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Kasturirangan Panel Report on Western Ghats , Discuss

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"…this is what the 10 member expert panel headed by Dr K Kasturirangan said in its report presented to the environment minister Ms Jayanti Natrajan(Former ).The Kasturirangan committee was set up to advise the government on recommendations of earlier report of eminent ecologist Madhav Gadgil-led Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP).The WGEEP recommended that the entire western Ghats should be declared ecologically sensitive area (i.e. all the industrial activities like mining, thermal plants should be stopped).This was strongly opposed by the industrial lobby. Keeping in mind the economic interest of locals of Western Ghats as well as economic activities of industry in the area government constituted Kasturirangan committee.

The Kasturirangan committee report draws upon the basic framework suggested by 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, it 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. Its conclusion, based on this methodology, is that roughly 37 per cent of the total area defined as the boundary of the Western Ghats is ecologically sensitive.

To answer about the reduction in area of ecologically sensitive area Kasturirangan committee can argue that the western Ghats they considered was larger compared to WGEEP. Gadgil's Western Ghats runs parallel to the Arabian Sea for nearly 1,500 km from Gujarat's Tapi River in the north to just short of Kanyakumari in the south, there has been no standard definition of its east-west width, which varies from 10 to 210 km. In the absence of a consensus on the precise boundaries, the Gadgil panel went by forest types above a certain altitude to define the Western Ghats landscape across 1,29,037 sq km. The Kasturirangan panel, on the other hand, adopted the criteria followed by the Western Ghats Development Programme of the Planning Commission and identified 188 taluks as its Western Ghats landscape, which worked out to 1, 64,280 sq km. But still question Is about the reduction of about 17000sq km by Kasturirangan committee in highly sensitive area where any type of development will be restricted.

The flipside of the Kasturirangan panel's approach, however, is that such exclusions will fragment the ESA. While the natural north-south continuity of dense forests will largely be maintained, covering prime tiger and elephant corridors of the Ghats, small patches of ESAs identified in the wings of this unbroken axis may be of little ecological benefit. In fact, given the experience in such cases, these tiny islands of ESAs are unlikely to survive encroachment and other human misuse for too long.

However, both panels stressed the importance of protecting local livelihood interests, which is essential to build a pro-conservation constituency among the communities. While Gadgil's three-tier ESZ model favored the concept of "develop sustainably – conserve thoughtfully" over a strict "go/no-go" regime, Kasturirangan stressed on adequate financial arrangements to incentivize "green growth" in the region

Now what recommendation are implemented and what are not solely depends on new government but whatever Is done it should keep in mind the western Ghats has over 13 national parks and several sanctuaries and declared by UNESCO as one of the most important biodiversity hotspots in world. India today stands where only sky is the limit. But we should keep in mind what an ecologist once said"if you think economy is more important than environment, try counting money holding your breath".

Vinay Mawandia