Monday, August 20, 2012

In a new light

On July 2012, the Western Ghats were added to a growing list of World Heritage Sites around the world that celebrate human endeavour and natural splendour. The hill range has long enjoyed iconic status among people interested in nature and wildlife. One organization, Conservation International, branded it as one among 34 “biodiversity hotspots” in the world. And now UNESCO has formally recognized what wildlife enthusiasts have long known: The Western Ghats are a wonder of the natural world, on par with the more famous Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania.

However, only a third of the original 160,000 of forests in the Western Ghats is left. The UNESCO status does not extend to the entire hill range or even to what remains of the natural vegetation. After a rigorous process of evaluation, a cluster of 39 sites was identified, of which 19 are located in Kerala, 10 in Karnataka, six in Tamil Nadu and four in Maharashtra. These reserve forests, tiger reserves, wildlife sanctuaries and national parks cover an area of almost 8,000 sq. km. and are already governed by the Wildlife Protection Act, the Forest Conservation Act and the Forest Rights Act.

Jagdish Krishnaswamy of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Environment and Education (ATREE) says these sites represent “exceptional natural beauty, major geological features, have examples of ongoing biological and ecological processes, and habitat for biodiversity to flourish. These sites are along the rainfall gradients from south to north, west to east, as well as a range of habitats from swamps, grasslands, and streams to thick rainforests.”

The Western Ghats are not the only natural forests to be declared a World Heritage Site in India. In 1985, Manas National Park and Kaziranga National Park in Assam and Keoladeo National Park in Rajasthan were India’s first, followed by Sunderbans National Park in 1987 and Nandadevi and Valley of Flowers in the Himalayas in 1988. More than 20 years later, the Western Ghats have become India’s sixth site to achieve this distinction.

The Heritage Site tag will magnify international attention on the conservation of these areas. Donors readily fund projects in such locations, while the world media is also likely to highlight any threat to such Heritage Sites. By nominating the Western Ghats, the Government of India has tacitly undertaken to do everything in its powers to provide security for these forests in the future.

It’s likely the high profile of this listing will bring more tourists to the Western Ghats. These are fragile ecosystems; more footfalls can jeopardize their existence as we know them today. While a few areas are well-known tourist destinations like Periyar Tiger Reserve, some of the sites have no facilities and are unlikely to play host to anyone but the most persistent researcher. Besides, the Ministry of Environment and Forests has recently issued guidelines to regulate tourism in all protected forests.

Not only the rich array of life forms, but about 150 million people live in the humid hill range. Krishnaswamy says, “It is the most densely populated biodiversity hotspot in the world. Yet, grasslands that were formed 40,000 years ago still persist despite human development all around. It’s a really unique place.”

What if India fails to safeguard a World Heritage Site? In November 1999, Hampi’s spectacular ruins of the Vijayanagar empire, another World Heritage Site, was put on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger. The Karnataka government had begun construction of two bridges – one for pedestrians and the other for vehicular traffic – spanning the Tungabhadra without seeking required clearances from the Archaeological Survey of India or the Hampi World Heritage Site Management Committee. Worse, the state had callously removed a historic monument that was in the way of one of the bridges.

UNESCO feared vehicles using the bridge would cause pollution, and the vibrations would undermine some of the historic structures. Even the walkway caused offense as it was built right beside the Virupaksha temple. In January 2000, the global body threatened to strike Hampi from its prestigious list of Heritage Sites and demanded an immediate halt to construction.

However, local people really wanted the bridges. Until then, the only means of crossing the river was by coracles. When the river was in spate, even that option was unavailable. Farmers could not carry their produce to markets unless they walked several kilometres to reach a truck-able road. If the local people couldn’t receive the benefits of development just because of the World Heritage Site tag, they didn’t want it anymore, they said. They filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Karnataka High Court demanding the construction of those bridges. No doubt, there were politically vested interests fanning the agitation for the bridge but that doesn’t diminish the legitimacy of the local people’s aspirations for a better life.

The Central Government pressurized the state to comply with UNESCO’s demands. The state government was torn: It didn’t want to stop a project that had already cost Rs. 4 crores, but at the same time, if Hampi lost its coveted tag, the state wouldn’t receive funds for maintaining the monuments. Besides, there was the people’s 50-year-old demand for the bridge.

Finally in June 2003, UNESCO granted provisional approval for the vehicular bridge but demanded the foot bridge be dismantled. Further, it insisted a bypass road circling the ruins be built first before work on the bridge could resume. In five years, the bridge would have to be relocated. Locals resented even this compromise. They asked why should an international body, aided by people living in Delhi and Bangalore, interfere with their local development projects.

On the afternoon of January 22, 2009, barely two months after work resumed, the bridge collapsed, killing eight and injuring 35. The authorities are scoping the area for a site to build a new bridge that would be acceptable to UNESCO. All the necessary paperwork will have to be cleared before construction can begin. Ironically, present-day residents of Hampi have to use coracles, a risky mode of crossing the river, while 600 years ago, the residents of the Vijayanagar empire traversed a bridge across the river Tungabhadra.

In 2006, Hampi was taken off the List of World Heritage in Danger. At this time, biologists along the Western Ghats were engaged in the process of compiling data to nominate the Western Ghats as a World Heritage Site. Many conservationists believe we should be proud of the global recognition for the hill range. At the very least, it could do no harm. However, such tags wield enormous power to interfere with local people’s rights and aspirations.

Perhaps more than global recognition, the Western Ghats need regional and national appreciation. In a country where forests are undervalued and unappreciated, an international tag could have done the trick of getting local people to cherish the treasure in their own backyards. But with Karnataka raising the pitch in its opposition to the UNESCO recognition, the space for conservation has narrowed considerably.