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Milestone or Millstone?
By Sudhirendar Sharma



UNESCO's decision to include the Western Ghats to the World Heritage List has brought cheer to environmentalists. But since a heritage tag doesn't advocate a new legal framework to protect the designated property, putting all hopes on a heritage tag shall be erroneous.


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 property.'

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 Goa.

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 property.

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.

 
Disclaimer:
The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.
 

Sudhirendar Sharma  |  sudhirendarsharma@gmail.com

Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is an environmentalist and development analyst based in New Delhi. Formerly with the World Bank, Dr Sharma is an expert on water, a keen observer on climate change dynamics, and a critic of the contemporary development processes.

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 Other Articles by Sudhirendar Sharma in
Environment Development  > Conservation > National Policies and Programmes

MoEF: For environment or economy?
Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Jairam Ramesh as environment minister constituted an expert panel to submit report on conservation of ecologically critical Western Ghats. But his successor Jayanthi Natarajan has decided against making the report public citing economic interests of concerned states.

Nothing green about 'green economy'
Monday, October 31, 2011

Market forces are keen to put price tag on natural services but such an initiative can open a Pandora's Box of conflicting situations. Can we rule out trade-off in a capitalist market once nature and its services are commodified?
 
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An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

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