Unesco adds Western Ghats to heritage list

Unesco adds Western Ghats to heritage list

Calls for environmental governance in Western Ghats will get shriller.

If you have travelled along the Western Ghats which stretches 1,500 km from Tapi valley in the north along the Arabian sea, touching six states - Maharashtra, Goa, Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu - 44 districts and 142 talukas, you will realise that it is a treasure trove of biodiversity. It is home to 1,500 endemic species of flowers and plants and around 500 species of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. The ghats are also called the 'Water Tower' of Peninsular India as many of the rivers flowing through the southern parts of India originate here. But these natural resources are far from preserved in the ghats. Practically every river has been dammed, many dams are silted because of encroachment and deforestation in catchment areas, scores of mines have scarred the land, destroyed forests and polluted water bodies, and large tracts of land have been hived off for future special economic zones (SEZs) and new hill stations. Only the places marked as protected areas or wildlife sanctuaries have remained unaffected.

Given this background, it is puzzling to find the Western Ghats Ecological Panel report that is now up on Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) website with a disclaimer: "The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel report has not been formally accepted by the ministry and that the report is still being analysed and considered by the ministry."

In the latest development on this move, on Monday, July 2, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, better known as Unesco, has identified and added India's Western Ghats to its World Heritage List, thereby further putting a question mark over projects such as mines and power plants located here. Thirty-nine sites of the Western Ghats have been selected as heritage sites and all these are protected areas. This means that mining and power plants and any other infrastructural development cannot be operational here. The cluster of sites are in Agasthyamalai, Periyar, Anamalai, Nilgiris, Upper Cauvery in Kodagu, Kudremukh, and Sahyadri. Sites are selected for their outstanding universal value, based on the magnitude of identifiable biological and cultural significance.

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Will this move now awaken the state governments and the MoEF in accepting the Western Ghats Panel report that calls for environmental governance?

One has to move back in time to understand the context of the situation. Alarm calls raised by activists to protect the Western Ghats guided the MoEF, during the tenure of Jairam Ramesh as Minister of Environment, to constitute the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) in March 2010. This initiative was led by noted Pune-based ecological expert Madhav Gadgil. Since the report was presented by Gadgil in August 2011, little action has been taken by MoEF and most of these findings were out of bounds for the public. Had it not been for the persistent petitioning by environmental groups and right to information activists across these six states, the report would not have been made public until two months ago. The Central Information Commission (CIC) ordered the report be made public.

The reason for MoEF's reticence is obvious: the 13-member panel had concluded that the entire Western Ghats is an ecologically sensitive area. And, within this overall ecologically sensitive area, it has defined three types of Ecologically Sensitive Zones, namely ESZ1, ESZ2 and ESZ 3.

In all three zones, it has recommended that there should be no SEZs, no new hill stations, no inter-basin linking of rivers and that dams which have outlived their utility should be decommissioned. In ESZ 1, the highest sensitive zone, it suggests no new mines, existing ones to be phased out, no new polluting industries, existing ones to be converted to zero pollution, no large storage dams or thermal power plants and no new railway lines or national highways. New mines will also not be permitted in ESZ 2, but existing ones can operate under strict conditions. In addition to no new polluting industries, existing ones to be made zero pollution, no new large storage dams but existing thermal plants can continue if they eliminate pollution. And in ESZ 3, new mines, new industries and thermal power plants will be permitted under strict conditions and a social audit.

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India already has a slew of environmental laws, including the Biodiversity Act of 2002 and the National Biodiversity Authority in 2003, apart from the National Green Tribunal that has just started functioning. But the real significance of the WGEEP report is its recommendation that the best way to protect biodiversity is to vest gram sabhas and panchayats with the power to look after their own ecological wealth. "There is no democratic process in which decisions are taken while giving ECs. Inclusivity should be there," says Gadgil. ECs are short for environmental clearances.

WGEEP's recommendation overturns the accepted norm of creating centralised decision-making bodies that have little idea of local conditions or sensibilities. A very good example of how localised authorities can be effective is the Dahanu Taluka Ecology Authority in Maharashtra, set up on directions of the Supreme Court, which has succeeded in protecting the eco-sensitive nature of that area despite its proximity to Mumbai and pressure from strong political and business interests.

