Western Ghats – An Ecological Paradise

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The Western Ghats are a mountain range that runs almost parallel to the western coast of Indian peninsula. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the eight “hottest hotspots” of biological diversity in the world. It is sometimes called the Great Escarpment of India. The range runs north to south along the western edge of the Deccan Plateau, and separates the plateau from a narrow coastal plain, called Konkan, along the Arabian Sea. A total of thirty nine properties including national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and reserve forests were designated as world heritage sites – twenty in Kerala, ten in Karnataka, five in Tamil Nadu and four in Maharashtra. The range starts near the border of Gujarat and Maharashtra, south of the Tapti river, and runs approximately 1,600 km (990 mi) through the states of Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala ending at Kanyakumari, at the southern tip of India. These hills cover 160,000 km2 (62,000 sq mi) and form the catchment area for complex riverine drainage systems that drain almost 40% of India. The Western Ghats block rainfall to the Deccan Plateau. The average elevation is around 1,200 m (3,900 ft). Running along the entire west coast of India, the mountains of the Western Ghats are no snow-peaked Himalayas. But what they lack in height they make up for in biodiversity, harbouring an impressive array of India’s wildlife.  The area is one of the world’s ten “Hottest biodiversity hotspots” and has over 5000 species of flowering plants, 139 mammal species, 508 bird species, 179 amphibian species and 288 freshwater fish species; it is likely that many undiscovered species live in the Western Ghats. At least 325 globally threatened species occur in the Western Ghats. Every year several new species are discovered in the Western Ghats. In 2014, scientist discovered a new fish species and rediscovered a rare tree (http://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/researchers-unravel-more-of-western-ghats-diversity/article6292236.ece). Western Ghats are also home to more than 200 varieties of mangoes. 

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Conservation of Western Ghats

(Source: PROTECTING THE WESTERN GHATS: GADGIL VS. KASTURIRANJAN COMMITTEE REPORTS )

The populations of these Ghats are largely dependent on the forest resources of the Western Ghats for their livelihood. The Ghats are also well known for the rich mineral resources. Recently, Multinational Corporations (MNCs) have set up their own mining facilities in these Ghats. Some of these facilities are in the ecologically fragile or the ecologically sensitive areas of the Ghats and are causing greater harm to the ecology of the Ghats. The Mining Corporations are accused of carrying out extensive mining with no regard to environmental safeguards and the livelihood of the local populations. These and other factors such as blatant use of chemical pesticides, mass deforestation for cultivating plantations, industrial development, etc. have at a few places, endangered the subsistence of these populations.

It was in these contexts that the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India set up the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) also known as the Madhav Gadgil Commission and later the High Level Working Group (HLWG) or the Kasturirangan Commission. The ministry decided to review the recommendations of the report submitted by Gadgil panel after chief ministers of various states had complained that it will affect their economies. Both the commissions faced criticisms from the representatives of the Ghat populations, Church Elders and Political Leaders on various counts. A thorough analysis of the findings of both the committees is necessary to understand the contentions of all stakeholders.

One of the major issues on which both the reports vastly disagree is that of the Ecologically Sensitive Zones (ESZ). Reports of both the committees mandate identifying Ecologically Sensitive Zones but there are some variations in the Methodology. While Gadgil Committee identifies the whole of Western Ghats as an ecologically sensitive zone and then follows a 3 layered approach, the Kasturirangan Committee has identified various villages that fall under the Ecologically Sensitive Zone. The Gadgil Committee Methodology takes into consideration various factors like Biological factors, cultural and historic significance, stakeholder evaluation, Hazard vulnerability, etc. On the other hand, the Kasturirangan Committee checks if 20% of the village is covered by vegetation and medium fragmentation if the population density is less than 100/sq. km. The former follows a very subjective approach while identifying ESZs giving immense power to the Local Self Governments while the later has a very straight forward approach with none or a few discretionary powers to the local self governments. In Gadgil Committee’s method final power is given to the Local Panchayats or the Gram Sabhas while the committee provides only scientific background for taking appropriate decision.

Both the committee’s reports have provisions for promoting organic farming. But the issue has been addressed in a detailed manner in the Gadgil Committee’s Report. Gadgil Committee, apart from promoting organic farming, has given a time frame for the farmers to phase out pesticides and weedicides. It is 5 years for Zone 1, 8 for Zone 2 and 10 for Zone 3 and financial and technical support to be given during transition period. While the Kasturirangan Committee’s report talks about organic farming, there is no specific time frame. Surprisingly it promotes cultivation of cash crops like coffee, tea and cardamon; making them a “brand” or possibly a G.I.(Geographical Indication) for the Western Ghats. The Gadgil Committee has come up with a very interesting concept of offering ‘conservation service charge’ to those who maintain natural vegetation, traditional cultivators, traditional breed of livestock, indigenous fishes, and sacred groves. Kasturirangan Committee’s Report fails to address the issue of incentive-for-conservation altogether. Gadgil Committee has also addressed the issue of promoting Animal husbandry. The report talks about restoring community grasslands and forest grazing lands outside the protected areas. But, in their report they have considered the whole of Western Ghats to be a protected area. So, it is not clear how the grasslands will be restored in the Ghats.

