PIB News Analysis - Ecologically Sensitive Areas of Western Ghats

The great mountain chain of Western Ghats is the source of all the major rivers of India’s southern peninsula. Its ecological health depend on  the livelihoods of millions of people, not only in the six Western Ghats states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Tamilnadu and Kerala, but of Andhra Pradesh as well. Besides, it is one of the world’s treasure troves of plant and animal life, with a great wealth of unique plant and animal species. The mountains also harbour a number of wild relatives of cultivated plants, including pepper, cardamom, mango, jackfruit and plantain.

This biological wealth has paid rich dividends over the years, including, of course, the dubious dividend of attracting Romans and later other Europeans to trade in pepper, cardamom, sandal and ivory. The health of this precious eco-region has been on continual decline over the last couple of centuries with many ecosystem types almost totally eliminated. 

Recent decades have however seen serious measures being initiated to conserve some of this fast vanishing biological diversity with the constitution of wild life sanctuaries, national parks, tiger reserves, and biosphere reserves. More recently a significant new initiative has been added to these conservation efforts in the form of ‘Ecologically Sensitive Areas’ (ESAs), such as Dahanu taluka, Matheran and Mahabaleshwar- Panchagani.

 ‘Ecologically Sensitive Areas’ are areas under human use, sometimes quite intense human use such as generation of thermal power and cultivation of chikoo in Dahanu taluka. Hence, ESAs are to be viewed as areas where human activities will continue, but be prudently regulated under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.

ESAs are not at all meant to stop development in ways that would hurt local people, but to ensure that development is environment friendly and people oriented, as well as serve to preserve the ecological heritage on a long term basis. There are no set regulations, such as ban on all new industries, or on conversion of agricultural into  commercial land, that would prevail in every Ecologically Sensitive Area; instead, the regulations will be worked out with due respect to local context.

Thus, the total ban on use of plastics at Ooty could be thought of as a specific regulation appropriate for a busy hill station like Ooty  although Ooty has not been declared an Ecologically Sensitive Area. 

More importantly, Ecologically Sensitive Areas are not just about regulation, but about positive promotion of environment-friendly development as well. Thus areas that opt for the status of an Ecologically Sensitive Area could benefit from special programmes such as promotion of development of enterprises based on local plant resources like Garcinia indiaca- kokam, ratambi, muragalu, punampuzhi; whose fruit has been traditionally used in very many ways, and is now known to be an important source of hydroxycitric acid, or establishment of a green technology team of youth trained in setting up and maintaining solar panels, biogas plants, rain water harvesting devices, and so on. 

Gram panchayats in Ecologically Sensitive Areas could also receive special facilities to add to their incomes through taking advantage of new legal provisions such as charging ‘collection fees’ for biodiversity resources to which they are entitled under the Biological Diversity Act. They may also be paid specially for maintenance of traditional crop cultivars from the National Gene Fund, or for sequestration of soil carbon on farmlands under organic agriculture as a part of Indian plans for combating climate change.

Scientists view an ecologically sensitive area as an area whose ecological balance, once disturbed, is very hard to restore. Thus, steep western slopes of Western Ghats, subject to heavy rains and winds, if deforested, are likely to be quickly stripped of soil cover and for ever lose their pristine vegetation. We do have a scientific understanding of the environmental attributes that render areas more sensitive; we also have insights into processes that have resulted in irreversible ecological damage.

Important Points for Exams
Major South Indian rivers originating from WG - Godavari, Krishna, Tungbhadra, Kaveri, Tamraparni

Small South Indian rivers originating from WG -  Vaitarana, Kali, Netravati, Chazhiyar.

Six Western Ghats states - Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Tamilnadu and Kerala.

National Park - Entirely free from human interference, though in reality many management interventions such as creation of water holes and tourism related activities do continue even in the national parks.

Ecologically Sensitive Areas - can be places of intense human use.

Ecologically Sensitive Areas are regulated under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.

Ecologically Sensitive Areas are area whose ecological balance, once disturbed, is very hard to restore.

Western Ghats mountain range occupies around 160,000 sq km across these six states.

Kasturirangan report recommended that approximately 37% of the Western Ghats be kept free from activities that have “maximum interventionist and destructive impact on the environment” and be labelled an ecologically sensitive area (ESA).

Red category industries - those identified as heavily polluting by the Central Pollution Control Board and include fertilizer plants, oil refineries, tanneries and copper smelters in a list of more than 60 industries.

Garcinia indica, a plant in the mangosteen family, commonly known as kokum, is a fruit-bearing tree that has culinary, pharmaceutical, and industrial uses.  Garcinia indica is indigenous to the Western Ghats. Recently, industries have started extracting hydroxycitric acid.

Important News
March 19, 2014: The environment ministry has issued a draft notification declaring around 50,000 sq. km of the Western Ghats as ecologically sensitive.

According to draft notification there would be a complete ban on mining and quarrying in the protected area and that all existing mines within it would have to closed within the next five years. It also prohibits new thermal plants or the expansion of thermal plants in the area. The notification also bars the establishment of all “red category” industries in the area. Red category industries are those identified as heavily polluting by the Central Pollution Control Board and include fertilizer plants, oil refineries, tanneries and copper smelters in a list of more than 60 industries.

According to the notification, the total area defined as ecologically sensitive will be 56, 825 sq. km. The group had originally recommended that this be 59,940 sq km. The reduction is on account of the ecologically sensitive area in Kerala being reduced from 13,108 sq. km mentioned in the group’s report to 9,993.7 sq. km after the state government set up committees to study the impact on 123 villages.

source: pib August 2010