Preservation of Eastern and Western Ghats
18th Mar, 2020
A public interest litigation petition has been filed in the Madras High Court seeking a direction to the Centre and the State government to constitute a permanent body for taking serious and practical steps to safeguard the flora, fauna and other natural resources in the Eastern and Western Ghats in Tamil Nadu.
- The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests had constituted the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel under the chairmanship of acclaimed ecologist Madhav Dhananjaya Gadgil, who submitted a report in 2011 followed by another report by the Kasturirangan committee.
- However, their recommendations were not implemented in letter and spirit.
- The present case has been filed based on the recommendations made by the Madhav Gadgil and Kasturi Rangan
Gadgil and Kasturi Rangan Committees Reports:
- Prof. Gadgil Committee and Dr Kasturirangan Committee recommended measures for long-term preservation of this ecologically fragile landscape.
- Gadgil committee report recommended declaring the entire Western Ghats landscape as Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA), divided under three sub-zones, with a ban on mining, thermal power plants, polluting industries and large dams, and the inclusion of local communities in biodiversity conservation and promoting eco-friendly activities.
- Since this report rubbed many the wrong ways, the Kasturirangan committee was set up to review the Gadgil committee report.
- The Kasturirangan committee recommended incentivising green growth that promotes sustainable and equitable development bringing a large part of the Ghats area under the ESA.
- Although, as compared to the Gadgil Committee report, the area of 56,000 sq km recommended by the Kasturi Rangan Committee report was significantly reduced and included around 68-odd existing Protected Areas covering around 17,000 sq km area.
What is the issue?
- The natural resources abundantly available in the Western Ghats are being properly utilised by other regions, except Tamil Nadu.
- The exceptional reasons are not germane but it may not be out of place to mention that the Western Ghats in Tamil Nadu are being misutilised and mismanaged not only by the administrators but also by the public at large.
- Most reserve forest areas in these hills were protected by the Forest Department under the Tamil Nadu Forest Act of 1982 and Wildlife Protection Act of 1972.
- The region is facing the following challenges:
- Ineffective implementation: The Tamil Nadu Hill Areas (Preservation of Trees) Act of 1955 is in force in certain parts of these hills but it is not implemented effectively in the absence of popular support. As a result, the protection of the trees in private holdings has become a challenge.
- Illegal deforestation: By making use of the loopholes in the Act and other government rules, trees are felled and removed clandestinely. These activities have made the hills of the Eastern Ghats barren, its streams have run dry and the biodiversity is disappearing gradually.
- Illegal trade: Large-scale plantations of coffee, tea and orchards have been raised in these hills. Aromatic and valuable trees like sandal are removed illegally.
- Degradation: The forests are getting degraded because of illicit collection of firewood, illicit grazing and illicit felling of trees.
- Hunting & poaching: Despite the Wildlife Protection Act, hunting takes place in some pockets.
- Though various initiatives had been taken by the government to protect the ecology, all of them remain only on paper though the State had a constitutional duty under Article 48A to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife in the country.
- Now, the petition demands to constitute a permanent body for taking serious and practical steps to safeguard the flora, fauna and other natural resources in the Eastern and Western Ghats.
- A permanent body can be constituted either through an Act of Parliament or an executive order (resolution of the Union Cabinet).
- If the body is constituted by an Act of Parliament, it will become a statutory body.
Learning about the mountain ranges:
- Western Ghats:
- The Western Ghats comprise of the mountain range running parallel to Western Coast of India along the Deccan Plateau.
- States covered: It runs to around 1.6 lakh sq km, from Kanniyakumari to Gujarat. It starts from Gujarat through:
- Maharashtra (58,400 sq km)
- Goa (1,075 sq km)
- Karnataka (43,300 sq km)
- Kerala (28,100 sq km)
- Tamil Nadu (28,200 sq km)
- Highest peak: Anamudi is the highest peak in the Western Ghats. It lies in Tamil Nadu.
- Major rivers: Three major rivers of South India that is Krishna, Godavari and Kaveri - all originate from the Western Ghats.
