Context: The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has come out with a draft notification proposing 56,825 square kilometre area of the Western Ghats as an ESA and providing guidelines on development projects in the region.
About the Western Ghats
- The Western Ghats, also known as ‘Sahyadri’, constitute a 1600 km long mountain chain along the west coast of India
- It runs parallel to the West coast of India from the river Tapi in the north to Kanyakumari in the south.
- It covers a total area of 160,000 square kms and traverses through six States viz. Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
- It experiences tropical humid climate in lower reaches, and climate is cooler in the upper reaches. The western side of the Ghat receives more rainfall than the eastern side
- There are four major forest types in the Western Ghats: evergreen, semi-evergreen, moist deciduous, and dry deciduous
- Western Ghats was declared as a world heritage site in 2012 by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
Importance of Western Ghats:
The Western Ghats perform important hydrological and watershed functions. It feeds large number of perennial rivers of peninsular India including the three major eastward-flowing rivers Godavari, Krishna, and Kaveri. The peninsular Indian states that receive most of their water supply from rivers originating in the Western Ghats
Role in monsoon:
- The mountains of the Western Ghats and their characteristic montane forest ecosystems influence the Indian monsoon weather patterns that mediate the warm tropical climate of the region
- The Ghats act as a key barrier, intercepting the rain-laden monsoon winds that blow from the south-west during late summer.
- The forests of Western Ghats play a significant and important ecological function in sequestration of atmospheric CO2 and hence have an important role in climate change. It is estimated that they neutralize around 4 million tonnes of carbon every year- around 10% of emissions neutralised by all Indian forests
- Western Ghats along with its geographical extension in the wet zone of Sri Lanka are now also considered one of the eight ‚hottest hot spots‛ of biodiversity
- The Western Ghats contain exceptional levels of plant and animal diversity and endemicity. For example, 52% tree species found in western Ghats are endemic, 65% of amphibians found here are endemic.
- At least 325 globally threatened (IUCN Red Data List) species occur in the Western Ghats.
- The Western Ghats are rich in iron, manganese and bauxite ores in parts of their ranges
- Pepper and cardamom, which are native to the evergreen forests of the Western Ghats have been taken up as plantation crops on a large scale. Other large scale plantations include tea, coffee, oil palm and rubber.
- The forests of Western Ghats are important source of timber and support a large number of forest-based industries such as paper, plywood, poly-fibres and matchwood.
- The forest based communities of western Ghats have been deriving sustenance from the forest by collecting non-timber forest produce (NTFP)
- There are number of tourist centres that have sprung up in the Western Ghats; example: Ooty, Thekaddy WS etc. There has been important pilgrimage centres in the region- prominent amongst these being Sabarimalai in Kerala, Madeveshwaramalai in Karnataka and Mahabaleshwar in Maharashtra.
Threats to Western Ghats:
- With a steep increase in iron ore prices and demand for lower grade ores, mining activities have grown rapidly especially in Goa and often in violation of all laws, resulting in serious environmental damage and social disruption.
- Sand mining has emerged as a major threat in Kerala. Unsustainable mining has increased vulnerability to landslides, damaged water sources and agriculture, thus negatively affected the livelihoods of the people living in those areas
- Livestock Grazing: Livestock grazing within and bordering protected areas by high densities of livestock (cattle and goats) is a serious problem causing habitat degradation across the Western Ghats.
- Human-wildlife conflict: Given that the Western Ghats exists within an intensely human-dominated landscape, human-wildlife conflicts are a common phenomenon. For example, villagers living close to Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary in the State of Karnataka, lose approximately 11 percent of their annual grain production to raiding elephants annually (CEPF).
- Extraction of forest produce: Human communities living within and adjacent to protected areas in the Western Ghats are often dependent on extraction of NTFPs to meet a diversity of subsistence and commercial needs. With rising population and changing consumption patterns, sustainability of NTFP is a critical issue.
- Plantations: Plantations owned by private individuals and corporate sector continue to grow in the Western Ghats and constitute an important source of fragmentation of natural habitat.
- Encroachment by human settlements: Human settlements where legal and/or traditional rights of land ownership occur both within and outside protected areas all across the Western Ghats and represent a significant landscape level threat.
- Pollution: The unrestricted use of agrochemicals in the vicinity of forests, particularly in tea and coffee estates, causes serious damage to aquatic and forest ecosystems.
- Hydropower projects and Large dams: Large dam projects in Western Ghats have resulted in environmental and social disruption despite cost benefit analyses and environmental impact assessments being done by the government and companies
- Deforestation: Conversion of forest land into agricultural land or for commercial purpose like tourism, illegal logging for timber have had significant negative effects on biodiversity.
- Climate change: The changes in land use and deforestation have led to big variations in the duration and intensity of rainfalls. Climate change has been considered as a cause of floods in many regions in recent past.
Government Efforts for Conservation:
- Government has taken measures to conserve the fast declining biological diversity with the establishment of Protected Area network, tiger reserves and biosphere reserves. Nearly 10 per cent of the total area of Western Ghats is currently covered under protected areas
- The government has also taken initiative to demarcate Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESA.) These areas are not just about regulation of development but are also intimately linked to positive promotion of environment-friendly and socially inclusive development.
