Devastation in the Western Ghats in the name of unplanned development

Activities like rampant stone quarrying, construction of infrastructure in fragile areas and deforestation for commercial plantation have led to massive changes in the Ghats, causing landslides, floods, droughts and other events in which hundreds have died

Published: Nov 29, 2021 12:24:12 PM IST
Updated: Jan 14, 2022 06:25:01 PM IST

The first of 49 new mines sanctioned in the dazzlingly beautiful Sawantwadi-Dodamarg Wildlife corridor in 2010, with blue plastic sheets as 'mitigation  measures.'

Image: Sumaira Abdulali

In 2010, in the Sawantwadi-Dodamarg Wildlife Corridor in the Western Ghats, a car behind us swerved ahead and screeched to a halt. A man got out. I shoved my camera under the seat. Just sightseeing, we said: “We’re intrigued by the strange red mountain without trees, loose earth cursorily covered by blue plastic sheets.” He peered into the car, looked suspicious, but drove off. Viju B and I heaved a sigh of relief. This would not be the first threat to us while investigating mining sites. We were almost killed, a few months before, on a sand mining site not too far away.
 
The strange red mountain we saw was the beginning of 49 bauxite mines sanctioned within a dazzlingly beautiful forest. Despite protests from local resident Sandeep Sawant and 22 local gram panchayats in Sindhudurg, one of Maharashtra’s greenest districts, the government had plans to permit new mines and educate children about the importance of mining. In this UNESCO world biodiversity hotspot, surrounded by threatened beauty in this era of climate change, the need for eco-tourism to educate children about natural processes seemed far more pressing.
 
Apart from their stunning beauty, the Western Ghats perform an important function to regulate weather and ecological patterns over the entire Indian peninsula. Running parallel to the western coast from Gujarat to Kerala, the Western Ghats “influence the Indian monsoon weather patterns that mediate the warm tropical climate of the region, presenting one of the best examples of the tropical monsoon system on the planet”, according to UNESCO which has declared them as one of the eight ‘hottest hotspots’ of biodiversity in the world.
 
However, a new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released in August paints a grim picture of the current situation of the Ghats and disruption of the monsoon patterns they have supported, which are essential to India’s climate, water and food. It tells us that the South Asian monsoon “has weakened in the second half of the 20th century” and adds that “human activities affect all the major climate system components, with some responding over decades and others over centuries”.
 
Activities like rampant stone quarrying, construction of infrastructure in fragile areas for ‘development’ and deforestation for commercial plantation have led to massive changes in these crucial Ghats on which local residents, coastal cities like Mumbai and the entire route along cross-country rivers which discharge into the Bay of Bengal in the East depend. They have led to landslides, floods, droughts and other events in which hundreds of people have died. Thirty-six percent of Indian districts faced severe monsoon deficit and drought this year, alongside the devastating landslides, flash floods and cyclonic rain events intensified by warming seas.

Even after recent floods and landslides have devastated parts of the Western Ghats in Kerala, numerous quarries continue to operate and destabilize the slopes. Unscientific expansion of roads and mega tunnel projects are planned; Image: AFP

Kerala has had its share of both floods and rain deficit. While floods and associated landslides killed many people, it also received 22 percent less overall rainfall than normal. Forty-eight percent of Kerala’s landmass is in the high ranges and 41 percent in the mid-ranges of the Western Ghats, home to national parks and sanctuaries. Among them is the UN award-winning Periyar National Park. Only 11percent is actually coastal, though Kerala is renowned for its white sand beaches.
 
“Both the central and state governments have not understood or conveniently ignored the Western Ghats ecosystem's ecological significance,” laments Viju, who was with me the day I saw the first mine at Sawantwadi and who has since investigated the Western Ghats in Kerala extensively and written the award-winning book Flood and Fury.
 
Natural springs, fast-flowing rivers and seasonal waterfalls… water is perennial and abundant in these mountains which break the first fall of the southwestern monsoon. Fifty-eight rivers, including the Krishna, Kaveri and Godavari, India’s second longest river, originate from them on which an estimated 25 million people depend for water. Indian rivers are considered as mothers, and their origins are steeped in mythology and legend. However, with escalating threat to the Western Ghats, water is threatened and, since agriculture is dependent on water, food supply is threatened alongside.
 
