The United Nations’ decision to designate the 1600-km stretch of the mountainous Western Ghats as a world heritage site will undoubtedly warm the cockles of hearts of many nature lovers. In the recent past, we have in this space described the Western Ghats as the “epicenter of biodiversity.” The UN has preferred to recognize it as one of the world's eight "hottest hotspots" of biological diversity.
So what does it mean when it finds itself in the list of World Heritage list? Simply said, our mountainous region has universal value to humanity, and therefore ought to be protected for future generations. For the record, the Western Ghats are on par with the famous Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Barrier reef in Australia, the Grand Canyon in the USA, or the Acropolis in Greece. With the prestige of being included in the world list, the Western Ghats will hopefully help raise awareness among citizens and governments for heritage preservation, apart from even funding and receiving expert advice for its preservation.
Needless to say, the Western Ghats is the genetic source of tomorrow’s foods and medicines, apart from various rivers -- which means source of life. In fact, India can adapt and mitigate the worst impacts of climate change due to the protective shield of its natural ecosystems, particularly those of the Western Ghats. The Ghats have a stabilizing effect on the monsoon over the western slopes and the western coast of the region.
The Western Ghats has been in the news for the wrong reasons in Goa. For instance, the methodology employed in the conduct of the environmental impact studies and existing governance practices have been questions specifically in issues related to granting of mining licenses.
Then, there is the the census figures revealing the presence of tigers in Goan forests. Over the years nobody wanted to believe this reality. When a local environmentalist Rajendra Kerkar claimed that a tiger was shot by poachers in 2009, he was isolated by the villagers and tormented by the State. Tragically, the government which professes to extol virtues in environment and wild life habitat preservation was guilty of charging Kerkar of being abettor in the tiger killing, evidently because he had exposed the poachers’ activity in the area.
The greatest challenge before the government now is to maintain the mining and forest mafia in check. It’s a shame that a foreign agency has to draw our attention on the importance of the Western Ghats, while successive governments have failed to arrest the destruction of our forests. True, there may be bottlenecks in declaring certain inhabitant areas of the forest as forest reserves, but there are states where crops are raised in these areas in harmony with wildlife.
The BJP government rode to power on the anti-mining plank, following flagrant violations of mining norms and over exploitation of mining. Even as we write, detractors claim that illegal mining goes on unabated. There are also murmurs that the state government is dragging its feet on declaring Goa as a tiger reserve. Internationally, India is seen as one of the last bastion for saving the tiger, but that will only be possible when all stake holders are on the same page. In June 2011, the then Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh, wrote to the then Chief Minister Digambar Kamat, suggesting the setting up a tiger reserve in the State. The State government is yet to send a proposal to the Centre.
Why is the government dilly-dallying on the matter? Is it because it will spell the death knell for the Rs.4000 crore mining industry? We must stop this human greed now! Late Environment and Forest Minister Matanhy Saldanha had voiced his concern over the powerful forest mafia. He admitted that the forest mafia was powerful, but did tell in private that he would go on with his campaign nevertheless. It is the bounden duty of Chief Minister Parrikar who promised to stand by Matanhy’s legacy to ensure that the Western Ghats are protects. Perhaps, the UN declaration is Matanhy’s making from above!