The Western Ghats is for good reason referred to as India's ecological crown. Its undulating slopes, loping valleys, pristine air and the lush green cover have for centuries
enchanted the visitor, making it currently among the 10 hottest bio diversity hotspots in the world.
But with untrammelled exploitation, illegal mining and environmental rape, the once beautiful Ghats are in danger of turning arid in the years to come. More than ever before, the danger is now real.
Consider the following: The Western Ghats start near the border of Gujarat and Maharashtra, south of the Tapti river and runs approximately 1,600 km through Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala ending at Kanyakumari at the southern most tip of India.
For a sheer extended green cover, wild life and fauna, it is pretty much India's own Amazon. But these ghats also exemplify India's constant struggle to balance the imperatives of development with keeping its environmental stables clean - and so far the results spell doom and destruction. In the name of economic growth, there is illegal and 'legal' mining, for boosting tourism there are a rash of unplanned holiday resorts and if that was not enough, there are moves afoot to establish nuclear power plants to meet the growing demand for electricity.
All this coupled with the powerful and illegal timber mafia have one common agenda: to maximise the exploitation of rich natural resources, whatever the means.
While the battle between those working to stave off an ecological disaster and those influential lobbies hell bent on pursuing 'development', has been raging for a few years, the latest set of events suggest that the battle, if anything, is going to be intensified like never before.
Recently, the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE), an affiliate of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and a Central Empowered Committee (CEC) which was set up by the Supreme Court (SC) to probe mining in the Western Ghats have surprisingly given contradictory recommendations, stirring a fresh round of public discourse.
The influence and might of the miners on one hand is pitted against the environmentalists and indigenous people with both chartering their own courses of action - the former for getting fresh mining approvals and the latter for organising mass resistance to every new mine which is going to be dug.
Illegal mining in Bellary, Tumkur and Chitradurga districts of Karnataka became national headlines when former Karnataka Lokayukta, Justice Santosh Hegde, in his final report, shed some ignominious light on the magnitude of the loot through illegal means and consequent loss of thousands of crores of rupees to the state exchequer.
Later, the arrest of mining baron and the former Karnataka tourism minister G. Janardhana Reddy and his allies have managed to keep the issue alive.
In July 2011, two days after Justice Santosh Hegde submitted his final report on illegal mining, the apex court, acting upon the CEC's observations, suspended all mining activities in the affected districts.The SC simultaneously directed the ICFRE to conduct a study on the extent of environmental damage caused.
Now the shocker. The ICFRE led by its Director General V.K. Bahuguna – whose job it is officially to protect the environment – has specially recommended underground mining in the Western Ghats!
Bahuguna justified his recommendations by expostulating at length on the importance of steel in India's growth story and to support his argument, cited the example of Sweden’s capital Stockholm which is situated on an underground mine - all this coming from a dyed-in-the-wool ecologist.
Not unexpectedly, Bahuguna's recommendations have raised a storm and joining in the avalanche of criticism is the apex court-appointed CEC.
The CEC in its report submitted to the Supreme Court on February 3, 2012, opposed the ICFRE proposals and went on to say that the "ICFRE is totally out of context and beyond
its terms of reference''.
People in Karnataka, particularly those living along the basins of Tunga and Bhadra rivers, have harsh memories of how hard they had to fight throughout the 1990s and early 2000 to prevent state- owned Kudremukh Iron Ore Company Ltd (KIOCL) from expanding its operations to Gangadikallu and Nellibeedu mountains, the sky-kissing green hills that Tunga, Bhadra, Netravati and other rivers originate from.
According to some ecological estimates, had KIOCL succeeded in getting approval for mining in these mountains, there was a distinct possibility of these rivers drying up, affecting over 1.5 crore people in 11 districts of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Large scale local mobilisation followed. So-called 'Peoples Resistance' coupled with a prolonged legal battle saw a temporary victory when the Supreme Court imposed a ban all mining activities in Western Ghats in 2006.
But it may have come a shade too late. According to environmentalists, the KIOCL venture had cost the Ghats more than 6,000 hectares of dense forest cover. There has been worse. For more than two decades, over 27,000 tonnes of slurry has been discharged into the Bhadra river every month during monsoon and the three dams, including Lakya, which were built exclusively to check the flow of the slurry, continue to pose an ecological threat. If dire warnings of environmentalists are to be taken into account, these dams – or eco-bombs – might break anytime and the chemical-mixed slurry could cause a tragedy similar to Bhopal.
The scenario in tiny Goa which stretches 105 kilometres end to end, is, if anything, worse. The overwhelming feeling in the state is that illegal mining has been largely ignored by the government and the media, and where, by all accounts, the pillage is even more indiscriminate than Bellary. It is no surprise that most mine barons of Goa also have interests in
Bellary and elsewhere.
Another reason for Goa's pique against the central government is that while Delhi has harped on illegal mining in Bellary because it has a BJP government, for reasons of political expediency, it has overlooked Goa which is Congress-ruled.
Activist Rama Vedip, a tribal coconut and rice farmer, who has been protesting against illegal mining since 1996 and was arrested for his troubles, says iron ore mining now has now virtually reached the edge of their farms which has led to reduced water tables as well as deterioration in the quality of water.
Vedip has complaints galore. "The sad fact is the administration, including the police, is more concerned about protecting the interests of mine owners. They do
not care about what will happen to our farms and livelihood,'' he says.
