forests for such big projects cannot be compensated in economic terms, it has wide-ranging environmental consequences that we cannot mitigate. If we disturb the natural drainage pattern for water and clear the tree growth, what will follow are landslides, flood and droughts, which will have enormous social cost.
The decision of the Government of Karnataka to not accept the Gadgil Report must be revisited. The report proposed three types of Eco-Sensitive Zones to denote where activities are permitted, regulated or prohibited. Activities like quarrying, mining, industries, etc., were prohibited in the Ghats. Ecological issues were to be managed by Grama Sabha. Agriculture was to be practiced only in A and B class of lands. Presently, agriculture is being practiced in class C and D lands, which are to be continued. If the state accepts the report with some modification, it will save the Western Ghats by prohibiting mining, industries, etc., which are the root causes of tree-felling and alteration of landscape.
Felling of naturally growing trees in the Western Ghats should be prohibited, especially in Kodagu and Sakleshpur areas. Clearing these trees for big projects is a sure way to a future disaster. Any plans for layouts, tourism infrastructure, etc., should undergo rigorous scrutiny. Industries and mining, including removal of sand from the river beds, can have disastrous consequences on the environment and should be prohibited.
(The writer is a former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Karnataka)