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Western Ghats: In dire straits again

One of the world’s ‘hottest’ biodiversity hotspots, the Western Ghats, is in dire straits yet again. Rasheed Kappan explains why the threat is massive this time around.

By Rasheed Kappan
New Update

publive-image The picturesque Western Ghats | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

One of the world’s ‘hottest’ biodiversity hotspots, the Western Ghats, is in dire straits yet again. But this time, the threat is massive: It is feared that the proposed felling of an estimated 2.2 lakh trees for a controversial railway project and the exemption of rural areas from the Karnataka Land Grabbing Prohibition Act could accelerate the devastation of this eco-sensitive region.

Precariously perched after decades of wanton encroachments and unregulated development, Western Ghats has already lost a substantial part of its evergreen forest cover. A soon-to-be-published study by the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Centre for Ecological Studies tellingly illustrates this. Land Use analysis showed that the cover had shrunk to a mere 11% between 1985 and 2018.

Confirming the visible mega cracks in the Ghats’ ecosystem, the study identifies the agents of large-scale land cover changes: Power projects, infrastructure projects, indiscriminate mining, unscientific afforestation with acacia, rubber, eucalyptus and teak, and urban sprawl in major cities such as Pune, Coimbatore, Mangaluru, Kolhapur, Karwar and more. 

Mining activities across the Ghats, the study notes, are disrupting ecological footprints far beyond the physical boundaries of the mines. This has disrupted continuous forest patches. “Interior forest cover has reduced from 37.14 to 25.01% over the past three decades. The loss of 12.2% interior cover with an increase of 11.3% non-forest cover from 1985 to 2018 represents an escalation in fragmentation by affecting local ecology.”  

Spatiotemporal analyses of land use, done as part of the study, indicated a significant loss in the forest cover areas across Maharashtra, Eastern parts of Tamilnadu, and Western sections of Kerala and Goa. 

publive-image One of the world's 36 biodiversity hotspots, the Western Ghats extends from Gujarat to Kerala, spanning an area of 1.6 lakh sq km | Courtesy: Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Centre for Ecological Studies

One of the 36 global biodiversity hotspots, the Western Ghats extends from Gujarat to Kerala, spanning an area of 1.6 lakh sq km. Among the world’s oldest mountain chains, it has a total length of 1,600km with a small break between Nilgiri hills and Annamalai ranges called the ‘Palghat gap’. Its elevation ranges from 300m to 2,700m.


Recurring landslides and flash floods affecting lakhs of people in the Ghats zone have demonstrated the disastrous consequences of reckless development. Yet, governments are in no mood to backtrack. From Kerala to Kodagu and Dakshina Kannada in Karnataka, landslides on the foothills of the Western Ghats have devastated lives. Mild tremors felt by villagers before the landslides point to the damage within.

Ecological fragility has a clear scientific explanation. As Dr T V Ramachandra from IISc, who anchored the study, notes, “In Karnataka’s Kodagu and Wayanad in Kerala, the landslides and mudslides were a direct result of the land cover removal. The region, with its trees cut and hillocks sliced apart, has lost the ability to withstand. Earlier, the trees would bind the soil and prevent erosion”.

publive-image Landslides such as these have intensified across the Western Ghats regions of Kerala and Karnataka | Photo courtesy: Rasheed Kappan

The region is now more vulnerable and worse, and the water is getting lost. “While undertaking development, it is equally important to ensure water to the dependent population. One or two industries are making money at the cost of the villages. What is the point of that kind of development?” he asks.

Leo Saldanha from the Bengaluru-based Environment Support Group (ESG) notes that the mountains, tied together for millions of years, are being opened up. “The rising intensity of rains in the region is battering these mountains, triggering more landslides. One of the world’s oldest mountain ranges is being destabilised for infrastructure,” he points out.

