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CFB Bureau

A view of the breathtaking hill chain of the Western Ghats from the Varandha Ghat near Pune

“When ascending, and on gaining the summit of any of these passes (in the Western Ghats), the scenery which everywhere presents itself is of the grandest kind. Some idea of it may be formed by imagining mountains succeeding mountains, three or four thousand feet high, covered with trees, except in places where the huge, black, barren rocks are so solid as to prevent the hardiest shrub from finding root in their clefts. The verdure about the Ghats to the southward of Poona is perpetual, but during the rainy season, especially towards the latter part of it, when the torrents are pouring from the sides of the mountains, the effect is greatly heightened by the extreme luxuriance of vegetation”.

- Grant Duff (1826) History of Marathas, Vol. 1


Describing King Raghu's conquest of the four corners of India, Kalidasa likens the mountain range of Western Ghats to a comely young maiden, her head near Kanyakumari, Anaimalais and Nilgiris her breasts, Goa her hips, and her feet near river Tapi.

All over the world, such mountains, endowed as they are with high levels of environmental heterogeneity, are treasure troves of natural diversity. Thus, in the Western Ghats the annual rainfall ranges from as much as 8000 mm in the southwestern corner of the upper Nilgiris to a mere 500 mm in the Moyar gorge just 30 km to its east. In contrast, the annual rainfall spans a range of no more than 1000 mm over hundreds of kilometers across the Deccan plateau.

Mountains also create isolated habitats far away from other similar habitats, promoting local speciation. Hence distinct species of the flowering plant Rhododendron and the mountain tahr goat Hemitragus occur on the higher reaches of the Western Ghats and Himalayas, with a large gap in the distribution of these genera in between. Moreover, mountains, being less hospitable to human occupation, retain much larger areas under natural or semi-natural biological communities.

This is why the Western Ghats and the Eastern Himalayas are today the most significant repositories of India's biodiversity. Amongst them, the Western Ghats scores over the Eastern Himalayas in harbouring a larger number of species restricted to India alone. Not only are the Western Ghats and Eastern Himalayas biological treasure troves, they are also two of the world's biodiversity hot spots, a hot spot being a biodiversity-rich area that is also under a high degree of threat.

The Setting

The hill chain of the Western Ghats, a treasure trove of biodiversity and the water tower of Peninsular India, runs parallel to the West coast of India from the river Tapi in the north to Kanyakumari in the south. The Ghats descend steeply to the coastal plains on the west, but merge rather gently through a series of hills with the Deccan plateau.

Geologically the Ghats fall into two sections. North of the river Kali is the Deccan trap country of relatively fragile rocks and flat hill tops. The hills do not rise much beyond 1500 m in this tract. South of Kali is the region of Precambrian archean crystalline rocks which are much harder. The hills tend to be rounded and rise to 2000 m or more.

The Western Ghats force the moisture laden winds coming off the Arabian Sea to rise and receive in consequence heavy precipitation of 2000 mm or more a year. To the lee of the Ghats is a region of rain shadow; and the eastern slopes of the Ghats are much drier than the Western face. The rainfall is heavier to the south and extends over 8–9 months a year; it is lower and restricted to 4 months of the south-west monsoon in the northern parts of the Western Ghats.

Given this rainfall regime, the western slopes of the Ghats have a natural cover of evergreen forest, which changes to moist and then dry deciduous types as one comes to the eastern slopes. The vegetation reaches its highest diversity towards the southern tip in Kerala with its high statured, rich tropical rain forests. The commercially most important species, teak, however, grows best in tracts of more moderate rainfall where the natural vegetation is of the moist deciduous type.


The Western Ghats are second only to the Eastern Himalaya as a treasure trove of biological diversity in India. Originally recognized as among the several global ‘hotspots of biodiversity,’ the Western Ghats along with its geographical extension in the wet zone of Sri Lanka are now also considered one of the eight ‘hottest hot spots’ of biodiversity (Myers et al. 2000).

At the same time, the high human population density and major transformation of the landscape since the mid-18th century also emphasize the urgency of conservation of the Ghats and sustainable use of its resources. A study in the southern region, comprising the states of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, showed that between 1920–1990 about 40% of the original vegetation cover was lost or converted to another form of land use (Menon and Bawa 1997). It is estimated that not more than about 7% of the area of the Western Ghats is presently under primary vegetation cover, though a much larger area is under secondary forest or some form of tree cover. Nearly 15% of the Ghats is also under the Protected Area system.

