Hopefully, the world heritage tag will help to protect the Western Ghats
By tagging the Western Ghats to the World Heritage List, UNESCO has
brought to fore the hitherto low-pitched battle between environmentalists
and the development juggernaut. While environmentalists have lauded the
move, industrialists have denounced it as an anti-development measure. The
Federation of Indian Mining Industry has gone to the extent of saying that
'India's growth is being stalled' whereas the Save Western Ghats Movement
opines that 'the new tag has defeated such naysayers'.
The heritage tag to the Western Ghats does improve its TRP but getting
the rating translated into tangible actions to protect the fragile ecosystem
could indeed be far-fetched. Such perceptions are not without reason because
the 39 sites of the Western Ghats selected as heritage sites have all been
governed under the existing environmental regulations and legislation. It is
unlikely if the heritage tag alone would suffice to accentuate compliance of
existing protective measures.
Far from raising the issue of poor environmental compliance, the 35th
Session of the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO has instead commended the
government for its 'on-going commitment to ensure a comprehensive approach
to conserving the globally recognized high biodiversity values of the
Western Ghats'. Noting the scale and complexity of the region, the
'decision' to award the heritage status has listed a series of suggestive
measures to 'enhance the protection of the values of the nominated
The heritage tag to the Western Ghats does improve its TRP but getting the rating translated into tangible actions to protect the fragile ecosystem could indeed be far-fetched.
The symbolic nature of the 'tag' lends little credence as it enlists a
series of suggestive measures only, to justify the heritage status. The
Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur and the Manas National Park in Assam
have both been on World Heritage Map, only to suffer on account of sustained
water mismanagement and electoral politics. While the world-famous birding
paradise in Rajasthan has lost significant number of its winged visitors,
the wildlife habitat in Assam has remained infested with insurgents.
Could the heritage tag carry a different meaning for the Western Ghats,
which have been 'gateway to the monsoons' in the sub-continent? Could the
heritage tag to 39 sites protect the ecological continuum that starts from
south of the Tapti river in Gujarat and ends barely 20 km from the sea near
Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu? Will the heritage tag to selected sites not
divert the attention of the upcoming developmental projects to uncovered
150,000 sq. km (under the heritage status) in the region?
It already does as several projects in the Western Ghats, not in the
heritage zones, have been pressing for environmental clearance from the
government. Despite proven anti-environment credentials, some of the
proposed projects like the Athirapally hydropower project in Kerala,
Hubli-Ankola railway line in Karnataka and Jaitapur Nuclear power project in
Maharashtra have remained on development drawing board. Like bad dreams,
such projects continue to haunt the fragility of the region.
While the heritage tag does help draw global attention, it makes the nominated property vulnerable to unforeseen pressures too. As the adjoining non-heritage areas become victims of development overload, the heritage sites in themselves become essential resting places for urban tourists.
While the heritage tag does help draw global attention, it makes the
nominated property vulnerable to unforeseen pressures too. As the adjoining
non-heritage areas become victims of development overload, the heritage
sites in themselves become essential resting places for urban tourists. The
cumulative impact of such global attention, both on the heritage site as
well as on the non-heritage landscape surrounding it, does more harm than
good in the final analysis.
Further, by ignoring the extensively mined region of Goa from a possible
heritage area the World Heritage Committee has made a serious omission.
Whether or not was the case of Goa a part of the submissions
(WHC-11/35.COM/8B and WHC-11/35.COM/INF.8B2) before the committee is not
clear but what is clear though is the fact that the august global body has
not exercised ecological wisdom in acknowledging the fact that the Western
Ghats is a region that has nine inseparable geological landscapes including
As is evident, putting all hopes on a heritage tag shall be erroneous.
Ultimately, it rests with the state and the central governments to make
development choices for the region. Since a heritage tag doesn't advocate a
new legal framework to protect the designated property, it leaves upon the
state party to 'take measures to reduce the impact of existing and planned
infrastructure on the site.' The World Heritage Committee has only suggested
harmonious relationships between diverse stakeholders to protect the
While conferring the tag of heritage site on the Western Ghats, UNESCO
has suggested to the government to take account of recommendations of the
'Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel’ (WGEEP) that reflect the full spectrum
of ecological and biodiversity values of the Western Ghats, and to further
enhance the protection of such values. Unless the government accepts the
findings of the WGEEP, the heritage status shall remain a millstone and not
a 'milestone' as many may have come to believe.