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Draft Norms for Western Ghats


The latest draught notification on Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESA) in the Western Ghats from the Union Environment Ministry is facing stiff opposition in Karnataka.

The Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) issued a draught notification designating large portions of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, and Maharashtra as eco-sensitive areas. Karnataka, with 20,668 square kilometres of notified areas in the Western Ghats, is the largest of these states. In Karnataka, there is strong opposition to this notification.


GS Paper 3: Environmental impact assessment

Mains Question

Explain the significance of India’s Eastern Ghats. Suggest actions that can be taken to protect the region’s biodiversity. (250 words)

The Karnataka’s Oppose

  • The Kasturirangan committee submitted a report in 2013 recommending that 37 percent of the Western Ghats, covering an area of 59,940 square kilometres, be designated as ESA.
  • On this basis, several draughts were introduced, which were later rejected by neighbouring states, including Karnataka.
  • Since 2014, the Union government has issued several draught notifications to the Karnataka government in order to finalise the eco-sensitive areas in the Western Ghats, but the government has been steadfast in its refusal to implement the same.

The new draft notification for the Western Ghats

  • The draught notification designates 46,832 square kilometres as ESA in the Western Ghats across five states: Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Goa, and Tamil Nadu.
  • Kerala is excluded from the draught notification, and it had previously undertaken the exercise of physically demarcating ESA in the state.
  • The ESA recommended by the Kerala state government covers an area of 9,993.7 square kilometres, as opposed to the 13,108 square kilometres recommended by the K Kasturirangan panel in its 2013 report.
  • The ESA covers 20,668 square kilometres in Karnataka, 1,461 square kilometres in Goa, 17,340 square kilometres in Maharashtra, 6,914 square kilometres in Tamil Nadu, and 449 square kilometres in Gujarat.
  • The notification states that the concerned state governments are responsible for monitoring and enforcing the notification’s provisions.

Curbs that the state have to implement as per the notification

  • According to the draught notification, mining, quarrying, and sand mining will be prohibited in the ESA. All existing mines must be closed within five years of the final notification date or the expiration of the existing mining lease.
  • It also prohibits the establishment of new thermal power projects and the expansion of existing plants in the sensitive area, as well as the establishment of any new ‘Red’ category industries.
  • These are activities, such as petrochemical manufacturing and coal liquefaction, that have a Pollution Index score of 60 or higher.
  • New townships and area development projects will also be prohibited in the zones.
  • All existing health care facilities, however, will remain in ESA, as will new hydropower projects based on the Environmental Impact Assessment notification.
  • Industries in the ‘Orange’ category, with a pollution index score of 41-59, such as jute processing, and industries in the ‘White’ category, which are considered non-polluting, such as chalk making, will also “be allowed with strict compliance of environmental regulation.”

Ensuring the implementation of these norms

  • The Environment Ministry will establish a Decision Support and Monitoring Centre for the Western Ghats in collaboration with the state governments of the region.
  • This will assess and report on the status of the ecology of the Western Ghats on a regular basis, as well as provide a decision support facility in the implementation of the notification’s provisions.
  • The concerned state government, the State Pollution Control Board, and the Ministry’s regional office will monitor projects and activities permitted under the ESA after they have been cleared.
  • All projects in the Eco-sensitive Area that have received environmental or forest clearance will be monitored at least once a year by the Union Environment Ministry’s concerned regional office.
  • The state governments will also prepare an annual ‘State of Health Report’ for the Western Ghats region under their jurisdiction, detailing the steps taken to monitor and enforce the notification’s provisions.

Suggestions by the Kasturirangan panel

  • The panel, established in 2012, was tasked with taking a “holistic view of the issue and bringing synergy” between the goals of protecting the environment and biodiversity, while also meeting the needs and aspirations of local and indigenous people, as well as ensuring the region’s sustainable development and environmental integrity.
  • This high-level working group recommended future steps to prevent further degradation of the Ghats’ fragile ecology.
  • The report advocated for a total ban on mining, quarrying, red-list industries, and thermal power projects. It also stated that before granting permission, the impact of infrastructure projects on the forest and wildlife should be studied.

Gadgil Committee Report, 2011

  • In 2010, the Ministry of Environment and Forests established the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), chaired by Prof Madhav Gadgil, to primarily demarcate ecologically sensitive areas in the Western Ghats and recommend management measures for these ecologically sensitive areas.
  • WGEEP designated the entire Western Ghats as an Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA) and assigned different regions three levels of Ecological Sensitivity.
  • When it is established, establishing a Western Ghats Ecology Authority through a broad-based participatory process.
  • It recommended that no new dams based on large-scale storage be permitted in the Panel’s Ecologically Sensitive Zone 1.
  • In Goa, WGEEP proposed an indefinite moratorium on new environmental clearances for mining in Ecologically Sensitive Zones 1 and 2, phasing out mining in Ecologically Sensitive Zone 1 by 2016, and continuing existing mining in Ecologically Sensitive Zone 2 under strict regulation and an effective social audit system.
  • It proposed the establishment of a Western Ghats Ecology Authority (WGEA) as a statutory authority under the Ministry of Environment and Forests, with powers granted under Section 3 of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.
  • It outlined a bottom-up approach to environmental governance. It also advocated for the formation of fully empowered Biodiversity Management Committees in all local governments.

