Western Ghats heritage status? No thanks

Western Ghats heritage status? No thanks
Bangalore:  The Western Ghats are breath-taking in their beauty. A biodiversity hotspot that is fragile and needs protection from the greed and destructiveness of human beings. And the importance of the area has been recognised by UNESCO which has added it to the list of World Heritage sites.

India's ambassador to UNESCO, Vinay Sheel Oberoi, said that, "India should rejoice that it has added one more of its crown jewels to the list of World Heritage."

But not everybody sees this as a cause for celebration.

The Karnataka state government says this could be bad news for people in the region, with forest minister CP Yogeshwar, saying that the state would fight this move. The Speaker of the Karnataka Assembly, KG Bopaiah also said it would harm the interests of the people of Kodagu, a district he represents. Kodagu has regions that are listed as part of the heritage area. The Karnataka government basically claims that the recognition would bring no benefit and that it meant handing over control of the region to someone else. The state says it is perfectly capable of looking after its own heritage and that the Central government should ask for the status to be withdrawn.

The stand of the state government has baffled environmentalists. Praveen Bhargav, Trustee of Wildlife First describes the stand as a tragedy because the state has completely not seen this in the right perspective. "It is more of an honour for the state and community for having ensured that these areas are protected..." he says. Bhargav also denies that it involves displacement of people or slowing down of development activities.

According to him, "Both these arguments that it affects development and displaces people are completely false. For the simple reason we are looking not at the entire stretch of Western Ghats but at 10 specific sites which are already reserved forests, sanctuaries and national parks. It does not affect development - they will continue to be governed under Indian laws. It is more of an honour for the state and community for having ensured that these areas are protected..."

Environmentalists believe there are lobbies at work, from the mining industry. The Kudremukh iron ore company used to mine in the region - until shut down for environmental reasons. Bhargav believes that lobbies like that of the mines could be at work to make attempts for the heritage status to be withdrawn - perhaps so that there would be less monitoring of the region. He says that politicians who have cases against them for violating forest rules could also be exerting pressure.

He says, "There are mining lobbies - for example the Kudremukh iron ore company is still trying to lobby and restart mining. There are issues concerning roads in which some political leaders are enmeshed. There are timber felling issues and so forth.  So these are the underlying motives. It is sad that there is no vision and scientific temper to protect these areas which are fabulous."

The Western Ghats is a world away from this urban jungle of Bangalore. But it is politicians in that city who would like to call the shots. Would the Western Ghats being declared a World Heritage site be bad news for people living there. Yes, say the politicians. Of course not, say environmentalists. The forests themselves - they don't have a vote.

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