Report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel
This report presents the findings and recommendations of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), set up in 2010 by the then Ministry of Environment and Forests.
The panel, chaired by Prof. Madhav Gadgil, studied the ecological status of the Western Ghats – it compiled information, analysed it and made several field visits. It also developed geospatial databases on the ecological sensitivity of the entire Western Ghats region. And it consulted government officials and people’s representatives – from members of gram sabhas and zilla parishads to members of parliament and state legislative assemblies.
Based on its research, the panel designated the entire region as an ‘Ecologically Sensitive Area’ and divided the ghats into three zones: Ecologically Sensitive Zone 1 (very high sensitivity), Ecologically Sensitive Zone 2 (high sensitivity) and Ecologically Sensitive Zone 3 (moderate sensitivity).
The panel’s report is divided into two parts. Part I (the main report) details the WGEEP’s activities. Part II discusses the ecological status of the Western Ghats and has sections on land and water use, agriculture, livestock rearing, fisheries, forests and biodiversity, and human settlements. It also has chapters on industry, mining, power and energy, tourism, transport, science and technology, and nutrition and health.
The Western Ghats region is a 1,500-kilometre-long mountain range that runs parallel to the western coast of India, from the river Tapi in the north to Kanyakumari in the south. It is spread across six states: Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
It is considered one of the world’s eight ‘hottest hotspots’ of biodiversity and is home to nearly 4,000 species of flowering plants, over 500 species of birds, 225 species of reptiles, and 120 species of mammals.
Between 1920 and 1990, around 40 per cent of the original vegetation cover of the ghats’ southern region, spanning the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, was either lost or the land was ‘converted’ and put to different use. Currently, 7 per cent of the ghats’ total area is under primary vegetation cover; a much larger area is under secondary forests; and nearly 15 per cent is under Protected Areas.
In a paper commissioned by the panel, Dr. R.J.R Daniels of Care Earth, an NGO in Chennai, classifies the Western Ghats into nine geological landscapes across three regions: Surat-Goa, Goa-Nilgiris and South of the Palghat Gap.
In another paper commissioned by the panel, Prof. Vijay Paranjpye of the Gomukh Environmental Trust for Sustainable Development, Pune, says that there was “an unprecedented pace of development” in the northern parts of the Western Ghats during British rule. The construction of railways, roads and dams in these parts depleted forests and extracted resources for urban and industrial settlements like Mumbai-Thane, Pune and Nashik, which has continued till today.
Approximately 245 million people in five states depend on rivers that originate in the Western Ghats, which is the catchment area for river systems that provide water to around 40 per cent of the country’s land area.
Mining for mineral ores affects water availability and recharge (the percolation of water from the surface to the groundwater table). In Goa, the government has acknowledged that over half of the state’s 300-odd mining leases were for mines near water bodies. Further, data tabled in the Goa Assembly showed several of the of 182 such mining leases were for mines within one kilometre of the Selaulim dam, which provides drinking water to around 600,000 people in South Goa.
The growth of commercial agriculture in the Western Ghats has led to the fragmentation of forests, soil erosion and the degradation of river ecosystems. To address this, the panel recommended a policy shift towards more sustainable farming. It also suggested setting up the Western Ghats Ecology Authority to bring about a change in policy.
Rearing livestock is a major livelihood activity in the Western Ghats. However, between 1997 and 2003, the population of crossbred cattle in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu increased by 23.9 per cent and 46.61 per cent, while that of indigenous cattle decreased by 16.8 per cent and 27.79 per cent, respectively. The cost of feeding and management is higher for crossbreed cattle than for indigenous varieties, and crossbreeding of cattle has disturbed the entire production system and eroded traditional knowledge of livestock management.
The panel proposed that no new dams with large-scale storage be permitted in the Ecologically Sensitive Zone 1 (ESZ 1) or regions with very high ecological sensitivity. It also recommended that environmental clearances not be given to the Athirappilly and the Gundia hydel projects (in Kerala and Karnataka, respectively), which are in this zone.
The panel’s investigations in the plains and coastal tracts of Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts in Maharashtra suggested that these areas were under severe environmental and social stress. The panel proposed a cumulative impact analysis of various developmental activities in these areas.
The panel urged the Ministry of Environment and Forests to involve citizens in environmental governance. This would include implementation of the Forest Rights Act (especially the provisions related to community forest resources); a radical reform of the environmental impact analysis and clearance processes; and the proactive disclosure of all information of public interest
Focus and Factoids by Sushmita Iyer and Imsutula Jamir.
The members of this panel were Prof. Madhav Gadgil (chairperson), B. J. Krishnan, Dr. K.N. Ganeshaiah, Dr. V.S. Vijayan, Prof. Renee Borges, Prof. R. Sukumar, Dr. Ligia Noronha, Vidya S. Nayak, Dr. D.K. Subramaniam, Dr. R.V. Varma, Prof. S.P. Gautam, Dr. R.R. Navalgund and Dr. G.V. Subrahmanyam.
Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, New Delhi
31 Aug, 2011