The great topographic heterogeneity (from sea level to 2695 m at its highest point, the Anaimudi peak) and a strong rainfall gradient (annual precipitation of <50 cm in sheltered valleys in the east to >700 cm along west-facing slopes) combine to give rise to a tremendous diversity of life forms and vegetation types, including tropical wet evergreen forest, montane stunted evergreen forest (shola) and grassland, lateritic plateaus, moist deciduous and dry deciduous forest, dry thorn forests, and grassland.

Many of these are critical habitats for plants and animals: for instance, the lateritic plateaus of Maharashtra harbour unique floral elements as well as provide seasonal foraging grounds for large mammals such as gaur; the shola forests and grasslands of the southern Western Ghats are unique as well as highly vulnerable to future climate change; the riparian vegetation along the numerous east and west-flowing rivers and streams of the Ghats shelter high levels of plant and animal diversity in addition to acting as corridors, while the relict lowland dipterocarp forests and Mysristica swamps to the west are highly threatened.

The importance of the Western Ghats in terms of its biodiversity can be seen from the known inventory of its plant and animal groups, and the levels of endemism in these taxa (Gunawardene et al. 2007). Nearly 4000 species of flowering plants or about 27% of the country’s total species are known from the Ghats. Of 645 species of evergreen trees (>10 cm dbh or diameter at breast height, a standard method of expressing the diameter of the trunk or bole of a standing tree), about 56% is endemic to the Ghats. Among the lower plant groups, the diversity of bryophytes is impressive with 850-1000 species; of these 682 species are mosses with 28% endemics and 280 species are liverworts with 43% endemics.

Among the invertebrate groups, about 350 (20% endemic) species of ants, 330 (11% endemic) species of butterflies, 174 (40% endemic) species of odonates (dragonflies and damselflies), and 269 (76% endemic) species of mollusks (land snails) have been described from this region. The known fish fauna of the Ghats is 288 species with 41% of these being endemic to the region. The Western Ghats are particularly notable for its amphibian fauna with about 220 species of which 78% are endemic; the recent discovery of a new genus of frog, Nasikabactrachus sahyadrensis, with Indo-Madagscan affinity, in the southern Western Ghats affirms the importance of the region in harbouring these ancient Gondwanan lineages.

Similarly, the Ghats are unique in its caecilian diversity harbouring 16 of the country’s 20 known species, with all 16 species being endemic. Of the 225 described species of reptiles, 62% are endemic; special mention must be made of the primitively burrowing snakes of the family Uropeltidae that are mostly restricted to the southern hills of the Western Ghats.

Over 500 species of birds and 120 species of mammals are also known from this region. The Western Ghats region harbours the largest global populations of the Asian elephant, and possibly of other mammals such as tiger, dhole, and gaur. The Western Ghats also harbour a number of wild relatives of cultivated plants, including pepper, cardamom, mango, jackfruit and plantain. This biological wealth has paid rich dividends over the years. In fact, the tract was famous for its wild produce of pepper, cardamom, sandal and ivory.

This diversity has been in continual decline over the last century and more especially in recent decades, with many biological communities and types being almost totally eliminated. It is, however, notable that some of the age-old conservation practices, such as maintenance of sacred groves, sacred ponds and river stretches, as well as protection of sacred species such as many primates and peafowl, continue to effectively protect many elements of biodiversity to this day. In addition, recent decades have seen other significant measures being initiated to conserve some of this fast vanishing biological diversity with the constitution of Wildlife Sanctuaries, National Parks and Tiger Reserves. These measures have led to a welcome increase in populations of many wild animals. Regrettably this has also exacerbated man–wildlife conflict.


The traditional land use in the Ghats has been paddy cultivation in the valleys, supplemented by cultivation of millets and legumes on the hill slopes. Hill slope agriculture used to be largely of the shifting slash-and-burn type, but this has gradually been changed to cultivation of terraces. The traditional horticultural crops were arecanut on the hills and coconut on the coast, along with mango and jackfruit. Cattle and buffalo were maintained in great numbers wherever the natural vegetation was deciduous forest, but these were largely absent in tracts of evergreen vegetation.

