A crucial report on Western Ghats prepared by K Kasturirangan-led high-level working group (HLWG) has recommended prohibition on development activities in 60,000 sq km ecologically sensitive area spread over Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Goa, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
The 10-member panel, constituted to examine the Western Ghats ecology expert panel report prepared under the leadership of environmentalist Madhav Gadgil, has also moved away from the suggestions of the Gadgil panel.
The Gadgil panel had recommended a blanket approach consisting of guidelines for sector-wise activities, which would be permitted in the ecologically sensitive zones.
"Environmentally sound development cannot preclude livelihood and economic options for this region the answer (to the question of how to manage and conserve the Ghats) will not lie in removing these economic options, but in providing better incentives to move them towards greener and more sustainable practices," the report says.
The panel submitted the report to Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan here today.
"... roughly 37 per cent of the total area defined as the boundary of the Western Ghats is ecologically sensitive. Over this area of some 60,000 sq km, spread over the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the working group has recommended a prohibitory regime on those activities with maximum interventionist and destructive impact on the environment," the panel says in its report.
The Working Group was constituted to advise the government on the recommendations of an earlier report of ecologist Madhav Gadgil-led Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP).
The WGEEP had recommended that the entire Western Ghats should be declared as an ecologically sensitive area. It had suggested three levels of categorisation where regulatory measures for protection would be imposed and had recommended the establishment of the Western Ghats Ecology Authority for management of the Ghats.
The report draws upon the basic framework suggested by the WGEEP to use remote sensing technologies to demarcate the ecologically sensitive areas of the Western Ghats but with two key differences.
First, it used satellite data, down to 24 m resolution, as against 9 km used by WGEEP. This finer resolution, was possible because of the collaboration with NRSC/ISRO, which used datasets to distinguish vegetation types over the landscape of the entire Western Ghats.
Second, the report distinguishes between the cultural and the natural landscape of the region. Using remote sensing technology, it has found that the cultural landscape - which includes human settlements, agricultural fields and plantations -- covers 58.44 per cent of the region.
The natural landscape ranges over the remaining 41.56 per cent. The methodology adopted by NRSC/ISRO has then combined spatial information generated on vegetation types with species level information, biological richness and disturbance regimes - to identify the biologically diverse and contiguous regions of the Western Ghats.
The 10-member Working Group, headed by Planning Commission member Kasturirangan, has environmental experts and other professionals as its members.
"The Western Ghats is a biological treasure trove that is endangered, and it needs to be protected and regenerated, indeed celebrated for its enormous wealth of endemic species and natural beauty," the report says.
Natarajan assured that the recommendations would be looked into urgently so that action can be taken to address these challenges.
She thanked the chairman and the members of the high- level working group for their work and commended the scientific methodology used in the report for analysis.
Kasturirangan said, "The message of this report is serious, alarming and urgent. It is imperative that we protect, manage and regenerate the lands now remaining in the Western Ghats as biologically rich, diverse, natural landscapes."
"We have reached a threshold from which we cannot slip further. This has to be the objective of future planning and regulation in this recognised centre of biodiversity in our country," he added.