The Kerala floods of 2018 and 2019 were among the worst calamities that India has faced in the last two years. The 2018 floods, which is said to be the worst flood faced by Kerala in a century and also has been in the World Meteorological Organization’s list of “five major extreme flooding events in the world” between the years 2015 to 2019, killed close to 483 people and displaced nearly a million people from different towns and villages of Kerala. The 2019 floods, caused deaths of around 121 people and displacement of lakhs of people, therefore came as a shock to the people of Kerala. The causes of these two back to back disaster events have been analyzed by the experts and most of them believe that the rampant destruction of the Western Ghats ecology caused by unsustainable human activities in the ecologically sensitive zones is one of the primary cause. They have also warned that if these destructions continue unabated, then it may trigger more and even bigger disasters in Kerala, dubbed as India’s “monsoon gateway”. The preservation of the Western Ghats ecology has therefore become a hot and debatable topic, not only in the media, newspapers, scientific community but also in the political circles as well, in recent times.
This article highlights the importance of Western Ghats, the threats faced by it, the government steps and panel recommendations to mitigate the threats and conserve the ecology of these region. The article concludes with the challenges to implement the recommendations of these committees, in particular the Gadgil committee and the Kasturirangan Committee and highlights the need of political consensus and community participation to overcome these challenges.
In order to understand the environmental and ecological impacts of the destruction of the Western Ghats, it is very important to understand the important role played by the Western Ghats to maintain a balance between climate and ecology, particularly in those states through which it passes.
Importance of Western Ghats to Maintain Balance Between Ecology and Climate
The Western Ghats, which is also known as the “Sahayadri”, are a range of mountains, travelling parallel to the western coastline of the peninsular India. It traverses through the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat and stretches a length of approximately 1600 km, extending from river Tapti in the North to the Southernmost tip of India, covering an area of approximately 140,000 square km.
The Western Ghats have a vital influence in the monsoon patterns of the country. It intercepts the moisture laden South-West monsoon winds, that hits the south west coast of India during late summer. This in turn causes a high amount of rainfall, of approximately 250cm to 700 cm in the windward side (the side facing the winds) of the Ghats.
The Western Ghats is one of the biodiversity hotspots (“biogeographic region characterized by exceptional levels of biodiversity, that is threatened by human habitation”) of the world and contains a large proportion of the country’s flora and fauna, many of which are completely endemic to the region and are critically endangered.
The region has also been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and the rivers that originate in this region supports the livelihood of around 250 million people living in the peninsular region of India.
Also Read: Protected Areas for Conservation
Threats and Damages to the Western Ghats
Having understood the critical climatic and ecological role played by the Western Ghats, let us now understand some of the major threats faced by this region.
The ecological damage of the Western Ghats started during the Period of British Colonization, during which large portions of the forests were cleared for the purpose of agriculture and building human settlements. Since then this region has been facing a plethora of threats which have collectively resulted in significant loss of biodiversity in the region. According to an estimate made by noted British environmentalist Norman Myers in the year 2000 only about 7% of the original primary vegetation of the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka remains as of now.
In the year 2017, in the UN climate change conference at Bonn, Germany, IUCN presented a report named, “World Heritage Outlook 2 “, wherein it has placed the Western Ghats in the category of “significant concern” citing that these regions are “under increasing population and developmental pressure” and requires ” intensive and targeted management” to conserve the existing ecosystem and mitigate the detrimental effects of degradation.
The immediate threats that this region is currently facing can be classified into two broad categories : the localised threats, such as illegal hunting, extraction of non timber forest products, forests fires, livestock grazing etc. and landscape level threats, such as mining, quarrying, construction of roads, large and micro level hydel power projects, construction of wind farms, large-scale agricultural expansion, creation of monoculture plantations etc.
Government Efforts to Mitigate the Crisis and the Challenges i0n Their Implementation
Recognizing the ecological and economical importance of the Western Ghats region, the Government of India has established many protected areas , which includes 2 Biosphere Reserves , 13 National Parks, several Wildlife Sanctuaries and many Reserve Forests.
