India is a land so beautifully crafted by the hand of God. The Himalayan Ranges and the Western Ghats are two marvels of the Indian landscape. The Himalayan ranges protect us from the cold Northern winds and the snow fed rivers that originate in the Himalayas provide succour to the massive Indian Population inhabiting the Indo-Gangetic Plains. Towards the South and West of India, the forest covered Western Ghats are vital to the South West Monsoons and provide much of the inflow to the life-giving rivers across the Deccan Plateau and South India, sustaining about a fourth of India’s population. Without the Himalayas and the Western Ghats, much of India would have perhaps been a cold, wind-swept and arid landscape. It is more than obvious that these two regions are to be regarded as the Principal eco-regions of India and long term policy measures are needed to protect and safeguard the environment and the ecology of the Himalayas and the Western Ghats.
Against this backdrop, it is disturbing to see that mindless human activity in the Himalayas resulted in the Uttarakhand tragedy and that vested interests are crying hoarse to prevent the implementation of the Madhav Gadgil report and the Kasturirangan report on protecting the Western Ghats. The common line is that “Development cannot be stalled for the sake of Environment”. It is a different matter that the Kasturirangan report is inadequate and that a few aspects of the Madhav Gadgil recommendations need to be toned down.
The protection of these regions is vital in order to ensure food and water security to the people of India. Huge quantities of water are also required for Industries that propel the Nation’s economy. Therefore it is not Environment protection at the cost of Development but Environment protection to ensure long-term sustainable Development and Economic Stability. Food and water security in their true sense also ensure health security by addressing the issues of malnutrition and water borne diseases caused by river pollution at source and beyond. Degradation of catchment areas and reduced water availability for down-stream urban centres will result in over dependence on bore-wells. This has already led to groundwater in Indian cities plummeting to levels where the water is dangerously contaminated with under-ground minerals and salts.
To analyse the matter in greater detail, it would be interesting to take a look at Kodagu in Karnataka. Kodagu is a small district of 4108 square kilometres, astride the Western Ghats. It is the principal catchment for River Cauvery and provides almost fifty percent of the total inflow. River Cauvery sustains about 80 million people across South India and also provides water for hundreds of major industries. Protection of the Kodagu Landscape and other similar regions is in the National Interest. Hence, it is a matter of deep concern that these areas are being subjected to rapid urbanisation, and invasive tourism. Paddy fields and coffee plantations are fast being converted to residential layouts, sites, villas and tourist resorts. Meanwhile, development projects such as State Highways, Railways, Power Lines and hydro-electric projects are poised to rip through Kodagu.
In resisting a proposed 400KV power line through Kodagu, the protesters in Kodagu have been joined by farmers groups from the Mysore-Mandya region and even from the rice growing areas of Tanjavur in Tamil Nadu. They have joined the protest in order to prevent thousands of trees being hacked down in South Kodagu which is the catchment of Lakshmantheerta River, a principal tributary of Cauvery. This is indeed historic. It is perhaps the first time ever that downstream farmer communities have organised themselves to protect upstream catchment areas. In this case it is surprising that the concerned agencies appear keen on massive tree felling when far more economical and less damaging options are available.
For the sake of transferring a mere 32MW of power from Kaiga to Khozikode, over 50,000 trees in Kodagu and several thousand trees in Wynad are to be felled. Credible information indicates that the existing Transmission lines are capable of handling this load and the entire multi-crore project is unwarranted. Instead, an archaic British law termed as the ‘Indian Telegraph Act’ was being used by the authorities as a means to brow beat the people into accepting the Power Line through Kodagu.
Urban sprawl is gradually eroding the food producing areas in India. Productive agriculture land is being fast exploited by Real Estate and Construction interests. This in turn degrades rivers across the country as huge quantities of sand are mined from the river beds. True, the Government has brought in regulations to curb irregular sand mining. However the paradox here is that while it is perfectly legal to produce millions of bags of cement and boost the cement industry, there are strict regulations for the sand that will be required for the cement when it is used for construction. The Government has therefore created a Demand and Supply situation that has given rise to the ‘Sand Mafia’. Sand is still available but at a price. Measures to curb rampant urbanisation and protection of food growing regions from Real estate interests will enhance food security and will also protect our rivers. It will also be crucial to identify alternatives to sand for use by the construction industry.