- The Western Ghats have been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
- The Western Ghats are the only region in India among the 8 such regions in the world which have been regarded as the “hottest hotspots” of biological diversity.
- The Eastern Ghats in the south is a discontinuous range of mountains along India's eastern coast.
- The Eastern Ghats run from the northern Odisha through Andhra Pradesh to Tamil Nadu in the south passing some parts of Karnataka.
- Major rivers: They are eroded and cut through by the four major rivers of peninsular India, known as the Godavari, Mahanadi, Krishna, and
- The Eastern Ghats are older than the Western Ghats. Though not as high as the Western Ghats, the eastern ghats also boast of a wide list of sanctuaries, national parks, hills, rivers and waterfalls providing great natural aesthetics to the entire region.
- In Tamil Nadu, the Ghats comprise the Javadhi Hills, Yelagiri, Balamalai, Bargur, Servarayan, Bodhamalai, Chitheri, Kalrayans, Kolli Hills, Pachamalai, Piranmalai, Semmalai, Sirumalai, Karanthamalai, Azhagar Malai, etc.
- The hills run west and south-western to merge with the Western Ghats near Doddabetta in the Nilgiris.
Importance of the regions:
Treasure trove of wildlife
The Western Ghats mountain range running down the south-west side of India is a treasure trove of wildlife.
Not known as widely as the Western Ghats, the Eastern Ghats biospheres are also major ones, with rich forests, perennial and semi-perennial streams and other natural resources.
The Western Ghats are also the source of a lot of the rivers that supply water to millions of people.
These hills get an average 1,000 millimetres of rainfall, mostly from the north-east monsoon. Major rivers originate here and their water irrigates lakhs of hectares at the foothills and nearby plains.
It has particularly impressive populations of large mammals – for instance around 30% of all Asian elephants and around 18% of wild tigers, spread across a number of wildlife sanctuaries, tiger reserves and national parks.
They are habitats for wild animals such as elephants, panthers, the Indian bison, bears, deer, wild boar, slender loris, mongoose, jungle cat, wild dogs, porcupine, hare, toddy cat, monkey and reptiles such as python, monitor lizard, etc.
What are Eco-Sensitive Areas?
- ESAs are defined as those areas ‘that are ecologically and economically important, but vulnerable even to mild disturbances, and hence demand careful management’.
- Therefore ‘ecologically and economically important’ areas are those areas that are biologically and ecologically ‘rich’, ‘valuable’ and or ‘unique’, and are largely irreplaceable if destroyed.
- There are three important categories of attributes that need to be considered in defining the ecological salience/significance/sensitivity of an area: physico-climatic features (geo-climatic features), biological features and social relevance (including cultural, economic and historical importance) of the area.
- All these may be grouped as:
- abiotic attributes
- biotic attributes
- anthropological or socio-cultural attributes
Challenges to the region:
- Water stress: Drinking water shortage and depletion of groundwater are emerging as major environmental issues.
- Exploitation: They have a rich biota and a fragile ecosystem, which is being degraded by illegal logging and exploitation of forest wealth. Also, tribes living in these hills for ages, have been exploited by the wealthy, politically strong mafia.
- Pressure of urbanisation: As India's economy grows, increasing urbanisation, roads and rail are putting pressure on these areas.
- Unsustainable tourism: Haphazard and unsustainable tourism development is additionally playing havoc with the natural ecosystems of the region.
- Illegal hunting & poaching: The region is facing major threats including illegal hunting and indiscriminate plant collection by some local communities.
- Human-animal conflict: Indiscriminate destruction of forests has increased human-animal conflict in recent years. Water scarcity and a threat to habitats drive animals to cultivated lands and human habitations in search of food and water.
The Road ahead:
The efforts to save the regions of the Western Ghats and the Eastern Ghats is a journey, which is long and arduous. There are lots of stands to take, lots of agitations to start, lots of decisions to make. For now, the government should formulate strict policies and development should be built on strong ecological foundations that ensure an environmentally sound and sustainable future to people and prevent the extinction of myriad species of beautiful landscapes in the country.