The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel reporting to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has made several salutary recommendations for the long-term conservation of this global biodiversity hotspot. Renowned for their flora and fauna, along with the Eastern Himalayas, these mountains and valleys hugging the Arabian Sea coast for a length of 1,500 km need an overarching protection regime that cares as much for the tribal people they have sheltered as for their biological diversity. The experts studied scientific reports and Supreme Court judgments, consulted the State governments involved, and listened to village panchayats. A central message that emerges is that the entire ghat region meets the criteria for declaration as an ecologically sensitive area. Within this broad framework, the report makes the point that there are Ecologically Sensitive Zones of three levels of significance, which can be demarcated at the taluk or block level. The MoEF, which is empowered under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 to declare any region as deserving of special protection, should consider this seriously. Such protection is essential to rule out incompatible activities such as mining, constructing large dams, and setting up polluting industries.
If there is one single reason to protect the whole of the Western Ghats, it is the phenomenon of endemism. According to reliable estimates, they have more than 1,500 endemic species of flowering plants, and at least 500 such species of fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. New species continue to be reported. It is striking that the ghats represent an extraordinary sliver of diverse life in a populous country and have in fact survived with community support. The MoEF would therefore do well to heed the advice of the expert group and unhesitatingly reject environmental clearance for two controversial dam projects — Athirapilly in Kerala and Gundia in Karnataka. The locations of both come under the most sensitive ecological zone category. In this context, it is relevant that a decade ago the Kerala High Court directed the State Electricity Board to repair and restore all existing dams to maximise power output. Doing so can eliminate the need for a destructive new structure at Athirapilly. A second issue relates to mining in Goa. Here the panel has rightly called for an indefinite moratorium on clearances for new mines in sensitive zones and phasing out of the activity in fragile areas by 2016. The guidelines proposed are sound overall. Translating them into action through a statutory apex body such as a Western Ghats Ecological Authority holds the key.
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