Torrential rains, overflowing rivers and a series of landslides have currently resulted in the deaths of over 360 people in Kerala. Rivers such as Bharathappuzha, Chalakkudi, Periyar, Pamba, Achankovil and Meenachil, rising from the Western Ghats, are flooding villages and townships. Roads and bridges have been devastated and washed away. Landslides and floods have submerged houses. Mobile phone networks are down and Kochi international airport has been closed. More than 150,000 people have been dislocated. Most regions impacted by this monsoon’s floods were classified as ecologically sensitive zones by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP).
The 1600-km long Sahyadris or Western Ghats, spread over Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, represent geomorphic features of immense importance along with unique biophysical and ecological processes. There are many references to the Sahyadris in our epics and Puranas. The Valmiki Ramayana describes the Ghats as majestic mountains with brightly coloured peaks, rich in flora and extensive forest tracts. Valmiki describes Pampa as a tributary of Tungabhadra, arising in Rishyamukha mountains. Pampa Sarovar is also the site where Shabari, a disciple of Rishi Matanga, awaited the arrival of Sri Rama. It also has significance as the spot where Sri Rama met Hanuman and Sugriva, as narrated in Kishkinda kanda of the Ramayana.
Among important tirthas located in the Western Ghats is Triambakeswar near Nashik in Maharashtra, which accommodates 12 sacred Jyotirlingas. Sri Shankara established a monastery at Sringeri on the banks of river Tungabhadra in the Western Ghats. The Vidyashankara temple at the Sringeri Sharada Peetham has a number of sculptures from various traditions. Gomateshwara shrine at Shravanabelagola near Shimoga, Mookambika near Kollur, all in Karnataka, and Sabarimala in Kerala, are three major pilgrimage shrines in the southern extension of the Western Ghats for various lineages of the Hindu tradition.
Western Ghats is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Western Ghats mountain chain has an estimated 5000 species of flowering plants, 139 mammal species, 508 bird species and 325 globally endangered species. It is currently estimated that only less than ten percent of the Ghats’ primary vegetation survives and that it has 51 critically endangered species. Scientists at the Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute at Thiruvananthapuram have published a comprehensive work which has marked 7402 species of flowering plants in the region, out of which 5,588 species are indigenous, 376 are exotics naturalized and 1438 species are cultivated or planted as ornamentals. The study shows that 2,253 out of the indigenous species are endemic to India, with 1,273 species exclusively confined to Western Ghats.
These forested hills are also the source of numerous rivers, including Godavari, Krishna Tungabhadra, Periyar and Cauvery. Western Ghats is thus a huge water tank supplying water to six states. Further, Karwar and Ezhimala are two major Indian naval bases situated in Western Ghats region.
A report in 2012 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said that encroachment and illegal mining are threatening the Western Ghats. According to the Worldwatch Institute, from 1980 to 2008, an average of 52 species per year moved one category closer to extinction in Western Ghats, on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Endangered Species.
Biodiversity in Western Ghats is facing a threat from forest loss, encroachment and conversion, said a global environment agency in its report. The new report, “IUCN World Heritage Outlook 2”, put the hills in the “significant concern” category. Another report released in 2017, by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) at the UN climate change conference in Bonn, Germany, says increasing pressure from human population in the Western Ghats region is greater than that faced by many protected areas around the world.
A CAG report released in 2017, titled ‘Administration of National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries in Karnataka’ says more than 1.5 lakh acres of land in Western Ghats have been encroached during the last two decades.
Sacred groves, Kavu in Malayalam, are rich abodes of biodiversity and water resources. Kerala has witnessed a drastic reduction in the number of its sacred groves. While the state claimed more than 10,000 groves at the time of its formation in 1956, currently less than 1000 exist. Mangroves, the salt tolerant plant community which provides habitat for various migratory birds and breeding and feeding ground for many aquatic species, are systematically destroyed through mineral sand mining in Kerala. According to the Standing Committee on Water Resources 2016, submitted in Lok Sabha, encroachment on water bodies in Kerala is meant for constructing houses and other commercial establishments along the banks of water bodies. Apart from this, people have filled the water bodies for commercial activities.
The Western Ghats ecology expert panel set up by the Environment Ministry has recently designated the entire Western Ghats as an Ecologically Sensitive Zone (henceforth ESZ) to ensure that the current moratorium on new environmental clearances for mining, polluting industries and power plants remains extended till completion of carrying capacity analysis.
