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Report on Western Ghats presented to Indian environment ministry

Apr 18, 2013

Incentivise green growth in the Western Ghats of India, said the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest’s High Level Working Group, while presenting its much awaited report on the Ghats to Jayanthi Natarajan, Minister of State (IC) for Environment & Forests, Government of India, on Wednesday.

The Western Ghats is a biological treasure that is endangered, and it needs to be ‘protected and regenerated, indeed celebrated for its enormous wealth of endemic species and natural beauty’– said the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest’s High Level Working Group, whose much awaited report on the Ghats was presented to Jayanthi Natarajan, Minister of State (IC) for Environment & Forests, Government of India, on Wednesday.

The 10-member Working Group is headed by Dr. K. Kasturirangan, Member of the Planning Commission of India, and includes environmental experts and other professionals as its members.

The Working Group was constituted to advise the Government on the recommendations of an earlier report – that of the eminent ecologist Madhav Gadgil-led Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP). The WGEEP had recommended that the entire Western Ghats should be declared as an ecologically sensitive area; had suggested three levels of categorisation where regulatory measures for protection would be imposed and had recommended the establishment of the Western Ghats Ecology Authority for management.

In August 2012, MoEF constituted the High Level Working Group (HLWG) to examine the large numbers of public responses received to the recommendations of the Gadgil report and to suggest the way ahead.

“The message of this report is serious, alarming and urgent. It is imperative that we protect, manage and regenerate the lands now remaining in the Western Ghats as biologically rich, diverse, natural landscapes. We have reached a threshold from which we cannot slip further. This has to be the objective of future planning and regulation in this recognized centre of biodiversity in our country,” said Kasturirangan.

Jayanthi Natarajan, while receiving the report, assured that the recommendations would be looked into urgently so that action can be taken to address these challenges. She thanked the chairman and the members of the HLWG for their work and commended the scientific methodology used in the report for analysis. She asked for the report to be put out on the ministry’s website for wider dissemination and use.

The HLWG report draws upon the basic framework suggested by WGEEP to use remote sensing technologies to demarcate the ecologically sensitive areas of the Western Ghats but with two key differences. First; it used satellite data, down to 24 m resolution, as against 9 km used by WGEEP. This finer resolution, was possible because of the collaboration with NRSC/ISRO, which used datasets to distinguish vegetation types over the landscape of the entire Western Ghats.

Secondly, it distinguishes between the cultural and the natural landscape of the region. Using remote sensing technology, it has found that the cultural landscape – which includes human settlements, agricultural fields and plantations -- covers 58.44 per cent of the region. The natural landscape ranges over the remaining 41.56 per cent. The methodology adopted by NRSC/ISRO has then combined spatial information generated on vegetation types with species level information; biological richness and disturbance regimes – to identify the biologically diverse and contiguous regions of the Western Ghats.

Its conclusion, based on this methodology, is that roughly 37 per cent of the total area defined as the boundary of the Western Ghats is ecologically sensitive. Over this area of some 60,000 sq km, spread over the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the HLWG has recommended a prohibitory regime on those activities with maximum interventionist and destructive impact on the environment.

The Working Group makes a range of recommendations to “incentivise green growth in the Western Ghats”. These include managing forests and improving their productivity to ensure inclusive growth and economic benefits for local communities; integrating forest accounts into state and national economic assessments; initiating an ecosystem service fund to help villages around the forests; promoting sustainable agriculture and; encouraging ecotourism for local benefits.

As part of the governance of ecologically sensitive areas, the Working Group has proposed to set up a Decision Support and Monitoring Centre for Geospatial Analysis and Policy Support in the Western Ghats, which will monitor changes and advise state government on policy reform. But it has made it clear that all these reports must be in the public domain. It has also recommended that the high-resolution map, which demarcates ecologically sensitive areas, down to each village settlement, must be put in the public domain so that people can be involved in taking decisions about environment, which is first and foremost their concern.

The report notes, “Environmentally sound development cannot preclude livelihood and economic options for this region… the answer (to the question of how to manage and conserve the Ghats) will not lie in removing these economic options, but in providing better incentives to move them towards greener and more sustainable practices”. In doing this, the Working Group has moved away from the suggestions of the Expert Panel, which had recommended a blanket approach consisting of guidelines for sector-wise activities, which would be permitted in the ecologically sensitive zones.

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