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People Versus Protection In Western Ghats

Goa and the central government are locked in a conflict over designation of villages in the Western Ghats as ecologically sensitive areas (ESAs). While the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has proposed demarcation of 99 villages in four talukas of Goa as ESAs, the state government has proposed 19 villages from three talukas of Sattari, Sanguem and Dharbandora for the inclusion as ESAs. The high-level working group led by Dr K Kasturirangan prepared a report in 2014 earmarking an area measuring 1,461 sq km in Goa (nearly 40 per cent of the total geographical area of the state) as ESAs, the three committees set up by the Goa government proposed an area measuring 249 sq km (less than one-fourth of the area proposed by MoEFCC) to be declared as ESA. The Western Ghats – stretching some 1,600km from the north of Mumbai to the southern tip of India –is a biodiversity hotspot that contains a large proportion of the country’s plant and animal species, many of which are only found in the areas sought to be protected and nowhere else in the world. The UNESCO is considering declaring the Western Ghats as World Heritage Site, given its historical importance.

Based on the Kasturirangan report, the central government issued a draft notification on March 1, 2014 declaring ESAs in the Western Ghats, except in Kerala, and called for suggestions and objections. As nearly 40 per cent of the total geographical area from Goa was earmarked for inclusion in ESA by the Kasturirangan panel the state government objected to the draft notification. The state demanded that the exercise be done de novo by accommodating local needs and constraints and state’s concerns. The state government after physical verification proposed only 19 villages (around 7 per cent of the total area of Goa) to be designated as ESAs and inclusion of only portions of lands in proximity to the protected areas, like wildlife sanctuaries, in the remaining villages. It is unlikely that there would be an agreement between Goa and the Centre on the issue in the near future.

While safety of biodiversity hotspots is a priority for Goans, just as it is for people in other states, given the small size of the state, the state needs to put forth a reasoned proposal to ensure that much of the area proposed for inclusion in ESAs is removed from their ambit so that the people living there are not adversely affected. As land is limited in the state, it would be difficult to rehabilitate the people who would have to be displaced from the sanctuaries and notified areas. The people living in areas proposed to be notified as ESAs have been there for generations and earning their livelihoods solely on agricultural, horticultural or forest products. A shift to a different environment could mean loss of livelihoods and economic distress for those families. There cannot be an agreement between the state and central governments unless all the concerned work towards building a consensus on the designation of ESAs and the taking care of its impact on the families living within those areas. The sooner the issues are resolved and an agreement is reached, the better as the larger issue of preserving the Western Ghats as bio-diversity hotspot is an indisputable priority to all sections of population, including those likely to be affected by the central government’s plan of designating ESAs.

It is not only Goa that has been having problems with the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests over the issue of final demarcation of ESAs but also five other states – Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The Western Ghats, which had many plants and animal species, have borne the brunt of development, urbanization, pollution and poaching. Many species in the areas are facing extinction and if adequate steps are not taken in the near future they would become a part of ecological history. Around the world, only 35 areas qualify as hotspots. Though they represent just 2.3 per cent of the earth’s land surface, they support more than half of the world’s plant species as endemics – species found in no other place – and nearly 43 per cent of bird, mammal, reptile and amphibian species as endemics. Biodiversity hotspots are irreplaceable as these species are limited to certain areas. India is blessed with Western Ghats and Goa is a part of the hotspots; so its people and government have a role to play in saving its bio-diversity. The protection of biodiversity should not be a casualty in the tussle between the state and the Centre. A solution balancing the needs of biodiversity protection and the local communities has to be found.

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