Also, in March 2010 the Government of India set up an expert panel, under the chairmanship of Prof. Gadgil, to recommend strategies to conserve the Western Ghats.
This committee, which was also known as the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), submitted its report on 2011, wherein it recommended “declaring the entire Western Ghats area as Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA), divided under three subzones. It also recommended the government to impose a complete ban on: mining activities, setting up thermal power plants, polluting industries and construction of dams. Additionally, it had recommended the inclusion and participation of the local communities in the conservation of biodiversity of the region along with promotion of eco friendly activities.
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However these recommendations were strictly opposed by the governments of the states located in the Western Ghats region and many groups of Kerala. Their apprehensions were primarily because of the excessive ‘environmental friendliness ‘of these recommendations which if implemented would hamper the developmental activities and result in the loss of livelihood of many people.
In the year 2012 the Government of India again constituted a second committee, under the chairmanship of Dr. Kasturirangan , to “examine” the Gadgil Committee report in as “holistic and multidisciplinary fashion in the light of the responses received” from the states, central ministries and others. This committee which is also known as “High Level Working Group on Western Ghats “, submitted its report in the year 2013, wherein it recommended to bring only 37 % of the Western Ghats region under the purview of ESA. It has emphasised on promoting ” green growth” through “sustainable and equitable development”.
The Government of India had tried to bring in draft notifications to declare the areas designated by the Kasturirangan Committee as ESA , but none of the governments of the states of the Western Ghats regions had supported for these notifications.
Till now no consensus has been reached between the Governments of these states and Union Government regarding the implementation of Kasturirangan Committee recommendations.
Some environmentalists have even opposed the Kasturirangan Committee report, labeling it as “anti-environment”.
In view of the apprehensions regarding the recommendations of the Kasturirangan Committee, the Government of Kerala had constituted another panel, under the chairmanship of Kerala State Biodiversity Board (KSBB) chairperson Oommen V Oommen in the year 2013 to further review the Kasturirangan Committee recommendations. The report that was submitted in the year 2015, was more “farmer friendly” seeking to exclude the inhabited areas, plantations and agricultural lands in the Western Ghats region to be excluded from the ambit of ESA as was demarcated by the Kasturirangan Committee. It also sought the complete scrapping of the Kerala (Vesting and Management of Ecologically Fragile) Land Act of 2003, which sought to transfer all “ecologically fragile” lands in the state of Kerala, including those held by private individuals, to the Government of Kerala for the purpose of “maintaining the ecological balance and conserving the biodiversity” in these region.
Conclusion and Wayforward
The lack of political will of the state governments to come to a consensus with the union government regarding the implementations of the Kasturirangan committee recommendations have been severely criticized by many groups, including the Committee on Government Assurances in Rajya Sabha. This parliamentary committee have observed that the lack of sensitivity and political will on the part of these state governments have been the primary hurdles in demarcation of the ESA s . This in turn has led to uninterrupted unsustainable human activities in the Western Ghats region as a result of which states like Goa, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have become increasingly susceptible to floods and landslide related disasters.
The committee has recommended expediting the process of implementation of the recommendations of the Kasturirangan Committee by including the local population.
Protecting the ecology Western Ghats is therefore of vital importance not only because it would save a large number of endemic species from extinction but also to protect and prevent the calamaities of the nature and magnitude like that of Kerala floods of 2018 and 2019 . In order to do that the Government needs to strictly implement strategies like “Land Use Zoning” to prevent undesirable use of lands in certain areas, imposing restrictions on developmental activities in ESA s, conducting regular and comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessments to understand the impacts of developmental activities on the ecology, pollution control, sustainable waste management etc.
On the part of the community, more and more awareness regarding the importance of conservation of the Western Ghats Ecology needs to be raised among the masses. For these different NGO s (Non Governmental Organization) , nature clubs must work hand in hand with the administration at the local, state as well as national levels. The protection of the Western Ghats region is not possible without a nexus between the Government and the citizens and the Constitution of India has emphasized it by giving the responsibility of protecting, preserving and improving the “environment”, “forest” and “wildlife” of the country on both the Government as well as the citizens of india.