Civil Service Essay — Preserving the Western Ghats
Saving the shrinking Western Ghat
Today’s crying need is to demarcate the ecological sensitive areas of this priceless natural heritage
Regrettably, the central government appears to be dragging its feet over the matter of comprehensive legal protection to the famed Western Ghats. This swathe of land, so ecologically critical, is shrinking inexorably under pressure of human habitation and industrialization. Unquestionably, whatever remains of the Western Ghat must be reserved for the present generation and posterity.
There are communities living inside the parameters of the Western Ghat. Without uprooting them from their habitats, it would be good idea to train them in ways of sustainable living where they do not over-exploit the flora and fauna of their surrounding areas. Sadly, this is not being done.
Many in the government and in the society see this issue of continuing human habitation inside the sensitive Ghat areas as one of development versus conservation. Such thinking is anything but myopic.
The correct approach would be to reach a consensus between the groups advocating ‘development’, and those pleading for ‘conservation’. The central government has expediently skirted this task. Instead, it wants to re-start the process of demarcation of the ecologically sensitive areas (ESA). A draft notification to this effect has been issued.
Clearly, this initiative is a step back in time. It would achieve little. It would have been appropriate to bring in the collected scientific evidence and the public concerns to the same table and initiate a health democratic discourse. Decisions so reached should guide all future action with regard to demarcation and preservation of the ESA.
That the Western Ghats bring in and regulate monsoon showers is well known. So is the fact that the forests are the habitat to myriad species of animal life. In fact, newer forms of species, particularly frogs and other aquatic animals are being continually discovered in this area. The Ghats are an epic biodiversity reserve.
It is shocking to note that some two decades ago, the scientist Norman Myers, through extensive field surveys quantified that just about 6.8% of the original 182500 square kilometers of the primary vegetation in the combined Western Ghat and Sri Lank areas have survived human exploitation.
The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel headed by Madhav Gadgil had unequivocally drawn attention to the need for protecting the 1600 kilometer long Ghat along Indian peninsula’s western coastline.
Ther Kasturirangan Committee identified only a third of the total area as ecologically sensitive. It is sad to note that both these committees received a frosty response from the state governments and industry bodies, despite the fact the two expert bodies had different perspectives and reached different conclusions. Undoubtedly, they were not biased.
Stepping aside from the lapses in the past, the task that needs the uppermost attention is to demarcate the contours of the ecological sensitive region (ESA). Due to obvious reasons, the yardstick followed for national parks and sanctuaries do not quite fit for ESAs.
After the ESA is demarcated, one should be mistaken to believe that environmentally ruinous activities like mining, setting up of chemical plants can be set up just outside the ESA perimeter. That would defeat the purpose of marking the ESA limits.
Goa has gone into an ecological tailspin due to greed-driven unfettered mining. The reversal of this damage is an uphill, almost impossible task.
Communities that live in the lap of lakes, rivers, forests etc. do live off their environment’s resources. How to achieve an equilibrium between the humans and the surrounding ecosystem is a complex question.
There are relatively small pockets of land that abound in medicinal plants and fishes. For human living in these stretches draw their sustenance from these natural resources. Mr. Gadgil has aptly underlined the importance of these smaller pockets of land. He has pleaded that the process of demarcation of ESA is a larger exercise. While undertaking this task, one should not lose sight of the ecological vulnerability of these small areas holding invaluable natural bounties.
Given the enormity and complexity of the task of ESA marking, the authorities must try to bring on board scientists, NGOs, concerned public individuals, and the ordinary people living in the area for the consultative process. The more the stake holders participating in the discussion, the better will be the soundness of the recommendation. No more time should be wasted in initiating this process.
Hopefully, areas where the communities actively participate in environmental preservation through promotion of ecological tourism and agro-ecological farming will qualify for rigid safeguards against further human exploitation. On the whole, widest possible consultation on time-bound basis holds the key to this looming problem.