The Western Ghats, with its numerous species of plants, birds and animals is soon to be upgraded to the status of World Heritage sites. Citizens and activists should take steps to preserve and protect this priceless legacy
All of us living anywhere in Maharashtra, from the north-west going south-west to the east along coastal belt known as Kokan Kinara/Patti, in Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and further east to Tamil Nadu, ought to know that we dwell atop a sacred grove on the Sahyadri Range also known as the Western Ghats. This environmental belt which is designated one of the world’s ten top bio-diversity hot spots is soon to be upgraded to the status of World Heritage sites.
The Western Ghats today are home to over 5,000 species of flowering plants, 139 mammals, 508 birds and 179 amphibian species and possibly many more still lying hidden and yet to be identified, 325 of these are now officially classified as endangered. The Worldwatch Institute reports that on an average of 52 species per year move closer to extinction on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Endangered Species.
All throughout geological times nature has resorted to a churning process to deal with changes in bio-diversity and extinction of species. At no time has the overwhelming loss been more pronounced and felt as today. And regrettably nothing seems to being done to prevent the mass environmental degradation on an extremely large scale. To reverse the bio-diversity losses that are essentially brought in by human-driven elements—migration caused by habitat changes; over-exploitation of natural resources, more particularly of water and forests; pollution of the atmosphere, water, air and noise; induction of invasive alien species and climate changes. All these acts defeat nature’s inbuilt balancing mechanisms of reparation and rejuvenation in the birth and death cycle to conserve resources reduce exploitation and pollution and to a great extent ensure human survival and well-being.
While the state regulatory intervention has to play a decisive role in the entire reparation and rejuvenation process, it is the local community grass-root level individual-led effort by the citizenry at large that is required on a much larger scale to make a definite impact to bring about substantive changes. More particularly sustained efforts are required to be put in by dedicated groups comprising civil society, religious and educational institutions and even smaller pockets of all local simple housewives, kids and elders.
We are witnesses to the present day Bishois and Chipko movements in rural India that are totally devoid of any political overtures whatsoever. When simple village folks like these in remote rural areas can usher such dramatic changes, there is no reason why it can’t be replicated here and now more so, under our very noses when the very continued existence of a natural resource and our humans are at stake.
The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, headed by National Advisory Council member and ecologist Madhav Gadgil, has in its report proposed that public land should not be converted in private land. “For all settlements and built areas, certain types of areas would be no-go areas, including water courses, water bodies, special habitats, geological formations, bio-diversity rich areas and sacred groves.” It has recently designated 142 talukas as ecologically sensitive areas to ensure that the current moratorium on new environment clearances for mining, polluting industries and power plants are not extended till the completion of the Carrying Capacity Analysis.
The expert panel has also identified Wadgaon, Paud and Bhor areas all on the Ghats as highly eco-sensitive and recommends that no new hill station or SEZ (special economic zone) be permitted here. It further recommends that all states appoint bio-diversity management committees across all local bodies by including citizens and environmentalists with powers to decide on land-use designations. It goes to point out that the Maharashtra state government has so far not implemented the 10-year old Indian Biological Diversity Act, 2002, in the state. This report recommends “In Environment Sensitive Zone-1, change in land use should not be permitted from forest to non-forest or agriculture to non-agriculture, except agriculture to forest and except when existing village settlements are extended to accommodate an increase in population of local residents. Same for Environment Zone -2.”
The expert panel warns—“Infrastructure is built with inert and non-renewable material like cement, steel, bricks and quarried stone. Palace-like houses are replete with ACs, TVs, marble and similar luxuries. Consequently a weekend home becomes more lavish and energy consuming than a city home.”
In recent years many high profile business tycoons have been carrying out massive construction activity all over the Ghats zone, more particularly along the Mumbai-Pune area on land holdings of 10-500 acres apart from the huge Amby Valley and Lavasa projects. All these have resulted in large-scale vegetation cutting, massive roads construction and landscaping, gardens with excessive resource consumption, laying out non-native plants, large lawns requiring large quantities of water, fertilizers and pesticides all that are very dangerous to bio-diversity, that can in no way be compensated by any new artificial greening activity by the introduction of invasive alien plant varieties that are extremely harmful to local eco-sensitive systems. Construction of farmhouses, resorts and townships have resulted in cutting of hills and bring about physical changes due to terracing. “Modifications in hydrological patterns, terracing causes removal of vegetation and soil with changes in hill topography. Dumping of construction debris like stones, sand and stones and quarrying for stones, murrum and earth causes further displacement. Areas for paving to be restricted by ensuring there is no change in the run-off/permeability of the plot. In paving the recharge from other areas has to be enhanced.”
Environmentally concerned citizens of Maharashtra should take up the matter with the National Green Tribunal regarding the Maharashtra urban development ministry’s notification of 21st May converting seven villages in the Mulshi taluka of Pune district by designating them as a “hill station”. This is a blatant disregard of the high powered expert committee recommendation.
The Western Ghats for the devout Indians, always remain sacred groves, inspiring deep insight into religion, life and living in their vast connect with their epics like Ramayana, Mahabharata, Brahma and Narada Puranas.
The Ramayana describes the Ghats—“Majestic great mountains with brightly coloured peaks, woods rich in flora and extensive forest tracts of sandalwood and are comparable with the Himalayas for their rivers and sacred locales.”
The Ghats are homes to numerous shrines beginning with Panchavati on the banks of the Godavari at Nashik where Rama stayed with Sita and Laxmana, Gokarn and Ankola in Uttara Kannada, Mangeshi and Shanta Durga at Goa, the Vidyashankara and Adi Shankara’s Sharadapeetha with a number of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain sculptures at Sringeri on the banks of the Tungabhadra, Mookambika, described as a Jyotirlinga incorporating both Shiva and Shakti, at Kollur is surrounded by the Kodachatre mountain range and dense forests, Udupi Shri Krishna, Mulki, Dharmasthala, Kukke Subramanya, Horanad Annapooreshwari. The towering Gomateshwara at Sharavanbelegola and Karkala are sacred to the Jains. There are 14 shrines built at Chandragiri Hills where Emperor Chandra Gupta Maurya, after renouncing his kingdom settled down with his Guru Bhagwan Bhadra Bhanu Swami. The emperor is buried here. Further south at Kerala is Sabarimalai, the abode of Ayyappa, who presides over a thickly forested area on the Pumba River. Going east to Tamil Nad, the River Tamarapurani rises in the Agastamalaya, reaching downstream to the Papanasham Tirtha which is referred to in the Shiva and Kurama Puranas and also in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Besides the Catholics have old churches in Goa, Kerala and Chennai; St Aloysius at Mangalore replicates Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. The Muslims have a sizable number of mosques all along too.
We have inherited this Earth from our forefathers and now hold it in trust for our children.
Consequentially, this makes it is our sacred duty to save, preserve and protect this priceless legacy on which we are sitting. We need to ensure that the enactments to protect environment, that includes air, water and air, are strictly adhered to, rigorously implemented and enforced at all levels.
Let the global environmental concerns be addressed by world leaders at high-level international fora at Rio de Janeiro and Kyoto.
(Nagesh Kini is a Mumbai-based chartered accountant turned activist.)