On the other hand, Policy makers look at massive river-interlinking projects across the country in order to overcome drought. The economic costs amount to mind boggling figures of thousands of lakh crores! Mountain ranges, deserts, forests and river systems have evolved through the millennia. Drastic man made changes to these geographic features carried out directly or induced by man will only cause irreparable harm to humanity. The country can well be drought-proofed by proper watershed management programs. The simple brilliance of Anna Hazare and Father Bacher in the Ahmednagar region of Maharashtra need to be carried to the rest of the country. The existing watershed development agencies have to be revamped. There needs to be in-depth analysis on the reasons why large parts of India remain prone to drought despite several watershed schemes. Watershed schemes must be monitored at the Gram Panchayat level. Awareness programs, capacity building and participation by Gram Sabhas need to be ensured.
The previous Government at the Centre had embarked on a program of identifying and encouraging Special Economic Zones with a slew of incentives. But why is there no attempt to identify, encourage and provide incentives to food-producing and plantation crop zones? Why not identify and provide incentives to communities in Principal Catchment areas such as the Himalayas and the Western Ghats? Other countries already have the concept of Payment for Ecological Services [PES]. It is a simple idea of Upland Communities and Low land Beneficiaries. Indeed, it is for consideration that the farmers of Mandya-Mysore and Tanjavur have shown the way in supporting the agitation against the Power Line through Kodagu.
Prime Minister Modi recently announced that the North Eastern States would be turned into a Global hub for organic produce. This is precisely what needs to be done for the entire Country. Each region or sub-region needs to be identified as a zone for a specific purpose and the policies should be formulated and implemented accordingly. Principal eco-regions and food-growing belts need to be kept relatively free from demographic pressures to the extent possible. The concept of zone –level planning if successfully implemented in India, can also be adopted by other countries.
Forests are often linked with catchment areas. India has de-notified 700.000 hectares of forests during the past decade, for the sake of Development projects. Meanwhile, across the country, Man-animal conflict is on the rise. Elephants, Leopards, bears and even Gaur are increasingly coming into direct contact with human populations outside forest areas. Monkey menace is also a serious problem in many places. There is growing anger and frustration among communities adjacent to forest areas. There is constant demand on the Forest Department to capture, cull, translocate and barricade. But unfortunately the focus is only on the species and not on the root causes of habitat destruction. Prime TV Channels and celebrities love to line up for ‘Save the Tiger Campaign’ but as a nation we need to go far deeper into environment concerns.
All too often we come across bureaucrats mouthing clichés like ‘Development comes at a cost’. Our policy makers have to introspect; what is ‘Development’ and what is ‘Cost’. Can the Uttarakhand tragedy be written off as Cost against Development?
We also need to look beyond our borders when it comes to the looming threat of Climate change. The most important case in point is the Himalayan ranges. The Himalayas are vital to food and water security for a sixth of the world’s population across South Asia, China and South East Asia. The effects of climate change in the Himalayas could also pose a threat to our internal security. Rising sea levels could force thousands of displaced ‘climate refugees’ to move into India from Bangladesh, giving rise to social tension and strife. If the Himalayas are to be protected from Climate Change there is a need for cooperation between these concerned nations. Climate change mitigation strategies through reduction of Short Life Climate Forcers [especially Black Carbon] are easily within our reach and at almost no cost. The measures for cutting down emissions of Short Life Climate Forcers need to be combined with attempts to regain the glory of the Himalayan Forests. In India, we have excellent scope for afforestation of the Himalayas through Ecological Territorial Army units manned by able bodied ex-servicemen.
The Himalayas and the Western Ghats are threatened with irreversible damage to their ecology and await the sad fate termed as the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’. But there is still time to save these precious eco-regions. The Himalayas in particular holds out immense opportunity for international cooperation and this could be a beacon of hope for other shared eco-regions such as the Alpine ranges, the Amazon basin and the Arctic Ice cap. India could well lead the way.
Col CP Muthanna (the author) is President, Coorg Wildlife Society, & Founder-Secretary, Environment and Health Foundation [India]
(Photo credit : Creative Commons)