Rapacious projects imperil Western Ghats ecosystem

Over 21 lakh trees to face the axe
Last Updated 18 July 2019, 08:28 IST

Home to fragile ecosystem with lakhs of floral and faunal species, the Western Ghats in Karnataka is hailed as one of the world’s key biodiversity hotspots. Spread across six states, the majestic mountain range is at the centre of Peninsular India’s food and water security as the hills spanning 1,60,000 square km form the catchment area for several rivers that cater to about 40% of the country. But the delicate ecosystem today stands on the precipice of destruction as various linear projects are lined up for final approval from the state and central governments.

The projects, if given clearance, would unleash an ecological mayhem on the lines of Kerala and Kodagu, severely affecting the people of all riparian states. The dense vegetation in the region is attributed to bounteous monsoon in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu as they add a significant quantity of moisture to the southwestern winds. However, putting at stake thousands of acres of pristine forests, the governments at both the state and the centre have not only been toying with the idea of development but also contemplating to cut through the dense vegetation terrain with several road projects.

As per available reports, more than 20 linear projects have been planned requiring cutting of more than 21 lakh trees in the region.

T V Ramachandra of Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru says that the government through its projects would kill one of the most sensitive ecological regions of the world. “It is nothing but a perilous thought which will end in the destruction of Western Ghats. These projects would not only disturb the ecological fragility of these mountains but also affect the water and food security of the vast geographical area,” Ramachandra opines.

A study by the researchers of IISc on estimating the carrying capacity of these mountain regions across Uttara Kannada, Shivamogga and other districts has revealed a rise in the mean temperature and gradual reduction in the annual precipitation.Another research by the IISc team points that in the entire Sharavathi basin that spans Uttara Kannada and Shivamogga, the loss of vegetation resulted in the reduction of rainfall by 100 to 200 mm while triggering the mercury levels to rise by at least one to two degree centigrade during the peak rain months of June-July.

Dinesh Holla, convenor of Sahyadri Sanchaya, a group working towards conservation of Western Ghats, has observed that in recent times grass along the mountains has begun to turn yellowish in October itself which otherwise would be a general phenomenon in January-February. “These grasslands will help retain the water which will be later fed into the rivulets and small streams through the Shola forest. But with the loss of moisture, the water inflow into several streams that form the tributary of major rivers like Nethravathi and Kumaradhara is reducing with every passing day,” he explains.

Ramachandra further cautions, “Nature has been consistent in warning the humankind over rapacious development at the cost of forest and wildlife. While all of us are aware of what happened in Kodagu and Kerala, the same had happened during 2009-10 in Karwar. But we fail to notice and learn. Wherever the linear projects have come up, the detailed research by experts has revealed that streams in the vicinity have become seasonal and despite heavy rainfall this year, they are bone-dry as early as in November. The barren landscape has to be blamed for this. These perennial rivers hav

e been the source of water and food in these two states.”

Of the seven districts in Karnataka that form a part of the Western Ghats, the degradation of forest is highest in Kodagu and Shivamogga followed by Dakshina Kannada and Uttara Kannada. Most of the linear projects, especially the roads, have been routed through Shivamogga.

To pave way for development, vegetation in the highest rainfall areas like Agumbe shall be axed for the project. Widening of NH 169 from Shivamogga to Mangaluru passing through vegetation-rich Koppa and Karkala will see axing of about 1,500 trees. Project to lift water from Linganamakki to quench the thirst of Bengaluru would also result in the cutting of one lakh trees. Similarly, the railway line between Talaguppa and Honnavar would result in cutting of more than two lakh trees. Widening of the road between Sagar and Kollur passing through Sharavathi Valley and Kollur Mookambika Wildlife Sanctuary will bring down about one lakh trees.

The region is the last surviving habitat for the endangered lion-tailed macaque and cutting of trees would only further reduce the number of these primates. Even more controversial is the widening of Shivamogga-Honnarva National Highway which proposes to cut over two lakh trees.

A similar proposal of laying a new road between Byrapura and Shishila has left the people of Chikkamagaluru and Dakshina Kannada agitated. “When you have three major National Highways connecting the coasts with the hinterland, where is the need for another road? By contemplating the road through evergreen forests, the government is only playing to the demands of powerful contractors’ lobby as they will be the only beneficiaries. The government has already completed alignment survey in the region and waiting to award contract for the preparation of detailed project report. The road will require axing of more than 50,000 trees spread across three reserve forest areas,” explains Veeresh Moodigere, an activist and campaigner from Chikkamagaluru.

Kali River (Photo credit: Dr B L Sowjanya)
Kali River (Photo credit: Dr B L Sowjanya)

Recovering from the worst catastrophe in recent times, Kodagu seems to have woken up to the cause and a steady dissent is fast brewing against the unscientific development. Having lost about 50,000 trees for laying of transmission line between Mysuru and Kozhikode a few years ago, Kodagu will soon have four highways. “A few days after the landslides that displaced 1,400 people in Kodagu, the government has proposed to build four highways on a terrain that is susceptible to further landslides. Areas prone to landslides need more trees to hold the soil tight. In a few years, the temperature will increase and the area would reel under severe shortage of water,” says Col (Rtd) Sundar Muthanna, president of Coorg Wildlife Society in Madikeri.

The IISc studies in the Cauvery basin across Kodagu revealed that the district had 50 per cent of its geographical area under dense evergreen forest four decades ago. But today, the same has been reduced to a mere 17%.

In fact, a group of people from Malnad districts petitioned the state government following a large scale destruction in Kodagu. Listing various projects that are in the pipeline along the Western Ghats, the petitioners informed the Chief Minister that a whopping 21,69,500 trees will be cut for these projects in the next four to five years and demanded that a sustainable solution needs to be evolved to tackle floods, landslides and drought incidents in the Malnad region.

Ramachandra says, “The rivers that drain Karnataka have their origin in the Western Ghats region. If the government is committed to ensure availability of potable water to the entire state, then it must immediately stop these projects. Development needs to happen but not at the cost of environment and ecology. The government must contemplate other scientific measures or if needed, drop the project permanently to keep the region recognised as sensitive by experts like Madhav Gadgil and K Kasturirangan intact.”

(Published 10 November 2018, 16:49 IST)

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