We cannot have ecological movement designed to prevent violence against nature, unless the principle of non-violence becomes central to the ethics of human culture
– Mahatma Gandhi
The Sahyadris – also known as the Western Ghats comprise fragile but vital ecosystems of the Indian subcontinent. Rare, moist deciduous forest type, sub-temperate montane wet grasslands and shola forests, high species endemism, uniqueness of lowland evergreen forest in a monsoonal climate and biogeographical significance of this isolated area between the African and Indo-Malaysian blocks make the Western Ghats a very important biological resource. In fact the Western Ghats like the South American rainforests form the girdle of the earth and help maintain global ecological balance.
The Western Ghats also harbour a large diversity of human cultures – in the less than 20,000 sq. km. of Kerala Western Ghats there are more than 38 distinct tribal communities. This region, which is globally recognised as a hotspot area of great conservation concern is under constant threat due to many anthropogenic factors. And the tide of ecodegradation is sweeping over the entire tract destroying most of the biodiversity.
The hill ranges form an almost unbroken rampart on the fringe of the western peninsula parallel to the west coast of India for about 1600 km. They start immediately south of the Tapti river, the northern most point being, the Kundaibari Pass (21006N, 74011E) in Dhule district of Maharashtra and ending near Kanyakumari (80N) barely 20 km from the sea in Tamil Nadu. The entire range encompasses six States – Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
Malsej Ghats, Maharashtra – Pic by Mohan Pai
The Western Ghats cover an area of approximately 1,59,000 sq.km with an average elevation of 900-1500 m. ASL. Rising up from a relatively narrow coastal strip(average width: 40 km), the hills reach up to a height of 2,695 m.(8,843 ft.) at Anaimudi Peak in Kerala before they merge to the east with the Deccan plateau at an altitude of 500-600 m. The average width of the mountain range is about 100 km.
The Living Fulcrum
The hill ranges force the moisture laden monsoon winds coming off the Arabian Sea to rise and receive in consequence heavy precipitation of 2,000 mm or more annually. The rainfall exceeds 7,500 mm per annum in some places on the western windward side (Agumbe, Karnataka). To the lee of the Ghats is the region of rain shadow and the eastern slopes of the Ghats where the rainfall decreases rapidly and are much drier than the western face.
The rainfall is heavier to the south and extends over 8-10 months a year; it is lower and restricted to 4 months of the south-west monsoon in the central and northern parts of the Western Ghats. These marked differences in the geomorphology, rainfall, water regimes and temperatures have given rise to several types of plants and animal species which makes the region one of the richest biodiversity spots or the Living Fulcrum.
Cheeyapara Waterfalls, Kerala – Pic by Mohan Pai
The Western Ghats are remarkable headwaters and the main watershed for the southern peninsula serving six states; sustained by the heavy seasonal rainfall from the south-west monsoon, from which all the major and many smaller rivers of the southern peninsula originate and flow east or west emptying into the coastal waters. All the river runoff in the southern parts of India is controlled by these hills and thus agriculture in the states of Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu is crucially regulated by the Western Ghats. The real merit of the Western Ghats forests in terms of their watershed value is incalculable and ought to concern everybody. These forests once destroyed are gone forever. No amount of scientific knowledge or investment in afforestation can get us back our rivers.
The biggest ecological damage inflicted upon the Western Ghats is deforestation. Tragically for the country and the region, most of the forest cover in the Western Ghats has disappeared.
Ecologically fragile monsoon forests
The forest cover in the Western Ghats seems to have declined between 1972 and 1985 at a rate paralleling that for India as a whole, which implies a loss of over 2.4% annually.
The decline of the primary forest : the amount remaining seems to be no more than 8,000 sq. kms.
All but isolated pockets of original forest have been opened up allowing a takeover by deciduous species and bamboo among other forms of degenerate vegetation.
A study which estimated changes (2002) in the forest cover between 1973 and 1993 in the southern parts of the Western Ghats using satellite data reveals a loss of 25.6 percent forest cover in that period.
Reduction in forest cover and habitat fragmentation has had a very adverse effect on the wildlife of this area. Many species have become highly endangered almost on the verge of extinction – Lion-tailed macaque, Nilgiri langur and Nilgiri tahr.
Nilgiri Tahr, Eravikulam – Pic by Mohan Pai
Path to Economic Development
After independence, India launched itself on the path of modernisation and economic development and nearly six decades of this endeavour has yielded many impressive gains. But as the years have rolled by, there are more and more signs that some grave errors have been committed in the choice of path to development. For this path has led to large scale misuse of the natural resources imposing on the country, huge costs in the form of flood damage, siltation and reduction of life of river valley projects, shortages of fuel and fodder for the rural population and of raw material base for industries.
The hill areas of the Western Ghats have paid a heavy price for the planned development that has led to a considerable degree of intensification of the use of its resources; but without adequate attention to long term sustainability of this resource use pattern.
Its forest wealth is depleted, its reservoirs silting up, its horticulture plagued by outbreaks of new diseases; polluting the environment and bringing little benefits to the local population. The fragile ecosystems of the Ghats have tended to collapse under the assaults of exploitative development of the last few decades.
Tea Gardens at Munnar – Pic by Mohan Pai
Indirectly, the Western Ghats influence the well-being of the entire peninsula through modulating climate, river water flow, ground water recharge, adding fertility to river valley and delta soils, providing a wide range of natural produce for the really impoverished population.
Kamakshi Temple in the Sahyadris, Goa – Pic by Mohan Pai
Save the Western Ghats is an anguished cry that is heard throughout the southern peninsula, now for several decades. There are sporadic voices of protest from environmentalists and conservationists against the shortsighted developmental activities in this ecologically very fragile region. There have been gatherings and awareness marches in the past. But environmental activism, at best, is fire fighting by a handful of pressure groups or individuals.
The fact remains that half-hearted conservation attempts by the Governments and various agencies amount only to patchy efforts and the rate of deforestation has accelerated in recent years with a steady environmental decline of the whole region. The threat has all the more increased with the combined pressure of urbanisation, industries, mining, deforestation, submergence by dams, introduction of railways, large scale encroachments, poaching etc. The fragmentation of these forests form a major threat to species conservation, and lack of green cover will not only turn the area into barren hills but could result in the devastating cycle of floods and droughts in the downstream areas.
Unless the Governments, International Agencies and the people of the region wake up to the harsh realities, and take some drastic steps for the conservation of the region, this rich, lush, highly resourceful region will be lost forever with very unpleasant and adverse effects on the liveable environment of the subcontinent.
In the hills of the Western Ghats, we confront our future. These mountains influence rainfall, regulate run-off of water into downhill drainage channels and are the most important features of the landscape. Through rivers, the hills control the fate of the valleys and plains. The hills are by themselves rich and at the same time very fragile. Unfortunately they continue to suffer drastic degradation due to human pressure. They need priority attention and careful nursing. These mountains in their remote fastness still shelter the last remnants of our biological and human cultural diversity. Most of our unique representative ecosystems, the last of our endangered plants and animals, our least modified cultures, all find protection in the inaccessibility of these mountains.
Soliga Tribal Minstrel, B. R. Hills, Karnataka – Pic by Mridula Pai