By Pandurang Hegde:
Agumbe is a small village perched on the mountain range of Western Ghats in Karnataka. It is also called the Cheerapunji of South India as it receives the highest rainfall. It is a popular tourist destination, where people come to watch the sunset from the heights of Western Ghats overlooking the Arabian Sea. The greenery around Agumbe is soothing. But as you walk deep into the forests, you will realise that the greenery has its own shades. The greenery of plantations, especially of the acacia exotic species, is strikingly distinguishable from the natural forest. The natural forest has a soothing effect with a diversity of species, whereas the plantation has only a single species with dry hot conditions.
There is a close link between these two kinds of greenery in Western Ghats, and in urban centers like Bangalore. The water supply to Bangalore comes from Kaveri, the river that originates in Western Ghats. In order to get regular water supply in urban areas, it is essential to have natural growth forests in the catchments of Kaveri. They are the factories that produce pure water. The plantations are like ‘timber mines’. They are ‘green’ but not in a position to recharge water into our tanks and rivers.
According to scientists like Prof. Madhav Gadgil, “It is essential to conserve these natural forests in Western Ghats to secure the water and food security of millions of people in South India”. The forest cover in hill areas should be 66 percent, to provide ecological security. However, in reality the forest cover is less than 10 percent! This reduced percentage of forests is bound to cause disruptions in water supply for Bangalore. Realising this crucial role of natural forests, the call was given to conserve the remaining natural forests by Western Ghats Expert Ecology Panel headed by Prof. Gadgil.
“I think this is the only practical way to protect the Western Ghats”, he said. Further emphasizing that people at the village level should be given the power to decide and implement conservation measures, rather than politicians and bureaucrats deciding from above.
Unable to digest this suggestion of devolving powers to people, the politicians have rejected the Gadgil committee report and replaced it with a diluted version of the Kasturirangan report. This gives a free hand to politicians to continue destructive practices like mining, diversion of rivers, and changing land use. The watered down report of Kasturirangan fails to conserve the remaining natural forests in Western Ghats. The irony is that even this diluted report is not palatable to politicians.
I met Rama Gawda of Khanapur, near Belgum, who said, “The politicians say that our village will be vacated, we will not be allowed to cultivate and only wildlife will be allowed to survive?” These kind of rumors were spread deliberately by politicians to create fear psychosis among villagers. Realising the threat to their livelihood they were forced to reject the Kasturirangan report. In almost all the consultations across Western Ghats region in Karnataka, the government sponsored consultation process was based on rumors.
The process of extension of green deserts will continue if we allow politicians to decide the fate of Western Ghats. The youth in cities can play a constructive role in linking the Western Ghats to everyday life.
How this can be done?
‘Minchu Ideas’ is a small group of women who are working in several schools in Bangalore to create awareness on Western Ghats. They have reached thousands of students and through numerous discussions, slideshows and picture competitions, they have shown the importance of Western Ghats. These students are aware that the water they drink comes from Western Ghats.
In order to get continuous water for future generations, we need to conserve the Western Ghats. However, as a person living in this region, I have experienced that it is being gradually converted into green deserts. The naturally biodiverse forest is shrinking and the unnatural monoculture exotic plantations are spreading. This is like expansion of green deserts in Western Ghats. If you look carefully at the rubber plantations in Kerala and acacia plantations in Karnataka, they reveal the myth of these ‘green’ cover. Though it looks green, the plantations do more harm to ecology and destroys the water source adding to climate change.
The politicians are playing a dirty game in perpetuating the same policies that accelerate the destruction of Ghats. This is evident in the way they have rejected the Gadgil report and now refuse to implement even the watered down Kasturirangan report. By the time these parochial games come to an end, we would have caused irreparable damage to these fragile ecosystems in the Western Ghats.
(Pandurang Hegde is activist of Save Western Ghat Movement, working with Appiko-Chipko Andolan for past three decades. He lives on a small organic farm on the edge of tropical forests in Western Ghats)