56,825 sq. km of the Western Ghats now an eco-sensitive zone
Much-needed protection for one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots
Last week, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change notified 56,825 sq. km of the Western Ghats as an Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA). The region, spread across six states, is now a no-go zone for highly polluting or extractive industries such as mining, quarrying, construction and thermal power generation.
The Western Ghats is of the world’s eight mega-hotspots of biological diversity, and is home to around 325 globally threatened species. In 2012, it was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its ranges serve as important wildlife corridors and form a part of the Project Elephant and Project Tiger reserves.
The decision will afford much-needed protection for the region, which has been severely fragmented by human activity. However, the demarcation is not without controversy.
The Ecologically-Sensitive Area, which constitutes close to 37 per cent of the Western Ghats, was identified after several years of discussion, as stakeholders struggled to come to a consensus on its boundaries. The Western Ghats supports a population of approximately 50 million people; state governments and local populations raised fears that the formation of an ESA and a ban on developmental activities would result in the loss of livelihoods.
As noted by Business Standard, this would be the first such zone cutting across state boundaries, and the country’s largest ESA till date. However, the area covered is still far less than what had originally been recommended by experts. In 2010, the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, helmed by noted ecologist Madhav Gadgil, had recommended that the entire region of the Western Ghats be declared ecologically sensitive, with an area of 77,000 sq km deemed out of bounds for new industrial activities. The Environment Ministry chose to adapt guidelines from another panel, headed by scientist K Kasturirangan, which suggested a no-go zone of around 60,000 sq.km.
Photograph of shola grasslands in Kudremukh National Park, Karnataka, courtesy Wikimedia Commons