Note: An ecological sensitive area (ESA) is a bio-climatic unit (as demarcated by entire landscapes) in the Western Ghats wherein human impacts have locally caused irreversible changes in the structure of biological communities (as evident in number/ composition of species and their relative abundances) and their natural habitats.
Committees and Recommendations
Gadgil Committee Report, 2011
Ministry of Environment & Forests had constituted the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) under the Chairmanship of Prof Madhav Gadgil in 2010 to primarily demarcate ecologically sensitive areas in Western Ghats and recommend measures for management of these ecologically sensitive areas.
- WGEEP designated the entire Western Ghats as an Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA) and, assigned three levels of Ecological Sensitivity to different regions of it:
- Ecologically Sensitive Zone1 (ESZ1),
- Ecologically Sensitive Zone 2 (ESZ2) and
- Ecologically Sensitive Zone 3 (ESZ3).
- Establishing a Western Ghats Ecology Authority through a broad-based participatory process when it is put in place.
- It recommended that no new dams based on large scale storage be permitted in Ecologically Sensitive Zone 1 as defined by the Panel.
- For Goa, WGEEP recommended an indefinite moratorium on new environmental clearances for mining in Ecologically Sensitive Zones 1 and 2, a phasing out of mining in Ecologically Sensitive Zone 1 by 2016 and continuation of existing mining in Ecologically Sensitive Zone 2 under strict regulation with an effective system of social audit.
- It recommended constitution of a Western Ghats Ecology Authority (WGEA), as a statutory authority under the Ministry of Environment and Forests, with the powers under Section 3 of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.
- It specified a bottom to top approach for governance of the environment. It also called for Establishment of fully empowered Biodiversity Management Committees in all local bodies
- The Gadgil committee report was primarily criticised for being too environment friendly and impractical to implement.
- The states opposed the report citing that a complete eco-sensitive cover for the Western Ghats would hamper the states on energy and development fronts.
- The Gadgil committee was also criticised for vehemently opposing construction of dams, ignoring the importance of dams for generating power.
- Political opposition came on the recommendation of handing over decision-making activities of taluks to a Western Ghats Ecological Authority
Kasturirangan Committee Report, 2013:
The Kasturirangan committee was constituted to examine the WGEEP report
- It makes a distinction between the so called ‘cultural landscape’ and ‘natural landscape’ with 41% as “natural landscape”, having low population impact and rich biodiversity. Rest of the 59% as “cultural landscape” with human settlements and agricultural fields
- Unlike Gadgil Committee, it designated only 37% of the Western Ghats as ESA
- It recommended a complete ban on mining, quarrying and sand mining in ESA.
- It recommended strengthening the existing framework of environmental clearances and setting up of a state-of-the-art monitoring agency.
- Gadgil has criticised the Kasturirangan Committee report for replacing the the pro-people and pro-nature attitude of the WGEEP report with an autocratic approach in terms of development and ecological conservation and ignores the role of people and local government.
- The report used remote sensing and aerial survey methods for zonal demarcation of land in the Western Ghats which had led to many errors. For example, it included many villages under Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESA) where there was no forest land at all.
- It has been criticised for keeping the vast stretches of Western Ghats in the category cultural landscapes, out of the purview of ecologically sensitive areas.
Following an order from the National Green Tribunal, the environment ministry has come with the 4th draft of Western Ghats’ ESA or ‘no-go’ zone.
What does the draft say?
- The latest draft calls for a complete ban on mining, quarrying and sand mining in the ESA. It states that all existing mines shall be phased out within five years from the date of issue of the final notification or on the expiry of the existing mining lease.
- It also states that no new thermal power projects and expansion of existing plants shall be allowed in the ESA. Further, all ‘Red’ category of industries (highly polluting), specified by the pollution control boards, and their expansion shall be banned.
- It also prohibits building, construction and township (of built up areas of 20,000sq.m and above) in the ESA
- Area development projects (area of 50 hectares and above) have also been prohibited
- Lack of knowledge: A major challenge to conservation efforts in Western Ghats is lack of complete understanding of distributional patterns, habitat requirements and conservation status of plants and animal species.
- Development vs. Conservation: The biggest challenge in conservation of western Ghats has been the development vs. conservation dilemma. A prime reason of states opposing recommendations on ESA has been the fear that conservation process would hamper economic development of the region and would also deprive a large number of people of their livelihood
- Apathy of state governments: The environment ministry had made several attempts to finalise ESA for Western Ghats but the previous drafts lapsed due to no response from the states, which reflects poorly on the states and governance.
- There is an urgent need to examine the mechanisms by which land use change affects biodiversity, which in turn will improve our understanding of how human-modified landscapes need to be managed in order to sustain and improve their biodiversity conservation value.
- There is a need for better understanding of the role of biodiversity in ecosystem functions and related ecosystem services. This would also help in eliciting greater civil society support and enhanced political will to conserve the Western Ghats.
- There is a need for policy changes that promote better management of human-wildlife conflict, financial incentives to encourage biodiversity-friendly farming and other incentive schemes such as payments for ecosystem services.
- Land use policy and law enforcement should ensure that illegal hunting, deforestation, land use change and other human actions that contribute to livelihoods but hamper biodiversity conservation are kept in check.
- A balance between conservation efforts and development should be sought and concerned state governments should come to a consensus for implementation of ESA in Western Ghats.