A major part of the biodiversity of Ghats is under threat from human activities, which has adversely affected climate change and ecological process of the river systems. It was in this context that the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (henceforth WGEEP) was constituted in March 2010 with clear terms of reference put forward by the Ministry of Environment and Forests.
The WGEEP was constituted after a meeting of the Save the Western Ghats Movement (henceforth SWGM) with representatives from more than 160 organisations and thousands of people. The SWGM was again revived in 2009, leading to a meeting at Kotagiri in the Nilgiris in February 2010. It set up the WGEEP to assess the current ecological status of the Western Ghats region, demarcate areas that need to be notified as ecologically sensitive, and recommend notifying such areas as ecologically sensitive zones under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 and make recommendations for the conservation, protection, and rejuvenation of the Western Ghats region following a comprehensive consultation process involving the people and governments of all the states concerned.
WGEEP is also known as Gadgil Commission, after its chairman, Prof. Madhav Gadgil. The commission submitted the report to the Government of India on Aug. 31, 2011. It aimed to evaluate the current state of the Ghats and recommend strategies for “conservation, protection and rejuvenation” through a process of consultations with people, state governments as well as commerce and industry.
The Gadgil Committee Report drew strong protests from the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church which even suggested an international conspiracy behind it. Dr. V.S. Vijayan, Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel Member, said the remarks of the Catholic Church, that commission members received cash from foreign sources was unfortunate. He pointed out that it was not a right move on part of the Church to issue a pastoral letter against the report accusing foreign conspiracy when a majority of churches seek financial support from foreign agencies.
Although submitted in 2011, the Ministry of Environment and Forests under the UPA government kept the Gadgil report in safe custody for eight months. The matter was taken to the Delhi High Court and following a court order, the ministry released the 522 page report.
Gadgil provides testimony that the traditional eco-friendly heritage of Western Ghats has been virtually destroyed by the introduction of vulnerable scientific management initiated under colonial rule. The pace of destruction has only accelerated with independence, through liquidation of private forests, large scale felling as roads connected hitherto inaccessible regions on account of development projects, decimation of the resource base of forest based industries that have been practicing excessive, undisciplined harvests. All this served the interests of economic and communal lobbies and pressure groups and the deprived were the marginalized rural and vanvasi (forest) communities.
The church and mining lobbies propagated that the Gadgil report was against farmers and that they would be evacuated if it was implemented. The propaganda was aimed at communal inflammation since the farmers who encroached the Ghats belonged to the Catholic church. The Gadgil report does not recommend any exodus of farmers or deprivation of their agricultural land. On the other hand, it prohibits further encroachment of forest land by economic interest groups and lobbies who have been exploiting small scale farmers.
The Scheduled Castes and Vanvasis supported the Gadgil report. In October 2013, organisations under Kerala Dalit Maha Sabha (KDMS) supported implementation of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel Report prepared by Madhav Gadgil. At a meeting in Thodupuzha in Idukki, they demanded immediate implementation of the Gadgil report as ‘it was farmer-friendly’ and ‘contains many good suggestions for a long term plan’ to help the people at the grassroots. The Maha Sabha said the implementation of the Gadgil report will hamper the agenda of forces that work to evict vanvasis and dalits from their lands and this was why its implementation was opposed by lobbies.
Even Frontline (Volume 18, Issue 21, Oct. 13 – 26, 2001) reported that the tribal people were once in possession of large tracts of forests in Kerala, especially in areas that are now in Palakkad, Wyanad, Idukki, Pathanamthitta, Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram districts. Frontline admitted that to a large extent, post-Independence governments were responsible for the Adivasis losing their lands to encroachment by non-tribal settlers. But Frontline did not dare reveal the open role of the Syro-Malabar Catholic church which sponsors major encroachment of the Western Ghats.
There were strong agitations in Kerala against the Gadgil report by the Syro-Malabar Catholic church, supported by the Congress and Left parties. India Today published a story (October 2013) titled, ‘Kerala priests and politicians unite to oppose Gadgil report on Western Ghats.’
As witnessed in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, there are hardly any ‘Long March’ agitations by the Left-affiliated All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) against the huge land encroachments by the Catholic church. The Kisan Sabha has not dared to raise a single allegation against the Catholic church regarding land encroachment. There are no agitations by Kisan Sabha for thousands of vanvasi families who remain landless in Western Ghats region of Kerala.
(To be concluded…)