A number of horticultural and tuber crops were introduced to this region through European influence. Prominent amongst these are tea, coffee, rubber, cashew, tapioca and potato. Pepper and cardamom, which are native to the evergreen forests of the Western Ghats were also taken up as plantation crops on a more extensive scale in modern times. Many of the newer plantations were taken up by clear felling natural evergreen forests tracts which till then had predominantly tribal populations.

The most important forest produce of the Ghats in earlier times were cardamom, pepper and ivory although teak wood had been exported from the west coast ports even in medieval times. The earliest forest plantations recorded were the teakwood plantations raised by the Angres, Maratha naval chiefs of Shivaji in the 17th Century. Exploitation of timber on a large scale, however, started only with the British.

The evergreen forests were extracted for railway sleepers and deciduous forests were progressively replaced by teak plantations. As this demand picked up, forests which were till then largely managed by Village Communities were bifurcated into forests on village common lands and state-owned Reserved Forests. The community held grazing lands and forests cover extensive areas in many parts of the Western Ghats, as do privately held forest lands to a lesser extent. These lands have been considerably overexploited and degraded in recent decades.

The demands on reserved forests peaked between 1950–1980 with an explosion of forest-based industries such as paper, plywood, polyfibres and matchwood. Although these demands were expected to be met through sustainable harvests, this did not materialize and the forests were overexploited. The response was a switch to ‘aggressive’ from ‘conservation’ forestry with large-scale clear felling of natural forests and plantation of exotic species such as eucalyptus and Acacia auriculiformis. Many of the eucalyptus plantations failed because of various diseases.

Consequently, harvests from Reserved Forests have slowly tapered off after the 1980’s with the industry turning to import of pulp, pulpwood and timber from abroad. There have been other competing demands on reserved forest lands as well, especially for cultivation and river valley projects. Collection of forest produce such as pepper, cardamom, ivory, honey, wax, myrobalan has gone on for a long time in the Western Ghats. The bamboos and reeds of the Ghat forests have also supported extensive basket weaving.

There have been shipyards on the west coast using the timber of the hills for a very long time, as also artisans making wooden toys. There has been substantial decline in many of these activities with depletion of resources like honey and bamboo, and complete ban on use of ivory.

Industry and irrigation

Several industries were started in the early decades before independence, primarily to utilize the forest resources of the Western Ghats. These have included saw mills, brick and tile, paper, polyfibre, matchwood, plywood, and tanning. A few other industries have sprung up based on the mineral resources of the hills such as the steel works at Bhadravati.

By and large, these industries have grown beyond the capacity of the Western Ghats forest resource base to sustain them, and are now depending on imports or wood resources produced on farmland. The bulk of the rains of Peninsular India fall on the Western Ghats from which originate Krishna, Godavari and Kaveri, the three major rivers of the Southern Peninsula, as well as many shorter west flowing rivers of the west coast.

Traditionally these water resources were used to irrigate the valleys under paddy and arecanut on the hills with construction of small ponds and channels. Beginning with the British times, however, many major river valley projects have been executed, either to irrigate the drier tracts to the east or to generate power by taking advantage of the steep slopes to the west. These have rapidly proliferated since independence and today cover almost every river valley in certain regions such as that stretching from Mumbai to Kolhapur in Maharashtra.

In recent years these reservoirs have also become the locus of development of resorts and hill stations like Amby Valley and Lavasa. In another more recent development, wind mills are being set up in large numbers on the crestline of the Ghats with steep roads up the hill slopes leading to substantial negative impacts on ecology and water resources.

The Western Ghats are rich in iron, manganese and bauxite ores in parts of their ranges. These are being extracted on a large scale and exported in ore form, especially from Goa. With a steep increase in iron ore prices and demand for lower grade ores, mining activities have grown rapidly and often in violation of all laws, resulting in serious environmental damage and social disruption.

Several centres of pilgrimage have traditionally attracted many visitors to the Western Ghats, prominent amongst these being Sabarimalai in Kerala, Madeveshwaramalai in Karnataka and Mahabaleshwar in Maharashtra. A number of other tourist centres have sprung up in modern times. The best known are Ooty in the Nilgiris and the Thekkady Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala. Recent decades have seen a boom in building of second holiday homes, tourist resorts housed in plantations and new hill stations.

Transport and urbanisation

Transport and communication has been difficult in the Western Ghats because of the hilly terrain, heavy rains, washing off of roads and thick forests. In fact, the strength of the Maratha empire founded by Shivaji rested on the strategic advantages of an inaccessible terrain. Transport and communications really began to reach deeper into the Western Ghats only in British times.

