The recent nomination of the West-ern Ghats as a United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) World Heritage site, if nothing else, has created awareness of a world-class biodiversity hotspot in India, which is in need of protection.
With this, a battle is won but the war continues. The arena is the Western Ghats where the war rages on between business and political interests on one side and civil society and environmentalists on the other.
The prestigious nomination was announced in the middle of a mounting controversy about the protection of the Western Ghats, triggered by the submi-ssion to the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) of a report by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP). Commissioned at the request of concerned members of the civil society and environment groups in the region, the report triggered such fear in government circles over the need to protect the environment that the MoEF tried to suppress it. But the attempt was squashed by a court order.
Instead of making the most of the report and the Unesco tag, the overwhelming reaction from state governments has been a growing paranoia about the idea of environment protection, which is interpreted as intrinsically anti-development. It’s a bizarre overreaction, given that just 39 specific areas of the Western Ghats, spreading across only 8,000 sq km, have been granted the World Heritage nomination. The total area of the Western Ghats is 129,037 sq km, for which the WGEEP report makes specific recommendations and provides guidelines, balancing protection with appropriate development, according to eco-sensitivity zones.
The concept of ‘development’ is influenced by — and depends on — unsustainable industrial and economic models. Urban expansion is alienating people from nature and the impact of growth is degrading the environment and driving thousands of species to extinction. Yet, when push comes to shove, business interests tend to win over ecological balance. Can more growth deliver prosperity? I don’t think so. Evidence shows that ecosystems that sustain our economies are collapsing under the impact of rising consumption. The time has come to imagine other models.
Therefore, it is not surprising that Goa, with 20.4% of its territory under ‘protected area’, did not apply for the World Heritage tag. This glaring omission demonstrates that the government had no intention of applying for it, as the ‘protected area’ is coveted by mining barons whose dream is to bulldoze the entire Western Ghats if vigilance dwindles.
India is not known for an effective implementation of laws and regulations. So ‘protected areas’, where business interests rule, is a matter of interpretation, degree and time. A World Heritage tag may add an extra shield of protection.
Suppressed for years by successive governments controlled by mining interests, the Unesco application for Goa is now finally being processed. By promoting development at all costs in fragile eco-sensitive areas, and treating the Western Ghats and the entire planet’s natural resources as part of a market commodity, we risk devaluing what is intrinsically precious about nature, and risk undermining our own survival.
Carmen Miranda, is chair, Save Goa Campaign, Britain, and a member of the Save Western Ghats Movement
The views expressed by the author are personal