The WGEEP argues that rather than dividing the entire region into "go" and "no-go" areas, this type of categorisation allows conservation and development to coexist. It has also recommended "adaptive co-management" where decisions are taken after full consultation and involvement of the local gram sabhas. The statutory body to clear projects will be the Western Ghats Ecology Authority (WGEA) with powers under Section 3 of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1983. It is expected to work alongside state-level bodies in the six states located along the Western Ghats.

"We are not anti-development. But, calling for some environmental governance," says Gadgil. "The expert panel's report is being misinterpreted. It is being interpreted as if our guidelines and recommendations are imposition of conservation measures by us," explains Gadgil.

The MoEF and the respective state authorities have yet to approach the WGEE panel to discuss the report. Gadgil says: "Formally no authority has approached us yet. But Patangrao Kadam, Maharashtra's forest minister, and Pravin Paradeshi, forest secretary of Maharashtra, discussed this issue with me when the matter came up in a public meeting in Pune on 9th June. Shri Kadam told me that he would try to arrange a meeting with Chief Minister to discuss the matter." But so far this has not happened.

Goa Mining industry

For Goa, the mining and quarrying industry comes second only to tourism in terms of revenues earned.  Most of the mining in Goa is in the Western Ghats extending 65 km from southeast to northwest spanning some 700 sq km. Goa is the only state in India, as a result of a historical regulatory legacy, where iron ore mines are concentrated in lease areas of less than 100 hectares. Most mining leases are located in and around wildlife sanctuaries and forest areas.

For example, 31 leases are within two km of sanctuaries, of which seven are working mines. Up to 13 leases are within a km of wildlife sanctuaries. Around 2,500 hectare of forest area waw lost to mining in the period 1988 to 1997. According to a report by environmental NGO Vanashakti on mining in Goa, some 400 mining leases had been granted in the state till 2002-03, covering approximately 303.25 square km. This works out to almost eight per cent of the total geographic area of the state.  "Number of mines is increasing every year. Assuming that total mining project that came to expert committee since June 2007, gets cleared then another 8.4 per cent and 5.3 per cent geographical area of Sanguem Taluka  and Quepem Taluka respectively will get converted into mines," says the report.

Mining in Goa has relied on the open-cast method which requires the clearing of large tracts of forests, removal of the overlying nutrient rich top soil, and finally excavating the ore rich soils. Open cast or strip mining is one of the most destructive forms of industrial activites in the world. In many areas of the world, companies have replaced the method with better practices like 'room and pillar' extraction, which does not envisage destruction of forests or destruction of nature on the surface.

Goa has deposits of iron, manganese and bauxite, and the mining belt of approximately 700 sq. km is mostly concentrated in four talukas of Bicholim of North Goa and Salcete, Sanguem and Quepem in the South Goa district. Mining and associated activities have greatly affected the natural landscape in and around these areas, which is characterized by the presence of pits and waste rejects. Iron ore production in Goa has always been 100 per cent export oriented. The first export of 100 tonnes was in 1947. The figure rose to one million tonnes by 1954, 10 million tonnes by 1971, and 13-15 million tonnes in the 1980s. Today, due to the demand from China, the quantity has reached 33 million tonnes. One description of the situation is that Goa is being hollowed and being relocated to China.

One of the main reasons for the mining business to thrive in Goa and elsewhere in the Western Ghats is because of faulty Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) reports that are required to be drafted by the mining companies to get an environment clearance (EC). In most cases, these reports are prepared by consultants who are appointed by the project proponent themselves and are consequently riddled with incomplete and false information.

The EIA drafts are also to be presented to the public in their local language which very rarely takes place. Public hearings are even more rare. Further, the EIA drafts are to be vetted by an Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) that is supposed to have a fair representation of experts from the region in which the project is located - in most cases, this never happens. Also, the EAC deliberation typically takes place in Delhi, without, a visit to the project site to find out what is written in the EIA draft is accurate or not. Despite all these loopholes, ECs are granted to projects.

WGEEP recommends an indefinite moratorium on new environmental clearances for mining in Ecologically Sensitive Zones 1 and 2 in Goa and a phasing out of mining by 2016 in highly sensitive layer of the area. Other recommendations are: no mining should be allowed in the Western Ghats in Goa in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries and closure of all mines that have been extracting ore beyond limit allowed by ECs and those operating in the catchment areas of dams used for drinking water.

Published on: Jul 03, 2012, 4:07 PM IST
Posted by: Surajit Dasgupta, Jul 03, 2012, 4:07 PM IST