The “high speciation” of the Western Ghats includes medicinal plants and the wild form of many of our grains, fruits and spices. The Kaas Plateau is Maharashtra’s Valley of Flowers—magenta, yellow and blue under light rain and shifting sun. Unique mass-flowering wildflower meadows, Shola forests and Myristica swamps; flagship mammals and landscape species, including elephants and tigers; yet, we still do not have knowledge of many species which live there.
 
In August, a new frog and a new plant species was discovered; in July, a new nocturnal semi-slug; in September 2020, two new species of pipe wort. Unfortunately, despite such frequent discoveries, we may never have time to fully explore before they vanish. The Western Ghats contain 325 of IUCN’s (International Union For Conservation of Nature) globally threatened species and are highly vulnerable to human interference and changes in climate.
 
In a presentation to the Bangalore Climate Change Initiative–Karnataka contributor to the IPCC report, professor NH Ravindranath (retired) of the Indian Institute of Science has foretold: “About 33 percent of the biodiversity of the Western Ghats will be lost by 2050 due to extreme weather. This is irreversible."
 
The climate of our world depends more than ever before on its few remaining ‘biodiversity hotspots’. Their natural ecosystems maintain the conditions for all species, including humans, to evolve and flourish. Self-destructively, human activities are breaking the symbiotic chain, threatening our own existence as species inter-dependent with other species of animals and plants.
 
The Western Ghats emerged from a chain of events beginning when the ancient landmass of Gondswanaland broke up in the early Jurassic age. Far older than the Himalayas, its eroded, time-worn rock formations rise straight up in surreal shapes and craggy cliffs to the Deccan Plateau on their East. It’s easy to imagine that long-ago world of dinosaurs, which were the predominant species then.

Villagers within the Sawantwadi-Dodamarg wildlife corridor where a new mine is proposed worship this Tiger God. They consider tiger kills as sacrifice and are opposed to mining.
Image: Sumaira Abdulali, 2010

 
As India became an isolated landmass and subsequently fused with Eurasia, unique biodiversity evolved, exceptionally profuse flora and fauna endemic to the region and found nowhere else in the world. Of the more than 5,000 plant species, 54 percent are endemic; of the animals, 65 percent amphibians, 62 percent reptiles and 53 percent fishes are endemic. Rivalling the Amazon in biodiversity, the Western Ghats “contain some of the best representatives of non-equatorial tropical rainforests anywhere”, according to UNESCO.
 
Another contributor to the IPCC report, professor Govindasamy Bala of the Centre for Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, said that CO2 levels in the atmosphere were this high 2 million years ago, in a time not known to human civilisation. “The conditions on the planet that allowed humans to develop are fast disappearing," he wrote.
 
‘Save Silent Valley’ may have been the first modern citizen-led environmental movement in the Western Ghats which resulted in the protection of the Silent Valley National Park in 1980 (later integrated as the core area of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve). Supported by eminent scientists Dr Salim Ali and Dr MS Swaminathan, people’s opposition to a proposed hydroelectric project resulted in then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi cancelling its permission.
 
People’s concern for the Ghats was demonstrated when, inspired by the success of Silent Valley, concerned citizens marched from Gujarat to Kerala in the historical 100-day ‘Save the Western Ghats March’ in 1987-88 to protest wider-scale destruction.
 
Shyam Chainani led the Bombay Environmental Action Group in the early 2000s and laid down the blueprint for Eco Sensitive Zones (ESZ) in the Western Ghats when he pushed for notification of Mahabaleshwar and Matheran in 2001 and 2003. An ESZ, unlike a national park which protects wildlife to the exclusion of human beings, accords protection to an inhabited area.
 
Despite these successes, action spearheaded by citizens to protect the Ghats has remained difficult and sometimes met active governmental resistance. Implementation of Mahabaleshwar and Matheran ESZs has been a daunting task. Hema Ramani, who continues Chainani’s legacy 20 years afterwards, has struggled to get the Zonal Master Plans in consonance with the ESZ notifications. She says: “Missing crucial provisions to protect and conserve ecological areas, the state government’s plan is ineffective or even counter-productive to preserve the integrity of the ESZ.”
 