Same with Nilesh, a 24- -year-old tribal from the Kavre village in south Goa that falls in the Western Ghats.
As a mining activist, he and his comrades gained a temporary victory when they managed to shut down a mine right next to their farms that was threatening their water supply. But that is a rare instance. Says Nilesh, "We are tribals and we have written letters to powerful people in Delhi, to protect us. We see our sacred hills being destroyed by mines. But nobody listens to us." Sad.
Illegal mining has taken its toll on the state's social fibre. Goa’s tribal communities like Gawadas, Velips and Kunbis, traditionally cattle herders, farmers and craftsmen; had to give up their family occupations because of the onslaught of mining and were compelled to become, amongst other things, truck drivers.
Experts believe that within the next five years or so, Goa, which is surrounded by sea, could face a severe water shortage and its beautiful beaches, lush green fields and thick forest cover will become a red-muddy landscape! For sheer imagery, it cannot get worse than this.
In Maharashtra, which contains a significant portion of the Western Ghats, ecology and illegal mining is not even an issue.
Environmental activist Ramesh Gawas laments how mindless mining is damaging the lush ghats. "We can not justify legal and illegal mining. In the Western Ghats, we have wild life protection area, a buffer zone, a tribal area and others. But the government continues to remain silent on a potentially devastating issue. It is yet to issue any report on what is going on in the name of mining in these areas.'' Gawas has a point. Kalne village in Maharashtra's Sindhurdurg district is rated as the worst-hit by illegal mining and is said to be undermining the ecological balance.
According to Gawas, illegal mining is also destroying the beauty of Konkan. "While the Karnataka government has at least issued a notice against illegal mining, the Goa and Maharashtra governments have not even done that. There is no official notice that can help prevent illegal mining,” he says.
The problems of Western Ghats in Tamil Nadu are somewhat different. Though there is not much evidence of mining in the Nilgiri Hills, in Ahasthya Malai, Mahendra Giri and Palani Hills, all part of Western Ghats, massive quarrying activities has damaged ecology.
A hyper active civil society has ensured that checks and balances remain in place.
Lawyer and activist Elephant G. Rajendran, filed a PIL against illegal quarrying and mining in Nilgiris in which the Madras High Court in 2009 directed officials to ensure that no illegal mining takes place.
More people like Rajendran, who went to great lengths and at personal risk to get to the bottom of the barrel, are required. "I approached a lorry driver who took me inside the quarries in the guise of a colleague. I shot photographs. It came as a shock when we realised that more than 400 lorries, each carrying 20 tonnes of blue metal, were being carried out of the hills to both the Kerala and Karnataka borders five days a week. I filed a PIL immediately and the court asked the district authorities to investigate. Not satisfied with the report, the case was referred to state CID. Finally they produced a detailed report in which they identified 107 illegal quarries in the Nilgiris. The High Court has passed a very good judgment in which it stopped all quarrying and directed that in the eventuality of a complaint, the village administrative officer, Inspector of Police and the Department of Geology officials be suspended. Now illegal quarrying in Nilgiris has stopped completely. In this case 35 persons were held and one trial is going on. Some of the big fishes, however, managed to escape,'' Elephant G. Rajendran told TSI.
Mining is not the only hazard; a slew of so-called developmental projects are also jeopardising the fragile ecosystems of the Western Ghats.
The Kaiga nuclear power plant in Karnataka is one such example. Despite mass protests in the 1980s and several unanimous resolutions passed by the local governing bodies against setting up of the plant in the middle of the Western Ghats, the government decided to go ahead with the project.
Nuclear radiation does not just harm the rich biodiversity, it is also known to cause cancer. But the fact that Karnataka alone has approved 136 projects, big and small, that are potentially harmful to the Western Ghats, speaks volumes about the state government's brazen attitude towards ecological best practices.
Despite the world's third major nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan, which has compelled some governments to rethink their policies on using nuclear energy, the Indian government is going ahead with its plan of setting up a series of nuclear power plants in Jaitapur in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra in collaboration with France.
Though there are no major mining projects in Kerala, dams built across Periyar, may have a negative impact on the fragile biodiversity of the Ghats.
The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) headed by Madhav Gadgil has designated the entire hill range as an Ecologically Sensitive Area.
The panel has classified 142 taluks in the Western Ghats into Ecologically Sensitive Zones (ESZ) 1, 2 and 3. It has recommended that “no new dams based on large-scale storage be permitted in Ecologically Sensitive Zone 1. Since both Athirappilly of Kerala and Gundia of Karnataka hydel project sites fall in Ecologically Sensitive Zone 1, these projects should not be accorded environmental clearance,” it asserted.
Far from taking a sensitive view, the Kerala government has rejected the proposals of the WGEEP and urged the central government to “do away with the Western Ghats Ecology Authority (WGEA) altogether.''
Apart from these projects and the mining, timber mafias who go hand in hand with forest officials, operate across the length and breadth of Western Ghats.The mafia activity involves cutting huge valuable trees and smuggling them to cities in the form of furniture and other woodwork.
The Lokayukta Police last year raided the house of an IPS officer Murugan in Shimoga and seized illegal timber stock worth a huge unspecified amount. The episode revealed the nexus between the police, officials and wood smugglers. Little wonder that the splendour of the Western Ghats forest are slowly but steadily getting denuded.