Coastal development could also impact the Western Ghats. A seasoned campaigner for ecological conservation, Saldanha recalls how he and ESG had halted 30 industries, including three power plants in the Mangaluru-Udupi region, during 1996-99. “The forest floor can be destabilised by the industries and even wind turbines.”  

Forest fires pose another threat. Occurring annually during the dry summer season; fires are particularly frequent in the Nagarhole – Bandipur – Wayanad – Mudumalai – Sathyamangalam - BRT belt. This high biodiversity area has the largest populations of tigers and elephants.  

Linear projects  

It is in this context that environmentalists feel outraged by mega projects such as the Hubballi-Ankola railway project getting green-signalled. The railway line is proposed to be built through two biodiversity hotspots, the Bedthi Conservation Reserve and the Kali Tiger Reserve. Cutting through dense Western Ghats forests, the line has a total track length of 168 km and requires the conversion of 594.64 hectares of forest land.

publive-image Kali river flowing through Kali Tiger Reserve | Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Last week, Union Railways Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw assured in Dharwad that the concerns expressed by those opposed to the project would be addressed. The proposed railway line, he said, would be executed in a balanced manner without disturbing the rich biodiversity of the Ghats. The work related to the project would be taken up on a fast track once the case pending before the Karnataka High Court is cleared.  

But the railway line is only one of many projects in the pipeline. As Shankar Sharma, a power and climate policy analyst, reminded Karnataka Chief Minister S R Bommai in a letter, “There are more than 20 linear projects, all in thick forests of Western Ghats of Karnataka, in various stages of planning and implementation.”

This, he noted, “can lead to massive destruction of natural, thick and very high-value biodiversity of enormous relevance to our state in the context of calamitous implications associated with climate change. More than 20 lakh mature trees and/or hundreds of hectares of ecologically very high-value tropical forests face permanent destruction unless your government takes urgent and effective actions”. 

Many of these projects, he pointed out, “are being planned/ implemented even within the legally Protected Areas (PAs), such as Wildlife Sanctuaries, Tiger Reserves and National Parks within the state. One hydel power project is being planned in three wildlife sanctuaries in the state, which is entirely avoidable without compromising the overall welfare needs of the state”. 

Objections to the railway project have come in from multiple quarters. A researcher from Uttara Kannada district draws attention to the rain forests of the Arbail ghat region through which the proposed line is to pass. The sensitive, endangered fauna and flora in this area, the researcher notes, will not be able to bear the impact of the tremors and vibrations of the project construction. This will only get worse once the project is operationalised, he warns.

But not everyone is convinced. Dr M D Subhashchandran, ecologist and consulting scientist based in Kumta, has this to say: “I don’t understand why the railway line is being opposed. Unlike a highway, railways have no linear development along the track. No hotels or human settlements sprout on the side of the tracks, except near stations which are in already populated towns and villages.”

“As an ecologist working in this area for 35 years, I can say the highways pose more danger to the Ghats than railways due to the high-density traffic. Also, the energy consumption for trucks and passenger vehicles is in multiples of what would be required for the trains to run. Besides, trains carry about 60-70 loaded trucks,” contends Dr Subhashchandran. 

publive-image A projection of the alarming fragmentation and increasing spread of non-forest areas in the Kodagu district of Karnataka | Courtesy: Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Centre for Ecological Studies

The final word on the project is not out yet. But similar linear projects and related developments have played havoc with Kodagu, another Western Ghats zone. According to one estimate, 66,892 hectares of pristine forest cover have been lost due to large-scale land use changes with coffee plantation expansions. Homestays, villas and other commercial activities have gobbled up major chunks of forests in Kushalnagar and Madikeri taluks. 

Threat from exemption  

The Karnataka government’s move to exempt rural areas from the Karnataka Land Grabbing Prohibition Act (KLGPA) is seen as another threat. It is feared that this will give a free hand to forest encroachments. The government has identified 2.04 lakh acres of forest land as encroached in the state, and almost 77% of these are in the Western Ghats regions in Shivamogga, Chikkamagaluru and Uttara Kannada districts.  

