Far from the pristine forest sanctuaries of the Western Ghats, a group of 21 members of the Unesco's World Heritage Committee will meet in Paris later this month to decide on whether 39 pockets dotting the mountainous belt will make it to the prestigious league of 180 natural sites around the world to boast of a world heritage tag. The ghats that make up much of India's western coast and cut across six states may indeed acquire the plaque, but the much-anticipated heritage status raises several uneasy questions. Could a global heritage stamp help revive the sanctity of the biodiversity hotspot which has been robbed of its natural glory? Can the mountain stretch withstand the piqued touristic interest that such an international honour is likely to bring? Will a world heritage tag really promote conservation where existing green laws have failed?
It only takes a night in the quietude of the Periyar tiger reserve of Kerala to understand what sets the Western Ghats apart. Like Periyar, 38 other sites nestled deep in the range including wildlife sanctuaries in the elephant hills of Tamil Nadu, evergreen Coorg forests in Karnataka and the Ratnagiri sanctuary known for its bisons in Maharashtra are set for Unesco's heritage status. The range colloquially called the Sahyadris is already acknowledged as one of the 34 biodiversity hotspots in the world by Conservation International and Indian heritage experts believe it is long overdue for special conservation efforts. "The heritage tag will have a net positive impact, " says Jagdish Krishnaswamy, who is part of the Centre appointed Western Ghats Natural Heritage Management Committee. "While the damage cannot be undone, the global attention could help restore many affected sites, besides discouraging state governments from initiating new development projects in real estate, mining or road construction in protected areas. "
Tasneem Mehta, vice-chairperson of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach), too believes the global tag would give an impetus to preservation of biodiversity. The region houses nearly 3, 049 endemic plant species and is a sanctuary for threatened birds such as the green-billed coucal, spot-billed pelican and the Kashmir flycatcher. It is the source of rivers - Godavari, Cauvery and Vaigai among others - and forms part of many elephant corridors. "The Western Ghats are among the most ancient mountain ranges in the world but there seems to be no consciousness to preserve them. The inscription at least will push everyone to take cognisance, " says Mehta, pointing out how similar recognition had come to the rescue of the Elephanta caves.
It was in 2006 that the Centre proposed the Ghats for a Unesco heritage inscription. The agency recognises natural heritage as including "natural sites which have universal value from the point of view of science, conservation or natural beauty". India has four other sites on the world natural heritage list (see box above) and the Unesco committee will meet in Paris from June 19 to 29 to decide whether the ghats make the mark. While the inscription doesn't bring any funding, besides training in conservation, it is expected to mobilise government action as the status of chosen sites is closely monitored.
TOURISM: A DOUBLE-EDGED DILEMMA
Thumb through any travel brochure on India and the words "World Heritage Site" are stamped across popular attractions. The picturesque Western Ghats may just emerge as the next hot tourist package on offer. The area is no stranger to tourism having historically attracted pilgrims. It emerged as a commercial spot with the development of hill stations such as Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu, Coorg in Karnataka and Mahableshwar in Maharashtra.
A closer look reveals that the stretch is already crumbling under the pressure of tourism projects. Take the case of Kodaikanal (located right next to the Unesco shortlisted Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary) where the rise in the number of tourists is alarming. "The Tourism Officer has recorded an increase in tourists from 20. 5 lakh to 32. 8 lakh from 1999 to 2009 which is a huge burden for a town with a population of only 30, 000, " points out old-time resident M S Viraraghavan of Palani Hill Conservation Council. He was commissioned to conduct a study on hill stations in the Sahyadris by the environment ministry-appointed Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEP). He said the local civic body had recorded 233 violations of zoning restrictions and 1, 503 buildings constructed without sanction. Locals suffer acute water shortages from January due to storage of water for the "tourist season" in April-May. The concerns are no different in tourist destinations like Goa, Ooty or Coorg. Locals point out that the Nilgiri forests are now shorn of their trademark orchids and the Shola forests exposed to air pollution due to tourist vehicles constantly zigzagging through tiger reserves. Green belts like Sindhudurg in Maharashtra which was demarcated as one of the earliest eco-tourism zones lie ravaged due to unregulated mining activity, which has been stalled only recently. In such a scenario, an increased interest in the ghats may spell doom, fear many. "A heritage tag makes a place more popular and gives it more attention from central and state governments. This usually means more funds allocated, without a clear vision of how they would be used. The focus is unfortunately on infrastructure suited to mass tourism, " says Aditi Chanchani of Bangalore-based tourism research and advocacy organisation Equations. Their research in the ghats showed that benefits of tourism rarely percolate to indigenous communities.
