Sunday, April 28, 2013

Protect the Western Ghat's ‘Natural Landscape’: High Level Report

When the question of preserving India's biodiversity comes to mind, it draws attention to the Western Ghats which stretch along the west coast of India from the river Tapti in the north to the southern tip of India.

Undoubtedly the Western Ghats are a biological treasure trove and it is seriously endangered. And for this reason it calls for protection and regeneration of its enormous wealth of endemic species and natural beauty. The Union Ministry of Environment and Forest’s High Level Working Group report presented on 17th of April 2013 to Jayanthi Natarajan, India's Minister of State for Environment& Forests, is a welcome move in the direction of conservation of this hotspot.

The report has been prepared by 10-member Working Group headed by Dr. K. Kasturirangan, Member, Planning Commission and environmental experts and other professionals as its members. The Group was constituted to advise the Government on the recommendations of an earlier report prepared by an expert panel led by the ecologist Madhav Gadgil.

The Gadgil panel had recommended that the entire Western Ghats should be declared as an ecologically sensitive area, and had suggested three levels of categorization for imposition of regulatory measures for protection, and establishment of the Western Ghats Ecology Authority for management. Following public responses received to the recommendations of the Gadgil report, the Environment ministry constituted in August 2012, a High Level Working Group to examine the large numbers of public responses and to suggest the way ahead.

Dr K Kasturirangan, points out that the issue is serious, alarming and urgent and there is need to protect, manage and regenerate the lands now remaining in the Western Ghats as biologically rich, diverse, natural landscapes. He cautions that the damage has reached a threshold which does not allow to, and calls for planning and regulation in this recognized centre of biodiversity. Though Jayanthi Natarajan has assured action on the recommendations of the Working Group report, it has to be seen when and how it is implemented at the ground level.

The Working Group report draws upon the basic framework suggested by Gadgil report to use remote sensing technologies to demarcate the ecologically sensitive areas of the Western Ghats but with two key differences. First; it used satellite data, down to 24 m resolution, as against 9 km used by Gadgil report, made possible because of the collaboration with NRSC/ISRO, which used data sets to distinguish vegetation types over the landscape of the entire Western Ghats. Second, it distinguishes between the cultural and the natural landscape of the region.

 By using remote sensing technology, it has been found that the cultural landscape, which comprises human settlements, agricultural fields and plantations, is greater (58.44 % of the region), as compared to the natural landscape (41.56 %). The methodology adopted by NRSC/ISRO combined spatial information on vegetation types at species level; biological richness and disturbance regimes to identify biologically diverse and contiguous regions of the Western Ghats.

Based on the methodology used, roughly 37 per cent of the total area defined as the boundary of the Western Ghats has been found to be ecologically sensitive. In this sensitive area of about 60,000 sq km, spread over the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the Working Group has recommended a prohibitory regime on those activities which cause maximum destructive impact on the environment.

The recommendations made by the Working Group aim to “incentivize green growth in the Western Ghats”. The needs felt are towards managing forests, and improving their productivity to ensure inclusive growth and economic benefits for local communities:  integrating forest accounts into state and national economic assessments; initiating an ecosystem service fund to help villages around the forests; promoting sustainable agriculture, and encouraging eco-tourism for local benefits.

As part of the governance of ecologically sensitive areas, the Working Group has proposed to set up a Decision Support and Monitoring Centre for Geo spatial Analysis and Policy Support in the Western Ghats, which will monitor changes and advise state government on policy reforms. But it has made it clear that all these reports must be in the public domain. It has also recommended that the high-resolution map, which demarcates ecologically sensitive areas, down to each village settlement, must be put in the public domain so that people can be involved in taking decisions about environment, which is first and foremost their concern.

The report notes, “environmentally sound development cannot preclude livelihood and economic options for this region… the answer (to the question of how to manage and conserve the Ghats) will not lie in removing these economic options, but in providing better incentives to move them towards greener and more sustainable practices”. In doing this, the Working Group has moved away from the suggestions of the Gadgil report, which had recommended a blanket approach consisting of guidelines for sector-wise activities, which would be permitted in the ecologically sensitive zones.

However, we will know the effects of the recommendations only after these are implemented. And it is going to take time. Come what may the biodiversity of the Western Ghats must be preserved with its prestine beauty. If local people are educated and motivated to conserve nature it is all the more a desirable move.

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