Context: Devolution of power to protect the Western Ghats
About the Western Ghats:
- One of the 34 Biodiversity hot spots of the world, the Western Ghats, together with the west coast form an important ecological region, springing from the Arabian Sea coast to the montane heights of over 2,000 m.
- The Western Ghats straddle the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra, and southern Gujarat. Just as the Himalayas preside over the biogeography of India, the Western Ghats to a large extent presides over the ecology and biogeography of Peninsular India.
- More like rolling hills than snow-covered mountains, the Western Ghats-stretching some 1,600km from the north of Mumbai to the southern tip of India-are a biodiversity hotspot that contains a large proportion of the country’s plant and animal species; many of which are only found here and nowhere else in the world.
Threats facing by Western Ghats:
- Forest destruction in river catchment areas: Deforestation of upper catchments of rivers for timber, river valley projects and plantations has drastically reduced the capacity of the hill streams that feed into the rivers to hold and recharge water.
- Dam construction: Most of the rivers in the Western Ghats are either dammed or diverted and many of the reservoirs especially in the steep valleys are silting up prematurely due to the massive encroachment and deforestation of catchments consequent to dam construction. Idukki dam is a classic case wherein the entire catchment was encroached along with dam construction
- Agricultural practices: The expansion of commercial plantations in the Western Ghats has led to fragmentation of forest, soil erosion, degradation of river ecosystems and toxic contamination of the environment
- One of the most crucial ecological issues of great concern is that degradation and contamination of soil and water in the upper reaches of the Ghats gets carried downstream leading to the degradation of midlands and coastal regions.
- Live stock rearing: Normally indigenous livestock adopts with the Ghats ecology, but the introduction of exotic crossbreeds has disturbed the entire production systems and the traditional knowledge on feeding and healing is being eroded.
- Grazing issues: One of the major challenges being faced by the cattle keepers in recent years is the conversion of grasslands and degraded lands for various plantations, e.g. bio-fuel plantations, and other activities under government programmes thereby reducing the grazing land
- Forestry and biodiversity management: The British introduced the current system of Forest Management in India some 150 years ago with claims that it was a scientific system that would result in sustainable harvests.
- Both these claims of scientific basis and of sustainability are of dubious validity. Science must stand on solid bedrock of empirical facts. An important weakness of so-called scientific forestry is the lack or poor quality of its database.
- Poor implementation: In the decade-and-a half since PESA act was passed, the promise of PESA tragically remains mostly unrealized. The legislative and executive work, which state governments were meant to undertake, still remains incomplete.
- Further, as the above reading of the law shows, PESA envisaged a radical shift in the balance of power-from the state apparatus and from the economic and political elite to the community.
Measure to protect the Western Ghats with devolution of power:
- Local self- government level: Decentralized water management plans to be developed at least for the next 20 years. Water resource management plans with suitable watershed measures, afforestation, eco-restoration of catchments, rainwater recharging and harvesting, recycling and reuse etc. should be built into the plans.
- These water management plans should integrate into basin level management plans. The objective is to reduce the dependence on rivers and external sources and to improve recharge.
- Encourage use of organic manures: Self-help groups/ local entrepreneurs should be supported to set up units for the manufacture of organic farming material such as good quality organic manure, oil cakes, and bio-fertilizers so that good quality manure can be assured on time and reduces ground water pollution
- Agro-biodiversity conservation with local participation: A participatory plant breeding and crop improvement programme needs to be launched at the Panchayat level with farmers, including women, to restore traditional varieties and develop good varieties suitable for each locality. Conserving locally adaptive varieties may also become extremely relevant in the context of climate change
- Legislations: Joint Forest Management (JFM), Extension of Panchayati Raj to Scheduled Areas (PESA), Protection of Plant Variety and Farmers’ Rights Act (PPVRFA), Biological Diversity Act (BDA) and the Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Rights over the Forest) Act (FRA) have conferred substantial rights over natural resources to local communities and governments should devolve the powers as mentioned in these acts.
- Environmental Impact Assessment: For mining within the Western Ghats, cumulative EIAs must be made mandatory rather than entertaining EIAs for individual leases in the same areas.
- Local energy: Micro and mini hydel projects in eco sensitive areas in the Ghats should be designed more to meet local power demand and not to feed to the grids as power lines are needed to evacuate power from these plants
- Transportation: All future proposals for railway lines and roads should undergo a thorough environmental and wildlife impact assessment. There should be a subcommittee (comprising all relevant stakeholders and local communities and tribes) to assess the environmental and ecological impacts of constructing any transport infrastructure through rich forests, wildlife habitats and wildlife corridors.
- India has realized the importance of involving local communities in forest protection and management, and has developed several policies and implemented large programmes such as Joint Forest Management programme.
- India has multiple institutional approaches to forest protection and management. However, in spite of its rich experience in forest management through traditional initiatives, JFM, social forestry and farm forestry, the genuine involvement and empowerment of local communities is limited.
- It is necessary to use this vast experience and existing policies to formulate and implement appropriate policies, including transfer of financial powers, and institutions to promote sustainable and participatory forestry under the emerging programmes and mechanisms