Environment Day Special: Hands Off the Western Ghats—Why Every Indian Should Care

An Initiative by Jhatkaa.org

Jhatkaa’s Save the Western Ghats campaign aims at engaging citizens in understanding and taking action on the issue of protecting the Western Ghats. The Western Ghats are one of only 8 “hottest” Biodiversity hotspots in the world and support a population of 50 million Indians directly, including more than 40 indigenous, forest dependent communities. With the Central Government aiming to put in place new forms of protection for this region (by implementing the questionable recommendations of the Kasturirangan Committee) the role of citizen engagement becomes paramount in ensuring the scales do not tilt any more in the favor of industrial lobbies.  Here are the answers to FAQs by Jhatkaa Team:  

What is this about? Why should I read this?

The Western Ghats are one of the most important ecologically sensitive zones in the world. In the world. Not just in India. They are under serious threat from unregulated development related deforestation. If things don’t change soon, we will see the beginning of the end of this ecological treasure within our lifetimes. We need to speak and be heard NOW. Click here to know how you can help.

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But isn’t it more important to develop the country and make room for the growing population than just save some trees?

The Western Ghats are not just some trees. They are responsible for a whole bunch of precious things. Read on to know what we will lose if the Western Ghats continue to disappear.

The Western Ghats are home to 25% of India’s biodiversity with close to 10,000 tree and plant species, almost 1,000 bird, animal fish and amphibian species and more than 6,000 insect species. More than 300 of these species are globally threatened. Undiscovered new species are still being discovered in the Western Ghats ever year.

The Western Ghats are largely responsible along with the Himalayas for the overall climate we enjoy in India. In addition to protecting us from the full force of the monsoons, the trees absorb water from the rains and then let them out over time for a prolonged and gentler monsoon. The Ghats also protect us from floods, storms and other natural calamities.

The tree cover across the massive area of the Western Ghats provides sustenance, water and protection from intense heat for most of the southern states. The areas close to the Ghats still enjoy temperate climates while the rest of the country suffers under intense heat wave conditions. The Ghats are also the source of sustainable food, water and electricity.

The Ghats are one of the last surviving tropical forests in the world. The Amazon rainforests are under serious threat and it took intense activism to slow their destruction. These forests are responsible for keeping our planet inhabitable. With every tree we lose, the greenhouse gases raise temperature and ocean levels more and more towards the possible end of all humanity.

If the Ghats are so important, why isn’t the Government doing something about this?

The Indian Government has been trying to do several things to protect the Ghats. There have been forest acts and initiatives to protect the Western Ghats as Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESAs) since 1927. However, as societal priorities change and industrial pressures increase, the Government too changes its focus. This knee-jerk reactive planning often ends up hurting what is really important in the long run.

In 2010, the Government sanctioned the Gadgil Committee to compile recommendations based on proper studies by a qualified committee.  However, the outcome was that large portions of the Western Ghats were unavailable for industrial and economical development activities. The Gadgil Committee report was deemed ‘impractical’ and in 2014, the Kasturirangan Committee was commissioned to plan out the Gadgil recommendations with a ‘more balanced approach’.

Why were the Gadgil Committee’s recommendations impractical? How is the Kasturirangan Committee fixing these problems?

The Gadgil Committee found that almost 60% of the Western Ghats was part of highly sensitive ESAs. The most threatened areas would be called ESA Zone 1 where development and all commercial activity, including mining, logging and tourism should be banned and Zone2 and 3 would have progressively milder restrictions. Gadgil also stressed the need for local self governance in this decision making. This was a bitter pill for the Government (and the industrial lobbyists) to swallow.

Accusations were made against the Gadgil report saying that the recommendations prevented economical activities that impacted livelihood and economical options for people living in the Western Ghats ESAs. The Kasturirangan Committee took another shot at redefining ESAs and recommendations. The protected ESA area came down from 77,000 square kilometres to 60,000 square kilometres—a big, scary drop. The Kasturirangan recommendations also fragmented the ESAs into small pieces that threaten wildlife seclusion and seasonal migration corridors.

Well, maybe it makes sense to at least try and save 60,000 square kilometres of the Ghats. Are we at least able to ensure that?

Unfortunately, the Kasturirangan report does not completely insulate even 60,000 square kilometres of the Western Ghats. Hydroelectric projects are still allowed, even within the most sensitive ESAs. This implies further deforestation, building of dams, rerouting of rivers and severe damage to the delicate balance at the heart of the Ghats.

The problems don’t stop there. The coal mining and timber lobbies are extremely unhappy with any kind of regulation at all. They are stirring up unrest and protests amidst local populations. Rumours have been instigated that the local residents near these ESAs will be displaced from their lands. However, the residents are unaware of the actual contents of either of these reports. The Government hasn’t even arranged for translated copies of the reports to reach the people who are most impacted by these decisions.

So, are the Western Ghats safe at all?

If we act now, they could be. The Government isn’t taking a hard stand on protecting the Ghats. The industrial lobbies are creating trouble by spreading misinformation and not allowing the local populace to even engage in this debate. Off late, any attempt at conservation activism is treated with a lot of suspicion and is seen as being unpatriotic. But the problem is much bigger than an economic five-year plan.

The Western Ghats are in very real danger. If we deviate from the Gadgil Committee’s scientific recommendations, we are taking a step down the slippery slope of compromise. This path will hasten the wanton destruction of the Western Ghats. And if you have been reading everything so far, you must realise that means destroying our country as you know it and even hurting the planet itself.

To join us and lend your voice to save the Ghats, click here.