What are Eco Sensitive Areas?

  • ESAs are defined as areas “that are ecologically and economically significant, but vulnerable to even minor disturbances, and thus require careful management.”
  • As a result, ‘ecologically and economically significant’ areas are those that are biologically and ecologically ‘rich,’ ‘valuable,’ and/or ‘unique,’ and are largely irreplaceable if destroyed.
  • Furthermore, because of their biological richness, they have the potential to be of high value to human societies, contribute to the area’s ecological stability, and play an important role in conserving biological diversity.
  • Similarly, their ‘uniqueness’ can be recognised by the scarcity of the living systems they harbour, which are difficult to replace if they are lost, or by the uniqueness of the services they provide to human society.
  • Their ‘vulnerability’ could be determined by physiographic features prone to erosion or degradation as a result of human and other influences such as erratic climate, as well as historical experience.
  • They are within ten kilometres of Protected Areas, National Parks, and Wildlife Sanctuaries.

Significance of Western Ghats

  • Ecosystem diversity: The Western Ghats contain a wide range of ecosystems, from tropical wet evergreen forests to montane grasslands, which contain numerous medicinal plants and important genetic resources such as wild relatives of grains, fruit, and spices. They also include the distinctive shola ecosystem, which consists of montane grasslands interspersed with patches of evergreen forest.
  • An important source of water: The Western Ghats serve important hydrological and watershed functions. Approximately 245 million people live in peninsular Indian states that get the majority of their water from rivers that flow from the Western Ghats.
  • Sustaining livelihoods: This region’s soil and water support the livelihoods of millions of people.
  • Weather pattern influencer: The Western Ghats mountains and their distinctive montane forest ecosystems influence Indian monsoon weather patterns, which mediate the region’s warm tropical climate, presenting one of the best examples of the tropical monsoon system on the planet.
  • Natural barrier: The Ghats serve as an important natural barrier, intercepting rain-laden monsoon winds that blow in from the south-west in late summer..

Threats to Western Ghats

  • With a sharp increase in iron ore prices and demand for lower grade ores, mining activities have expanded rapidly, particularly in Goa, and frequently in violation of all laws, resulting in serious environmental damage and social disruption.
  • In Kerala, sand mining has emerged as a major threat. Unsustainable mining has increased landslide vulnerability, harmed water sources, and harmed agriculture, all of which have harmed the livelihoods of those who live in those areas.
  • Livestock Grazing: High densities of livestock (cattle and goats) grazing within and bordering protected areas is a serious problem that is causing habitat degradation throughout the Western Ghats.
  • Human-wildlife conflict: Because the Western Ghats are located in an intensely human-dominated landscape, human-wildlife conflicts are common. For example, in the state of Karnataka, villagers living near the Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary lose approximately 11% of their annual grain production to raiding elephants (CEPF).
  • Forest produce extraction: Human communities living within and adjacent to protected areas in the Western Ghats are frequently reliant on NTFP extraction to meet a variety of subsistence and commercial needs. With a growing population and shifting consumption patterns, the sustainability of NTFP is critical.
  • Plantations: Plantations owned by private individuals and corporations continue to expand in the Western Ghats, contributing significantly to habitat fragmentation.
  • Human settlement encroachment: Human settlements with legal and/or traditional rights of land ownership occur both within and outside protected areas throughout the Western Ghats, posing a significant landscape level threat.
  • Pollution: The unrestricted use of agrochemicals near forests, particularly in tea and coffee estates, causes significant harm to aquatic and forest ecosystems.
  • Hydropower projects and large dams: Despite cost-benefit analyses and environmental impact assessments conducted by the government and companies, large dam projects in the Western Ghats have caused environmental and social disruption.
  • Deforestation: The conversion of forest land to agricultural land or for commercial purposes such as tourism, as well as illegal logging for timber, has had a significant negative impact on biodiversity.
  • Climate change: Changes in land use and deforestation have resulted in large variations in rainfall duration and intensity. In recent years, climate change has been blamed for floods in many areas.

Way forward

1. There is an urgent need to investigate the mechanisms by which land use change affects biodiversity, which will improve our understanding of how human-modified landscapes must be managed in order to sustain and improve their conservation value.

2. A better understanding of the role of biodiversity in ecosystem functions and related ecosystem services is required. This would also contribute to increased civil society support and political will to protect the Western Ghats.

December 2023