Eco-regional planning

Print edition : January 03, 2003

An attempt is under way to evolve coordinated plans for the sustenance of ecosystems spread across States.

TREES do not recognise State boundaries when they spread their roots. Wild animals and birds traversing contiguous forest stretches have no clue that there might be restrictions. A coastal stretch spreads itself, not knowing that it is managed by 10 different sets of people. And then how would the fish that swim across these stretches have any idea that they might be "trespassing"?

But the fact remains that nature, which in its creation is one single entity, is divided by administrative boundaries and political restrictions. It can be compared to the Aravalli ranges in northwestern India, which cut across Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana and Delhi or for that matter the Western Ghats, which run through the States of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala.

In the past few decades, there has been a slow but increasing recognition of the fact that a different approach is required in the planning and sustenance of complex ecosystems such as forests, wetlands, mangroves and estuaries that cut across administrative boundaries. One approach is to look at landscapes and eco-regions as a whole and plan accordingly. Today, it is the need of the hour.

That kind of planning is not simple. To be successful, it would need coordination among all the States that share an eco-region. Otherwise there would be situations of contradictory priorities, similar to the one that has arisen out of the proposal for the diversion of the Mahadayi river close to the Karnataka-Goa border. The origin of one of Goa's most important rivers, the Mandovi, lies in a section of the Western Ghats in Karnataka. In Karnataka, the river is known as the Mahadayi. The river flows through forests in both these States and finally joins the Arabian Sea. The Karnataka government plans to divert the water of this west-flowing river to another east-flowing river, the Malaprabha, in order to meet the State's water requirements. The proposal is not acceptable to Goa as the river is one of the main sources of livelihood in the State. Goa fears that such diversion of water will have a severe impact on its people.

An attempt at eco-regional planning is being made as part of the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP). The NBSAP is a project of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and the technical execution of the NBSA is being done by a 15-member Technical and Policy Core Group, coordinated by the non-governmental organisation (NGO), Kalpavriksh. The project is funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The administrative coordination of the project is carried out by Biotech Consortium India Limited.

Eco-regions within the NBSAP process are looked at as biodiversity-rich ecosystems that cut across State boundaries. Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans (BSAPs) are being prepared for 10 eco-regions by multi-disciplinary working groups. These include the Aravallis, the Central Forest Belt, the East coast, the Eastern Ghats, the Gangetic plains, Northeastern India, the Shivaliks, the Western Ghats, west coast and the western Himalayas. After researching these eco-regions in all the States in question and after a series of consultations, the first drafts of these plans have been completed. The implementation of many of the strategies and action plans proposed in the drafts calls for a reorientation of the "approach" that had previously been adopted in relation to these eco-systems.

Take for example the strategies proposed under the BSAP for the entire Western Ghats eco-region. The coordinating agency and its working group have highlighted the need to have inter-State mechanisms to counter smuggling and poaching, which are serious problems in this eco-region. Apart from recommending the strengthening of conservation efforts and the updating of current information about the Western Ghats, the plan document suggests that a regional board, the "Western Ghats Conservation, Planning and Development Board" be set up.

It is proposed that the regional board should be a non-political body, with members drawn from the State-level biodiversity boards/commissions, State Departments of Forests, Tribal Welfare, Agriculture, Animal Husbandry and Fisheries, academic institutions, and NGOs working in the Western Ghats region. It is one way that the eco-regional strategies presented in the BSAP document are actually implemented and monitored. If the board is given adequate powers, it can ensure that the strategies presented in the BSAP document are implemented.

This effort has an interesting parallel, though smaller in scale, which finds a mention in the Western Ghats BSAP document. It is the campaign to declare approximately 7,350 sq km of the Western Ghats in north Karnataka, Goa and south Maharashtra as an Ecologically Sensitive Area under Section 3(2) (v) of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. This clause gives the MoEF the power to take all the measures that it feels are necessary to protect and improve the quality of the environment and control environmental pollution. To meet this objective the Central government can prohibit or restrict industrial activity in certain areas.

The effort, which began with a memorandum of Belgaum's (Karnataka) Nature Lovers Club, has come a long way. Today it involves groups from three States. These groups, which propose to call the area the Sahyadri Ecologically Sensitive Area (SESA), have been lobbying with State governments and the MoEF for the past three and half years to protect this vast and sensitive landscape. They have received support in principle from the MoEF.

Interestingly, the SESA proposal calls for a monitoring mechanism that is very similar to the Western Ghats BSAP. It suggests the setting up of a Western Ghats Protection Authority (WGPA), which will be constituted by the Union government in consultation with the State governments. It also demands the involvement of educational institutions and NGOs.

Both these plans have reached the stage of implementation, and this is where the biggest challenge lies. On the ground, action will be needed to accommodate the priorities of different stakeholders and build on present land-use patterns.

Conservation efforts also need to develop around livelihood security. All this will occur only if these plans see the light of day.

There are other initiatives as well. One is the Union government's move to create biosphere reserves in areas spread across more than one State. This proposal links ecosystem conservation and people's livelihoods. Other efforts include landscape planning in the Terai Arc in India and Nepal and the Satpura-Maikal in central India by the WWF-India. These areas harbour a sizable portion of India's tiger population. The project aims at establishing connectivity between officially protected areas and tiger habitats outside them, and in the process, conserve an entire landscape.

All of these efforts emphasise the need to look beyond traditional boundaries in the matter of planning. Implementation, of course, is the most important step but mechanisms of implementation have to be put in place first. Until we reconcile our priorities and expand coordination efforts, forests will continue to be destroyed along State borders, elephants will continue to be electrocuted by fences, and human beings will continue to face the consequences of contradictory objectives.

Kanchi Kohli is a member of Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group.

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