Western Ghats
Western Ghats: A treasure for now, or forever?WikiCommons/Karunakar Rayker

A view from the skies reveals them as a green, velvety stretch of raised, undulating land sporting some brown patches here and there. On ground, they tower over the landscape with peaks veiled by clouds.

Believed to be the eroded fault edges of the Deccan Plateau, the Western Ghats in southern India is believed to have been formed almost 150 million years ago during the break-up of the supercontinent of Gondwana.

Perhaps it is the leftovers from that ancient history that the ghats carry in the many exotic and unique species of plants and animals. Recognising their value, around 39 sites in this biodiversity hotspot have been designated World Heritage Sites by Unesco.

By end October the final verdict on the Western Ghats will be decided. The revised draft notification put up by the ministry of environment invites public opinion on a plan to put a stop to indiscriminate industrialisation of the region while promoting sustainable development.

What constitutes eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) in the biodiverse hotspot of the country is the bone of contention. The draft notifies little over 35% of the region as eco-sensitive, with rest of the Ghats open to 'development' other than mining, thermal plants and 'severely' polluting industries.

That is a long way downhill from what was originally recommended. The Western Ghats Ecology Experts Panel headed by ecologist Madhav Gadgil submitted its report in 2012 designating the entire region as ecologically sensitive zones, assigning three levels of sensitivity and effectively placing 75% under protected areas or highly sensitive zones (ESZ1 and ESZ2).

No new dams based on large scale storage would have been permitted in level 1 areas. These would include the Gundia and Athirapally projects. Neither would any industry - polluting or severely polluting -- allowed. Pulling up monoculture plantations, the report did not view favourably the farmlands and estates in the ESZs.

The panel was criticised as environment-friendly and neglecting the needs of the people. Human rights groups accused the Gadgil report as negating human livelihood to conserve environment.

This was despite the fact that the WGEEP did not prescribe boundaries or specify regulatory activities to be undertaken in the ESZs, but had proposed these must be based on inputs from local bodies.

The WGEEP was merely going by its brief which largely centred around assessing and suggesting measures for protection of the eco-sensitive ghats. However the report was clear that "change in land use not be permitted from forest to non-forest uses or agricultural to non-agricultural, except agricultural to forest (or tree crops)" unless needed to accommodate an increase in the local population.

Following a hue and cry from landowners, mostly from Kerala, another high level working group (HLWG) headed by space scientist Kasturirangan was asked to take a relook, with an added mandate of equitable economic and social growth in the region and rights of local people.

That one brought the ESZ number down to 37%. In an area covering 60,000 square km, the report recommended prohibition of destructive activities while allowing agriculture and public infrastructure like roads, schools and hospitals.

But even that report faced public hostility as it declared over 4000 villages as lying in ecologically sensitive areas. The HLWG report was again reviewed and the latest notification has further brought down the area under ESZs to 56,825 sq kms of the total Western Ghats area. It removed cash crops and plantations from the WGEEP list that had banned them from ESZs.

The latest draft says that all existing mines in the ESZs will be phased out in five years. No new thermal power plants and expansion of existing ones will be allowed.

Industries like distilleries, sugar, fertilisers, cement, tanneries, petrochemicals that fall under the 'red' category of heavily polluting will also not be allowed in the zones. Interestingly this number has been brought down from 89 (in 2012) to 59 by a redefinition of the category by the central pollution control board.

According to the ministry sources, the notification is the same as what was issued in March this year but has been issued freshly to avoid a lapse and to invite public comment as well as the finalised proposals by the states.

The ministry even recently when speaking to government representatives of the southern states assured the ministers that the lives of about 50 million people living in Western Ghats region will not be affected. In effect, this is seen as assuring that existing agriculture and plantation will not be touched.

Given the rampant encroachment of 'unclaimed' forest land in our country, the least that the ministry, that is meant to preserve the environment, can do is to ensure that there is a strict check on that.

On the crucial aspect of energy projects, with many small hydel and wind projects planned in the region, a strict evaluation of environmental costs balanced against the benefits should be done.

The Gadgil report was especially critical of such projects that "exploit resources" like the one in Bhimashankar sanctuary.

Madhav Gadgil is a very disappointed man today. Speaking to this writer on the sidelines of an aborted seminar on environment, he noted: "Indian governments have always treated the environment shabbily. Now i have lost all hope."

The Western Ghats is 1490 km long and upto 210 km wide, with an area of 1,29,037 square km. It is home to 25% of India's biodiversity and one of the world's eight biodiversity hotspots with over 5,000 flowering plants, 139 mammals, 508 birds and 179 amphibian species.

Many of these endemic species are globally threatened. Undiscovered new species are still being discovered in the Western Ghats ever year, noted the WGEEP.

More significantly, many rivers like Godavari, Nethravathi, Krishna, Vaigai, Kaveri, Kunthi and numerous streams originate from the Western Ghats. Many have been dammed for irrigation and energy generation.

Try tell the significance of the region on the water availability to those voices raised against the review reports and expect a reversal in stance!

Much like any other 'abstract' themes like climate change, biodiversity preservation fails to win champions because there is no immediacy to the danger it presents. Saving a few frogs or snakes or even tigers does not seem to be related to human welfare.

But as famous entomologist E O Wilson puts it, "Biodiversity is the totality of all inherited variation in the life forms of Earth, of which we are one species. We study and save it to our great benefit. We ignore and degrade it to our great peril."

As human population continues to exert pressure on land and resources, there is need to address development but what is required is sustainable development.

According to the Brundtland report in 1987 which first recognised the unity of development and environment, sustainable development is that which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Spanning around 1,29,030 sq kms, the Western Ghats which is a treasure house of resources and species constitutes a mere 4% of the country's area. Can we not take up development projects elsewhere in the country, and preserve what conservation biologist A J T Johnsingh calls "the legacy for humankind"?

Ultimately the wrangle over protection of the biodiverse hotspot begs the almost theological question of what humans were made for - exploitation or stewardship of the planet?

[Disclaimer: This article reflects the writer's personal opinion and does not necessarily represent the views of IBTimes India.]

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