Projects in Western Ghats face uncertainty

By Ruchira Singh, Shamsheer Yousaf & Neha Sethi | July 3, 2012 | Mint

A press release on Unesco’s site said the World Heritage Committee on Sunday inscribed four natural and four cultural properties from around the world on the World Heritage List, including the Western Ghats for its “high level of biological diversity”.

Environmentalists lauded the move, while trade representatives and government officials denounced it as an anti-development measure, even though details such as which projects could be affected, and how, were not immediately clear

“The 39 sites of the Western Ghats have been selected as heritage sites and all these are protected areas,” said Jagdish Kishwan, additional director general forests (wildlife) in the ministry of environment and forests. “They are already governed by the present set of legal framework. No new regulation or legislation will come up.” Kishwan said the whole of Western Ghats hasn’t been notified as a heritage site.

 

This should mean that projects outside these areas will not be affected, although government officials said the Western Ghats’ new-found status and the world’s attention could mean that getting clearances for fresh industrial development may become harder.

Existing projects may continue

Environmentalists said existing projects are unlikely to be shut down, though they may have to ensure that operations do not run afoul of environmental rules.

But at the end of the day, shaping the balance between development and environmental policies in the Western Ghats will be the government’s prerogative, a former Union government official said.

The Western Ghats are older than the Himalayas and represent geomorphic features of immense importance with unique biophysical and ecological processes, said the Unesco media release , adding that its high montane forest ecosystem influences the Indian monsoon. “Moderating the tropical climate of the region, it presents one of the best examples of the monsoon system in the planet,” it said. “It is recognized as one of the world’s eight ‘hottest hotspots’ of biological diversity.”

Development hamstrung

Karnataka’s forest minister C.P. Yogeshwar said the heritage tag comes with a lot of restrictions, and other forest officers said it would empower environmentalists and non-governmental organizations. He said the Karnataka government has appointed a Western Ghats Task Force that is taking up conservation work in the state, and that there was no need for the heritage tag.

Several projects in the Western Ghats, many of which are not in the heritage zones, have been awaiting environmental clearance from the Union government for many years, and may find their cases weaker now. For instance, a hydel power project at Gundia in Karnataka and the Hubli-Ankola railway line, which would ease transportation of iron ore to ports on the west coast, have been held back for lack of environmental clearances, said Ullas Karanth, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Boost for tourism?

Nishant Alag, an environmental planner at Environics Trust, said tourism could be used to generate revenue for the states rather than projects like mining. “We are against mining, and anything which puts an end to it and promotes biological diversity is a welcome move for us,” Alag said. “Since the Western Ghats have been earmarked as a Unesco World Heritage Site, heritage tourism can boost the area.”

The forests of the site include some of the best representatives of non-equatorial tropical evergreen forests anywhere and are home to at least 325 globally threatened flora, fauna, bird, amphibian, reptile and fish species, Unesco’s release said.

This article originally appeared in Mint.

Image courtesy: R.Srinivasan / Conservation India

 

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