The Karnataka Forest Act had mandated only a year’s imprisonment for encroachment. The KLGPA empowered special courts to raise this to three years. Environmental activists fear the exemption will now only increase the encroachments. This, they note, will add to the vulnerability caused by reducing the extent of deemed forest land by 80%. The last defence against forest land grabbers is now being weakened.  

Deeply involved with wildlife conservation in Sagara taluk of Shivamogga district in Central Western Ghats, Akhilesh Chipli sees in the government’s move a deliberate attempt to take away the last stretch of greenery. “I am disappointed that my village is not included in the eco-sensitive areas. Instead, they are in reverse gear, withdrawing 6.5 lakh hectares from deemed forest areas. This is devastating the Ghats,” he points out.

The rich biodiversity of the Western Ghats has been well documented. A recent estimate shows that the zone has over 5,000 species of flowering plants, 38% of which are endemic. The Ghats also host 330 species of butterflies (11% endemics), 197 reptiles (62% endemics), 529 birds (4% endemics), 161 mammals (12% endemics), 335 fishes (41% endemics) and 248 amphibians (75% endemics). Over 300 globally threatened flora and fauna species are found in the Western Ghats. 

publive-image The picturesque Western Ghats | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

Large-scale land cover changes induce higher mudslides and landslides in the region. As the IISc study makes it clear, the Ghats have areas with steep slopes and high altitudes that are particularly vulnerable to being eroded more easily by high-intensity rainfall. These ‘least resilient regions’ constitute a vital habitat to diverse flora and fauna and are ecologically fragile. 

Water security threatened 

“The Western Ghats form a watershed for peninsular India. We have water security and thus food security because of these Ghats. If you maintain the green cover of native species, you will have water for 12 months. But when you convert it to a monoculture plantation, water availability will shrink to four to six months,” reminds Dr Ramachandra.

Inevitably, this affects the livelihood of people in the vicinity. “Farmers earn about Rs 1.54 lakh per acre per year in the vicinity of forests with native species. Those near a degraded landscape earn only Rs 32,000 per acre per year. This is mainly because they can grow multiple crops near a native species forest with year-long water availability, unlike other regions.” 

Besides, the diversity of pollinators is higher in the vicinity of forests with native species. “Because of this, pollination becomes efficient, and crop yield becomes higher. For example, if the crop yield is 14-16 quintals per acre near native species forests, in other regions, it is only 6-8 quintals per acre. When the government says they will double the income of farmers, the best way is to make the pollinators thrive. This can happen only if the regions rich in biodiversity are conserved,” he contends. 

An earlier study on the Kali river in the zone had shown that the physical integrity of its catchment area was altered due to the unplanned construction of a series of dams, the Kaiga nuclear power plant, a paper mill and more. These large-scale land cover changes led to the decline of forests from 84.6% (1973) to 54.9% (2016) and the reduction of evergreen forests from 61.7% to 38.5%. 

Ecologically fragile, the Western Ghats are the source of the Godavari, Kaveri, Krishna, Thamiraparani, and Tungabhadra rivers, which flow from west to east, draining into the Bay of Bengal. Periyar, Aghanashini, Bharathappuzha, Kali, Gangavathi, Pamba, Netravati, Sharavathi, Mandovi, and Zuari rivers flow westwards, draining into the Arabian Sea.

publive-image The Godavari bridge across the Godavari river in Rajahmundry at East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh | Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Fragmentation, man-animal conflicts

New linear projects, both rail and highways, tend to aggravate the fragmentation of habitats. Deep data collection and analysis over long periods have clearly established fragmentation as a key factor for biodiversity loss, impacting animal migration corridors. Eco experts point out that the forest cover loss in wildlife corridors has intensified human-animal conflicts.  

