At our mercy

At our mercy

The Western Ghats is a treasure trove of natural diversity. It spreads over an area of 1,29,037 sq km, across Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

The annual rainfall in these ranges varies from as much as 8,000 mm in the upper Nilgiris to a mere 500 mm in the Moyar gorge, just 30 km to its east. It creates isolated habitats, far away from other similar habitats, promoting local speciation. About 27 per cent of the country’s total species is known to be from the Ghats.

Studies show that between 1920 and 1990, about 40 per cent of the original vegetation cover in the southern region of the Ghats, comprising Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu was lost. Currently, only about 7 per cent of the area is under primary vegetation cover. Modern agricultural practices, widespread quarrying, tourism and associated constructions have wreaked havoc in these ranges for the past two decades.

In view of the complex interstate nature of its geography, the environmental sensitivity and ecological significance of the region, the Ministry of Environment and Forests constituted a Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel in March 2010 under the headship of Madhav Gadgil, the founder of Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

The panel was asked to assess the current status of the Western Ghats and demarcate areas which need to be notified as ecologically sensitive for their conservation, protection and rejuvenation. It was also entrusted the job of recommending the modalities for the establishment of a Western Ghats Ecology Authority under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, a professional body to manage the ecology of the region and ensure its sustainable development with the support of all states concerned.

The panel obtained extensive inputs from the civil society as also government agencies and technical experts with the help of a series of consultations with civil society groups and field visits. The panel submitted its report to the government in August 2011.

When the Gadgil Committee report was released, neither the state governments nor political parties made any effort to translate the report into regional languages or take it to the people for discussion. From the time of the release, the land-forest-contractor mafia, with the backing of vested interests, was spreading various rumours and misleading information about the panel.

The tourism-real estate mafia also had a strong resentment against the report since their lands come under the ecologically fragile area. Due to such lobbies fighting the report tooth and nail, the Forest Ministry was forced to set up another high level working group, under the leadership of space scientist K Kasturirangan, to study and modify the report submitted by the panel. The group submitted its report on April 15, 2013.

While the panel recommended that 67 per cent of the Western Ghats be considered as ecologically sensitive and developmental activities be restricted there, the working group recommends that only 37 per cent (60,000 sq km) of the area, including the existing protected areas, be notified ecologically sensitive.

The blanket ban on large scale hydroelectric projects in the sensitive areas suggested by Gadgil is lifted by Kasturirangan to pave way for small hydropower projects (10 MW and below).

Reports misread

The working group, however, suggests banning the construction of buildings over the size of 20,000 sq m and townships on more than 50 hectares. It disallows new thermal power plants, railway lines and major roads, except where it is highly essential. The report also suggests re-connecting children and youth to their environment through education programmes, focusing on local environmental issues, especially on degradation of natural resources — land, water and air.

Though there were practically no recommendations in these two reports against the interests of the farming community, a lot of erroneous campaigns were launched against both the reports by political parties and a section of a community in Kerala, which has even issued circulars wrongly interpreting the reports and fanning fears of the people.

Ecology and development were estimated as contradictory aspects, compelling people to choose between the two. According to the Indian Forest Law, at least 66 per cent of the hilly areas in the Western Ghats should have forest cover. Even if the Kasturirangan proposals are accepted, the required forest coverage for such regions will be just half of this. Incessant encroachment of forest land for settlements have destroyed a major portion of the ghats in Idukki and Wayanad districts of Kerala.

Several acres of reserve forests in these districts are also leased out by government for plantations. The lease period of such government lands being already over, the lessees are afraid that the ecologically sensitive area demarcation will affect them adversely. Agitations help to camouflage such illegal possessions from public scrutiny.

The beautiful swathe of Western Ghats has been torn apart by the greed of the elite and gnawed at by the poor who are struggling to survive. This is a great tragedy, for this hill range is the backbone of the ecology and economy of south India. An attempt has to be made towards an inclusive, caring and environment-friendly mode of development of this precious region.

The latest happenings in the Himalayan ranges are nothing but a by-product of the ‘development paradigm’ pursued by us. The struggle against ecological catastrophes requires a holistic approach with sacrifices on the part of local residents and proactive decisions by the governments, not bothering the least about votes. Spreading false stories about GDP growth, more production, more employment, etc to support the wanton destruction of ecology is not a healthy trend.

The impacts of massive destruction of virgin forests to accommodate unauthorised human settlements, tourist shelters and other developmental projects in sensitive bio-diversity spheres are causing catastrophes in various parts of the world. The fabled biblical land of milk and honey is today buried under desert sands due to over-grazing and soil erosion from the slopes of the Mesopotamian hills which was the source of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.

While protests may put pressure on the government against the implementation of the report, and help politicians and religious leaders gain brownie points with their respective constituencies, they also need to take note of the writing on the wall. Forest is the mother of rivers.

It is the same politicians who protest against such reports that make a beeline to New Delhi for drought and flood relief when calamities strike due to the lack of proper forest protection.

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