A call to protect Western Ghats

Older than the Himalayan range, the Western Ghats are among India’s many ecologically fragile regions that have recently become a battleground for the development vs environment debate. Even though the climate crisis necessitates that the Ghats be preserved, the deadline to finalise the draft notification to earmark ecologically sensitive areas (ESA) of the six Ghats states (Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu) has been extended for another year, Hindustan Times reported on Tuesday. The deadline, now in its fourth iteration, was June 30, but differences among the states have delayed the process. The states fear the ESA classification will curb activities such as rock quarrying, mining, and the establishment of new industries.

While the desire for economic progress is understandable, unbridled development in a fragile region will lead to disastrous consequences such as worsening monsoon flooding and landslides. The wilful destruction of the Ghats has been taking place for years, despite attempts to notify ESA areas. In 2010, an expert panel led by ecologist Madhav Gadgil recommended that 75% of the 129,037 sq km area of the Ghats be declared environmentally sensitive. With many states deeming it restrictive, another panel, under scientist K Kasturirangan, was set up. This panel reduced the area to 50%. Four draft notifications have since been issued. In the latest iteration, issued in 2018, the ESA area is a mere 37%. The 2018 document recommended a ban on mining, quarrying, and sand mining; a phase-out of existing mines within five years from the date of the final notification or the expiry of the existing mining lease, whichever is earlier; a ban on new thermal power projects or expansion of existing plants and on new or expansion of polluting industries.

The delay in notifying ESAs and the decision to prioritise development over the environment goes against scientific knowledge. If nothing else, all stakeholders — politicians, bureaucrats, and citizens — must realise that their beauty aside, the Ghats influence the monsoon weather patterns, a key driver of the economy. Any further destruction of the Ghats could aggravate the monsoon crisis. Besides, there is also the question of water and food security: Fifty-eight rivers originate from the Ghats, and an estimated 25 million people depend on them. The Western Ghats must be protected; otherwise, not just the peninsular states, but the country may pay a steep price.

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