A spurt was given to the development of these facilities after independence when major river valley and mining projects brought development of extensive transport and communication facilities in their wake. Recent decades have seen a rapid spurt in growth of roads as well as railway lines across the Ghats with resultant disruption of connectivity between natural habitats.

The Western Ghats have always been sparsely populated compared to the adjoining plains, because of the difficult terrain and widely prevalent incidence of malaria. The coastal plains under paddy and coconut have supported far denser populations while the Deccan plateau to the east had intermediate levels of population density.

The settlements on the Ghats have been of small sizes and scattered; the bigger towns all falling on the eastern side on the banks of major rivers, or on the west coast at river mouths, where they served as ports. With rapid increase in means of communication and transport, emergence of a large wealthy middle class and availability of powerful earth-moving machinery, the Western Ghats are beginning to be urbanized with a proliferation of holiday homes and resorts. These tend to be accompanied by a total decimation of natural biological communities and displacement of local people.

The people of the Western Ghats traditionally depended heavily on natural vegetation for meeting their requirement of shelter, fodder and fuel. They also derived much nutrition from hunted meat; consequently their quality of life has rapidly eroded in recent decades with the depletion of natural vegetation and extermination of wild animals. The major gain for the people from the view point of a better life has been the eradication of diseases, especially malaria, and the development of better means of transport and communication.

Modern health and educational facilities have percolated little to the hills except in the State of Kerala where there has been remarkable progress, accompanied by a substantial fall in the rate of population growth.

The Western Ghats has a large tribal population only in a few pockets such as the Dangs and Thane districts north of Mumbai and Wynaad and Nilgiris tracts. The Nilgiris harbour the only truly stone age hunting gathering tribe of Peninsular India, the Cholanaikas. The tribals have borne the brunt of the degradation of the Western Ghats environment and have received little of the benefits of development. Vested interests have also blocked the implementation of acts such as PESA and FRA that were meant to give them a better deal.

By and large the Western Ghats have been subjected to a rapid erosion of natural capital with the building up of man-made capital, regrettably imposing excessive, unnecessary environmental damage in the process, accompanied by a degradation of social capital as well.

Yet, on the positive side, the Western Ghats region has some of the highest levels of literacy in the country, and a high level of environmental awareness. The democratic institutions are well entrenched, and Kerala leads the country in capacity building and empowering of Panchayat Raj Institutions. Goa has recently concluded a very interesting exercise, Regional Plan 2021, of taking inputs from Gram Sabhas in deciding on land use policies.

Evidently, the Western Ghats is an appropriate region of the country to attempt to make the transition towards an inclusive, caring and environment-friendly mode of development.

Develop sustainably – conserve thoughtfully

Many stakeholders have suggested that, apart from the context of provision of Central financial assistance for plan schemes, the Western Ghats Region should have a regulatory content of a go- no go nature; that certain activities would be banned within the limits of the Western Ghats, but fully permitted outside these limits. WGEEP would like to submit that we should move away from such formulae that impart inflexibility to development processes.

To take a very simple example, the norm for the size of agricultural holding in which a farm house may be constructed is 2 acres throughout the state of Maharashtra. But in the hilly terrain of Mahabaleshwar, one of the existing ESAs of Western Ghats, 80% of farmers hold less than 2 acres of land. All of them have therefore been forced to stay in small, overcrowded houses in Gaothans, which have not been permitted to grow over the last 60 years, despite substantial increase in their populations. Farmers of Mahabaleshwar have therefore been requesting that the threshold for permission for a farm house be appropriately changed in their locality, to no avail. They feel particularly frustrated to see considerable construction activity of bungalows for the rich and hotels going on without much difficulty, while they see no signs of relief for themselves.

Indeed, what we see around the Western Ghats and the rest of the country may be termed ‘Development by Exclusion’ hand in hand with ‘Conservation by Exclusion’. Despite the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution that have devolved powers of making decisions relating to development to Panchayat Raj Institutions and Nagarpalikas, all development decisions are being thrust on the people.

(Extracted from the 2011 report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel headed by Prof. Madhav Gadgil. The panel was constituted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, as a significant initiative directed at conserving the natural heritage of the Western Ghats – a global biodiversity hotspot)

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