Another form of protection, Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA), was recommended by the ministry of environment and forests-appointed Western Ghats Expert Ecology Panel Report (WGEEP) in 2011. ESA, while still protecting wildlife, biodiversity and environment, integrates the rights of local residents into the notification. Chairman of the panel, eminent ecologist Dr Madhav Gadgil, says, “WGEEP defines three levels of eco-sensitivity, most sensitive to least sensitive.  Sawantwadi-Dodamarg falls in most sensitive and deserves full protection.” He adds: “Empowering people with a stake in the health of their own environments is the only appropriate form to protect nature.”
 
Despite repeated Orders of the Bombay High Court and other courts, the ESA recommendations of the WGEEP have not been even notified today, 10 years later. Maharashtra and Kerala are fighting in court to exclude crucial areas and Karnataka wants the notification to be withdrawn completely.
 
Even notified ESZs, conservation reserves, sanctuaries and national parks (diverse instruments of protection with greater or lesser degree of protection to wildlife or biodiversity or traditional dwellers) remain under serious threat.
 
Meetings of the Standing Committee of the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) list diversion of biodiverse lands as their most prominent agenda items. In January, the NBWL recommended construction of a railway line by diverting forest lands from Dandeli and Bhagwan-Mahaveer sanctuaries and Mollem National Park in Karnataka and Goa. These recommendations are in conflict with citizens’ groups and environmentalists, and challenged in public interest litigation by the Goa Foundation.

This is the fourth consecutive year that Kerala has faced devastating landslides and loss of life. Viju B visited the state to witness the devastation first-hand. “Post the 2018 Kerala floods and major landslides in 2019 and 2020 in Puthumala and Pettimudy, unscientific expansion of roads in Idukki and mega tunnel projects in the eco-sensitive regions in Wayanad have been approved. On average, six quarries operate in every panchayat, and over 50 percent in ESAs identified in the WGEEP report… there has never been an audit on their legality.”
 
India is dependent on monsoon to maintain its climate, water and food, all of which are disrupted when the Western Ghats landscape is disrupted. Contributors to the new IPCC report have predicted disruption in monsoon patterns and 33 percent loss in biodiversity by 2050. The WGEEP and other committees have identified and recommended protection as ESA which has not been accorded, while landslides, floods and other climate-related events are intensifying steadily, destroying the Ghats.
 
Eight years after defaulting on a Bombay High Court order to protect the area, scores of villages at the heart of the Sawantwadi-Dodamarg Wildlife Corridor, like village Asaniye, are specifically excluded from the state’s recommendation to MoEFCC (ministry of environment, forest and climate change) for notification as ESA and instead, marked ‘mining village’ or ‘special zone’. Villages like Asaniye are also excluded from the adjacent Tillari Conservation Reserve and the Amboli-Dodamarg Conservation Reserve notified to protect wildlife by the state government in 2020 and 2021.
 
Local resident Sawant, despairing for his decade-long fight to preserve the corridor, says, “In July, in Asaniye, a tiger attacked and killed a buffalo. Unfortunately, the records of attacks which prove the presence of wild tigers are not being shared even under RTI despite penalties imposed in Appeal Orders.”
 
Eleven years ago, I first entered the muddy forest road and saw the first new mine. Sawant, showing us around, said, “No one listens to us. Please help us.” I looked about, enveloped by the fluorescent green of the monsoon Western Ghats. Ancient mango and mahua trees; a sacred grove with worn stone statue to the tiger God; a fast-flowing gurgling stream. The rain started up. A giant Malabar squirrel, Maharashtra’s state animal, clambered up a tree overlooking a deep red gash of churning mud. The roots of the tree clung precariously, half torn out of the displaced Earth.
 
Long ago in the Jurassic Age, exceptional conditions shaped the beginnings of the Western Ghats; their climate and seasons, including monsoon, create unique conditions under which their endemic biodiversity thrives. These include medicinal trees and herbs, animals and fish.  Humans are inter-dependant with other species of which they are one. When climate conditions change, species are lost: As we dominate it now, dinosaurs once dominated this Earth.
 
(The writer is the convenor of Awaaz Foundation)


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