Experts say there is a need to regulate opening up of more natural reserves to tourism. Also recommended is the creation of a metropolitan agency to holistically address tourism in the ghats instead of piecemeal at the level of the local zilla parishads and civic bodies.
Unesco itself has acknowledged the tourism dilemma that comes with its accolades. Among the strategies it suggests is reducing demand by imposing higher visitor fees. The agency, in fact, cites the success of hiked entry fees in Rajasthan's Keoladeo national park which is already on the list. The move in the 1990s saw a decrease in footfalls but an increase in tourist-driven revenues. Lessons could also be learnt from the tiger reserves of Sunderbans which successfully use camp and cottage-based eco-tourism devoid of energy-guzzling technologies. The government too has begun to take cognisance. The environment ministry this week stated that a cess would be introduced for private hotels within five kilometres of natural habitats, restrictions placed on the number of tourists and lodges in the middle of sanctuaries moved out.
WILL THEY MINED IT?
It was way back in 2003 when the Centre set up the Mohan Ram committee for the Western Ghats that local groups suggested that the stretch be considered an "ecologically sensitive area" (ESA) under the Environment Protection Act, 1986 so that the Centre could clamp down on illegal development activities. Eight years later, activists like professor Jay Samant of the Sahyadri Ecologically Sensitive Areas, a conglomeration of over 25 NGOs, estimate that 80 per cent of the ghats have already been stripped of their glory. "Even now, the heritage tag will only apply to 39 pockets. At this rate, we will have nothing left to protect in the next ten years, " he said. The changed status will alter little in the light of missing political will, especially since the area itself presents a paradox. The red hills are rich in iron, manganese and bauxite ore, making them ideal for mining.
From one state to another, unregulated mining and illegal roads have stripped the hills of green cover. Public interest litigations have highlighted mining violations in Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra. In the latter, the state government has put a moratorium on mining in the Sindhudurg-Ratnagiri districts till June 30. But mere closure may not be adequate as seen in the case of the mines at Kudremukh. It is alleged that around 20 billion tonnes of magnetite iron ore is lying open in the mine areas which were shut, posing a threat to the nearby Bhadra river.
K N Ganeshaiah, head of the department of forestry and environmental sciences, GKVK, Bangalore and member of the WGEP, advises caution. "We tend to have two extremes in this debate - people who love nature blindly and those from corporations with commercial interests; we need to understand that mining isn't wrong, but it should not clash with conservation. " He, however, questions the tendency to give international recognition in the form of the Unesco tag precedence over existing legislations such as the biodiversity act or forest rights act. "As a scientist, it is demeaning that we need an outside agency to make us respect our natural heritage. Such hype often works to the detriment of other sites. The Eastern Ghats are also as important but will be ignored only because they don't have any global stamp. "
Chairperson of the WGEP Madhav Gadgil too believes development and conservation could go hand in-hand if the top-down management approach is shelved and locals involved. "We recommended to the visiting team that the management of the sites be made participatory and transparent. Locals are all for conservation, but often feel terribly exploited, " he said.
That explains why the Unesco-appointed team which visited villages in the Western Ghats last October met with stiff resistance in Kodagu, Coorg and Kolhapur. Locals in Kolhapur were wary of any eco-sensitive demarcations after their experience of the Radhanagari wildlife sanctuary being declared an eco-sensitive zone. The Centre then banned the use of electricity for commercial purposes within 10 km of the sanctuary which meant a shutdown of even local flour mills. But Krishnaswamy reassures that the heritage tag does not change "rights or restrictions" as present under existing legislations. If the inscription goes through, he admits that the government will have to take locals into confidence to appropriately manage these sites.
Kaziranga National Park, Assam (1985)
Keoladeo National Park, Rajasthan (1985)
Nanda Devi and Valley of Flowers National Parks, Uttarakhand (1988)
Sundarbans National Park, West Bengal (1987)
The Western Ghats stretch through an area of 1, 60, 000 sq km and cut through Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat. The heritage tag would apply to 39 sites in all except Goa.
The sites were inspected in October by a team from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The 39 sites fall in the sub clusters of Agasthyamalai, Periyar, Anamalai, Nilgiris, Talacauvery, Kudremukh and Sahyadri stretches.