60,000 square kilometres of the Western Ghats have been turned into an Ecologically Sensitive Area. The order comes in after much wrangling over a decision which should have been easy enough to make. GT takes a closer look at the road blocks.
What are the Western Ghats? And why is there such a furore about their protection?
T he Western Ghats are a 1,500 km long hill chain running from the border of Gujarat and Maharashtra, across Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala and ending at Kanyakumari.
The diversity of bio resources found here is spectacular and matchless. It holds 39 World Heritage Sites – including national parks, reserve forests and wildlife sanctuaries. As one of the 10 hottest Biodiversity Hotspots in the world, it houses over 5000 species of flowering plants, 139 mammal species, 508 bird species and 179 amphibian species. 325 of these are globally threatened. Thousands of these species are endemic.
And to this day, many remain undiscovered! It has lakes and reservoirs; reserves of metals and minerals and natural resources… Need we say more?
Who did what?
l May 2013: A reluctant Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) was forced to make public the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) report that was commissioned in response to a Public Interest Litigation. The WGEEP, headed by the noted ecologist Madhav Gadgil, recommended
dividing the Ghats into three Zones with different levels of activity allowed in each. The experts also called for a ‘participatory approach’ to conservation AND development by involving local people in decision-making. But a hue and cry rose from states such as Kerala and Karnataka, about how their business (read mines) and agriculture (read housing projects) would be affected by this demarcation. This prompted the MoEF to do what it does best – set up another committee.
l August 2012: K Kasturirangan, Member of the Planning Commission of India came to helm this high level working group (HLWG) to look into the report of the WGEEP.
The plan of action?
Curiously, the MoEF dilly dallied on the HLWG report as well. Having had enough, the Supreme Court stepped in and gave the Ministry time till November 12, 2013 to make up its mind and come out with it.
And the winner was – the Kasturirangan Committee report! As the Panel had suggested, MoEF decided to turn approximately 60,000 square kilometres of the Western Ghats across six states into an Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA) under the Environment Protection Act, 1986. Mining, quarrying, thermal power plants and polluting industries in these areas are now banned. All other projects need to be approved by the gram sabhas (village councils) in the zone. Townships and buildings are strictly not allowed over 20,000 square metres in the region. The panel has proposed rules for hydroelectric projects which would be upheld.
What do the naysayers say?
The Kerala government was quick to protest. Claiming that the rights of farmers and residents in the ESAs to fend for themselves would be affected, it staged protests and called for reviewing the report.
Why are they wrong?
“Close to 60 per cent of the Western Ghats region is under cultural landscape — human dominated land use of settlements, agriculture and plantations,” said the report while keeping these same areas out of ESAs. Extremely polluting industries and devastating mining are banned , not people.
Action so far?
Environmentalists are skeptical of how effective bringing a mere 37 per cent of this vast area would be effective in protecting it.
Action on the ground? Nothing. Apart from setting up committees and playing hide and seek with their reports, no official action has been initiated to protect the Western Ghats. It might be late in coming, but this draft notification is an official first step. We can just hope that it would be followed by many more, less tentative ones.