BANGALORE, INDIA—A long-running battle over conservation and development in India has taken a new turn. India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests disclosed on 27 August that it had shelved a report calling for aggressive measures to preserve the ecology of the Western Ghats, a UNESCO World Heritage Site encompassing a large swath of southwestern India that’s home to at least 500 endemic species of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Instead, the government has adopted another set of recommendations that some ecologists say will do too little to safeguard the region’s biodiversity.
Biodiversity in the Western Ghats has been under siege for decades. A 1997 study in Current Science found that the region lost about 40% of its forest cover between 1927 and 1990 to agricultural fields, coffee and tea plantations, and hydroelectric reservoirs. Habitat fragmentation has put endemic birds such as the Nilgiri wood pigeon and white-bellied shortwing and mammals such as the Nilgiri tahr, Malabar civet, and lion-tailed macaque on endangered lists.
In 2010, the Indian government tasked a committee led by ecologist Madhav Gadgil, who founded the Centre for Ecological Sciences at Bangalore’s Indian Institute of Science and served on the Scientific Advisory Council to the prime minister, to draft recommendations on how to conserve the Western Ghats. In their 2011 report, Gadgil’s team proposed that 164,280 square kilometers of the Ghats be declared as eco-sensitive, which meant, among other measures, phasing out mines, dams, polluting industries, single-crop plantations of introduced species such as eucalyptus for timber, genetically modified crops, and synthetic pesticides. This meant that mining would be banned in major iron-exporting regions such as the villages of the Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts of Maharashtra, while hydropower projects such as the Athirappilly dam on the south Indian river Chalakudy would not get the go-ahead.
Those sweeping recommendations did not sit well with the state governments whose territories include portions of the Western Ghats. To placate them, the Indian government commissioned another report by a group led by space scientist Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan, who was then a member of India’s Planning Commission, a government body that formulates 5-year plans. The Kasturirangan Committee report, delivered to the government in 2013, whittled the eco-sensitive zone to 60,000 square km, reasoning that the remaining areas are cultural landscapes with human settlements that are already too large to be disrupted. These cultural landscapes would have fewer regulations and would include the mining districts in Maharashtra and Goa, and the Athirappilly hydropower site.
Ecologists slammed the Kasturirangan report. In an open letter to Kasturirangan last year, Gadgil pointed out that several cultural landscapes, such as tea estates, harbor large numbers of endangered species such as the lion-tailed macaques and therefore need an eco-sensitive status. And having a small protected region inside a large cultural landscape, he wrote, is like trying to “maintain oases of diversity in a desert of ecological devastation.” Other ecologists have complained that the Kasturirangan report omitted important wildlife corridors connecting eco-sensitive areas in order to protect migration routes of animals such as the Asian elephant. Sindhudurg, for example, lies along one such migratory corridor between the forests of Maharashtra and a tiger reserve in Karnataka.
But the Kasturirangan report authors respond that the Gadgil report is too sweeping and impossible to implement. “We believe you cannot turn back the clock on places where there are a large number of people settlements,” says Sunita Narain, who heads the Delhi-based environmental advocacy group, Centre for Science and Environment. And putting a moratorium on mining Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts, where the livelihoods of people depend heavily on mining, or banning monoculture coffee plantations simply wouldn’t have worked, she says. “You can’t keep an indefinite moratorium on anything. You can only set conditions on how to go about development. That is what we have done in our report.”
The battle hasn’t come to an end yet, however. The Goa Foundation, an environmental organization, has said that it will contest the government’s decision to reject the Gadgil report before the National Green Tribunal, a special body for resolving environmental disputes in India. If it doesn’t get a favorable ruling, the organization says, it will move to the Supreme Court.