Western Ghats | Rough mountains, shattered lives
Flash floods and subsequent landslides in Kerala once again highlight the fragile ecosystem of the mountain range that stretches almost parallel to the west coast of India
In his preface to the report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) submitted in 2011, the ecologist and president of the panel Madhav Gadgil thus underlines the degradation undergone by the âcharming young girlâ of Kalidasa: âOnce the lady was adorned with ‘a sari with rich green hues. ; today his coat is in tatters and in tatters. It was torn apart by the greed of the elite and eaten away by the poor, striving to provide for their needs. It is a great tragedy, because this chain of hills is the backbone of the ecology and economy of South India â.
Nearly a decade later, the reverberations of Mr. Gadgil’s warnings resonated in the minds of many following the tragic loss of more than 40 lives in flash floods and landslides in the wake of severe rains in the hilly areas of the Western Ghats in the central Kerala districts of Kottayam, Idukki and Pathanamthitta between 12 and 20 October. In recent years, Kerala, known for its peaks and rich bodies of water, most of which originate from the Ghats, has seen back-to-back calamities, most notably the catastrophic floods of 2018, which raised serious questions about the chain’s conservation. of mountains.
Recognized as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, the Western Ghats region stretches 1,600 km from the mouth of the Tapti River near the border of Gujarat and Maharashtra to at Kanniyakumari, the southernmost tip of India in Tamil Nadu. It spans the six states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat. The Ghats are just behind the Eastern Himalayas as a treasure trove of biological diversity in the country.
The 39 serial sites of the Western Ghats were inscribed on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites in 2012 for their âOutstanding Universal Value and to represent ongoing ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of ecosystems. terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and marine, and communities of plants and animals â. They were also recognized as areas containing âthe most important and significant natural habitats for the in situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or science. the conversation “.
It is home to hundreds of globally threatened species of flora, fauna, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish. An assessment carried out by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2020 found that the Western Ghats are “under increasing demographic and development pressure which requires intensive and targeted management efforts to ensure that not only existing values ââare retained, but that some past damage can be remedied â.
The EWGE report, known as the Gadgil report, had designated the entire range of hills as an environmentally sensitive area (ESA). He had classified the 142 taluks on the border of the Western Ghats into three environmentally sensitive areas (ESZ). The panel, which was appointed in 2010 by the then UPA government, recommended that “no new dams based on large-scale storage be allowed in the environmentally sensitive area 1”. He suggested that development activity should be decided through a participatory process involving the gram sabhas in these areas. The report never saw the light of day until the Delhi High Court issued an order in May 2012 to make it public. The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change had opposed the report’s release, saying it could affect the economic and scientific interests of the six states. Successive state governments opposed it, saying most of its suggestions were unworkable.
The Center appointed a high-level Western Ghats task force led by renowned space scientist K. Kasturirangan in August 2012 to review the Gadgil report. Its mandate was to pay particular attention to âthe preservation of precious biodiversityâ and âthe rights, needs and development aspirations of local and indigenous populationsâ. However, the April 2013 committee report identified only 37% or 59,940 kmÂ² of the Western Ghats in the six states as AES. About 4,156 villages along the region were identified as AES based on the criterion that âthey had 20% or more of environmentally sensitive areas within their boundariesâ.
Almost 123 of these villages have been identified as AES in Kerala, sparking political and religious protests. It snowballed into a political conflict between the then ruling United Democratic Front and the Left Front and even influenced the election result of Idukki Lok Sabha in 2014, with the victory of the independent candidate of the supported Left Front. by the High Range Samrakshana Samithi (Protection Council), a collective of various groups within the Catholic Church. The Bharatiya Janata Party and the Sangh Parivar organizations, which initially supported the Gadgil report, later fell silent.
The then congressional government decided that an area of ââ9,993.7 kmÂ² would be considered an ESA in Kerala, compared to the area of ââ13,108 kmÂ² proposed by the Kasturirangan Committee. It was based on a recommendation of the state level expert committee headed by Oommen V. Oommen, then chairman of the Kerala Biodiversity Board, which recommended that the inhabited areas, plantations and agricultural land of the Ghats region Westerners are excluded from the scope. from ESA.
The Union Environment Ministry published a draft notification in March 2014 notifying a total of 56,825 kmÂ² in the Western Ghats as ESA instead of the 59,940 kmÂ² initially recommended by the Kasturirangan Committee. The final notification remains pending despite a directive from the National Green Court’s Main Chamber last September that there is no justification for a prolonged delay simply because states have requested the exclusion of an area from the environmentally sensitive area. The farmers had gone to the Supreme Court to declare the Centre’s draft notification as “unconstitutional” while claiming that recommendations based on the Kasturirangan report (and the earlier Gadgil report) on land use, agricultural practices , livestock, forestry, industries, infrastructure development, power generation, transport, tourism, etc. transform the semi-urban villages of the region into forests devoid of infrastructure and roads.
About 40% of the Western Ghat ranges are in Kerala, making the state particularly vulnerable to ecological changes in the mountain range. Environmentalists argue that flash floods and landslides indicate the fragile ecosystem of the Ghats and call for urgent action. Take the case of the October landslides in Kerala. The village of Kootickal in Kottayam, which was one of four local state bodies that were removed by the state government in 2015 from the list of 123 ESAs, has seen back-to-back landslides. The increase in extreme weather events has resulted in large-scale disasters and destabilized already vulnerable districts along the Western Ghats.
The World Meteorological Organization had included the August flood that rocked Kerala in 2018 among the top five extreme floods in the world between 2015 and 2019. Official estimates showed that there had been a total of 2,062 landslides. of land in the state in 2018-19. Idukki was the most vulnerable, with the district facing around 1,048 landslides during this period. As Mr Gadgil reiterated, human interference and unscientific land use has exacerbated the already damaged ecosystem of the Western Ghats.
Studies carried out by the Geological Survey of India in landslide vulnerable areas in the hilly districts of Kerala revealed faulty cultivation patterns and poor maintenance of drainage systems. Geoscientists have advocated the need to exempt areas of very high sensitivity in the Western Ghats from all types of construction while urging the government and local communities to increase vegetation cover as a first defense against landslide vulnerability.