Since the continuity of forest areas is lost, animals tend to reside in small fragments. Their movements are restricted to relatively narrow bands around forest edges, and this leads to more inbreeding. Due to monoculture plantations in forests under the Social Forestry programmes, the animals are also deprived of dietary variety. Animals then tend to migrate, raiding crops with recurring instances of conflicts.

publive-image A look at the Ecologically Sensitive Regions (ESRs) of Western Ghats under four categories, with ESR-1 being the most sensitive and ESR-4 the least | Courtesy: Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Centre for Ecological Studies

Ecologically Sensitive Regions (ESR) in the Western Ghats have been bracketed under four categories. An estimated 16% (63,148 sq km) is categorised under ESR-1 with very high ecological fragility, 16% (27,646 sq km) under ESR-2 with potential to fall into the first category, 34% under ESR-3 (48,490 sq km) with moderate fragility and 18% (20,716 sq km) under least ecological fragility.

This eco-fragility has reached alarming proportions in Kerala, where 841 villages across districts fall under the Western Ghats. Tellingly, 163 of these villages are categorised under ESR-1 and 270 under ESR-2. Recurring floods, landslides and water shortages are symptomatic of an ecosystem in serious jeopardy. Experts have called for urgent and stringent conservation measures since the villages under ESR-1 and 2 are endowed with rich endemic biodiversity. 

publive-image The eco-fragility has reached alarming proportions in Kerala, where 163 of the 841 villages under the Western Ghats are categorised under Ecologically Sensitive Regions (ESR-1) | Courtesy: Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Centre for Ecological Studies

The way forward 

So, what exactly are these measures? The Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has categorised industries as red, orange, green and white. It recommends a strict ban on all ‘red’ category industries, including mining and thermal power plants in all four ESR regions.

A draft notification issued by the ministry in July mandates that all existing mines should be phased out within five years from the date when the final notification is issued. To bar new thermal power projects in ecologically sensitive areas, the draft cites activities with a pollution index of 60 and more. New townships and area development projects are also to be prohibited in the zone.

To mitigate the frequent human-animal conflicts, it is recommended that the fragmentation of native forests be addressed. The way to do this is to plant fruit trees in the dispersal corridors between the fragment patches so that the animals get dietary diversity. “Maintain connectivity among canopy across linear corridors, arrest the deforestation by strict vigilance, protect fragments from further degradation, and develop forest species nurseries by involving local stakeholders” are other measures recommended.

But enforcement could lag since the Karnataka government has issues with the MoEF&CC draft notification, demarcating 20,668 sq km in the state’s Western Ghats zone under Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA). While the Kasturirangan committee had classified 59,940 sq km (37% of the Western Ghats) as ESA spread across four states, the recent draft had demarcated a total of 46,832 sq km in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Goa and Tamil Nadu. Excluded from the draft notification, Kerala has recommended 9,993.7 sq km to be earmarked as ESA. 

Karnataka’s objection is based on two key factors: Implementing the provisions would affect local residents and their livelihoods and impact development activities. Besides, the state contends that the ESA demarcation was based only on satellite imagery and did not rely on an on-ground scientific survey. Although the state argues that implementation will cause thousands of villagers to be relocated, the Kasturirangan report is clear about the non-displacement of residents.

For the record, the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) headed by ecologist Madhav Gadgil had recommended in 2011 that the entire region be designated as ESA. While the Gadgil report was dubbed as too eco-friendly, the Kasturirangan report was seen as a clear dilution. The time seems ripe to strike a lasting balance.


Rasheed Kappan is a senior journalist based in Bengaluru with nearly three decades of experience. In the past, he has worked in the Deccan Herald, The Hindu and The Times of India, covering issues related to urban mobility, sustainibility, environment and the interface between policy, planning and activation on the ground. A graphic cartoonist, he is the founder of Kappansky and explores the linkages of art, media and innovation through multiple creative platforms.