Gadgil Committee recommendations prohibit any new polluting (red and orange category) industry in ESZ 1 and 2. It mandates the existing industries to switch to zero pollution and subject to strict regulation and social audit. New industries can be set up in ESZ 3 subject to strict regulation and social audit. It disallows any further mining licences for ESZ 1 and 2. The existing mining facilities are required to be phased out by 2016. Mining facilities in Zone 2 can be reviewed on a case by case basis. The Report permits mining in Zone 3, but only of scarce minerals and subject to social audit and EIA. These are crystal clear provisions giving clarity to the industries for setting up their facilities in these areas. On the other hand, Kasturiranjan Committee puts a blanket ban on highly polluting (red category) industries in ESZ 1 while permitting all types of industries in other zones.  This will be very dangerous to the ecology of these regions considering the current levels of pollution especially in the water bodies. Furthermore, it bans mining in areas where no mining takes place.

With regards to energy and power, the Gadgil Committee has specific provisions relating to setting up of energy generation facilities. The report allows new hydropower projects up to 10MW in ESZ 1; 10-25MW in ESZ 2 and larger projects in ESZ 3. It promotes biomass based or solar energy sources which do not harm the ecology of the region and sustain the local energy needs. The report also recommends decommissioning of dams and thermal projects which have crossed their viable life span (it is 30 to 50 years), those which are either underperforming or outlived their utility, silted up beyond acceptable standards, etc. The panel had recommended that no thermal power projects should be allowed in the ESA and the hydropower projects should be allowed only after “a cumulative study which assesses the impact of each project on the flow pattern of the rivers and forest and biodiversity loss” is conducted. The report fails to recommend concrete guidelines on what type of projects should be discontinued.

Implementing the recommendations of either of the committees will result in some sort of financial loss to the Western Ghats (WG) States. Both the Reports have recommended measures for financial compensation to the WG States. The Gadgil Committee puts the ball in the Centre’s court. It suggests that the Central Government should arrive at ways to compensate the WG states for their contribution to preserving the country’s large share of forests in their land area. Kasturirangan Committee has come up with an innovative measure of compensation. It recommends of a measure called ‘Debt-for-nature-swap’. Debt-for-nature swaps are financial transactions in which a portion of the developing state’s debt is forgiven in exchange for local investments in environmental conservation measures.

Both the reports have provisions for Ecologically Sensitive Zones (ESZs) or Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESAs). The methodology of both the committees in identifying these ESAs is different and so are the provisions for managing them. The Gadgil Committee follows a bottom up approach wherein the Government of India will create a Western Ghats Ecology Authority to manage the ESAs. The authority will consist of 33 members including a Chairman who will be a retired Supreme Court judge or an ecologist. Other members will include representatives of nodal ministries, experts in forestry, ecology, hydrology, soil science, etc, representatives of a dominant tribal group and one representative of Civic Society from each state. The committee also recommends a State Western Ghats Ecology Authority which will be chaired by a retired judge or an expert ecologist and nine other members. The members will consist of an environ-legal expert, ecologist, 3 eminent civil society representatives, Chairman of the State Pollution Control Board, Principal Secretary of the Dept. Of Environment and Forests, Representative of the State Planning Commission, Chairman of the State Biodiversity Board and a member secretary. On the other hand, Kasturirangan Committee’s Report follows a top down approach. According to the Kasturirangan Committee’s Report a High Level Working Group (incorporating 6 Chief Ministers, heads of the existing departments) and a Decision Support and Monitoring Centre will manage the ESAs.

Both the committees have a different approach towards development. The Gadgil Committee recommendations reflect an objective of completely decentralized development where local communities are empowered. The Committee recommends that let the local populations decide what they want and what they do not want. Its process of development is by inclusion and not exclusion of the local communities. Its recommendations focus on ensuring livelihood to the affected communities but certainly do not recommend their translocation. Kasturirangan Committee’s report is more focused on enabling development in the Ghats but has few provisions for the direct welfare of the local people. It also follows a top down, undemocratic approach in which the local communities have no say in deciding their own future. Such a system will derail the democratic process and may infuriate the local populations due the lack of participation in the decision making process. It is important that the recommendations from both the committees which serve the best interests of the Western Ghats ecology and its local population are adopted and implemented. Politics over the implementation of reports will only hamper the conservation efforts of this biodiversity hotspot!

Way Forward

Former Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh had voiced support for the Gadgil plan of action while the various states whose revenue is going to be affected, not only favoured the Kasturirangan Report over the Gadgil Report but instead some even criticized Kasturirangan Report for not granting more land for industrial activities. According to me, the Gadgil approach seems to be a more favourable, sustainable and environment-friendly approach. My support for the Gadgil plan stands on the following grounds for conservation:-

  1. We can always conduct more studies, surveys and researches for adopting more industrial-friendly policies in the future. Adopting Kasturirangan plan right now will lead to an irreversible situation wherein we will be at the risk of losing this ecosystem forever.
  2. There needs to be a more far-sighted approach while measuring the effects of industrial activities. True, the country will gain revenue and GDP in the short-run but if we lose this ecological heritage, we are at the risk of losing lives due to burgeoning pollution levels, our wildlife heritage, numerous medicinal rare plants and herbs, long-term revenue generation through an array of activities like tourism, MSMEs (Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises), SHGs (self-help groups), environmental value loss, etc.

There need to be lot more studies conducted to move towards sustainable development in the sensitive Western Ghats region. Jai Hind.

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