The Union environment ministry, in a draft notification released on October 3, proposed the declaration of 56,825 sqkm or 37% of the Western Ghats as ESA, but left out the 38kmx10km forests of Dodamarg-Sawantwadi belt in Maharashtra’s Sindhudurg district in the classification.
Not including the Dodamarg-Sawantwadi forests, an important elephant and tiger corridor along the Maharashtra-Goa border, in the ecologically sensitive areas (ESA) in the Western Ghats will expose them to the threat of mining projects, said experts.
The Union environment ministry, in a draft notification released on October 3, proposed the declaration of 56,825 sqkm or 37% of the Western Ghats as ESA, but left out the 38kmx10km forests of Dodamarg-Sawantwadi belt in Maharashtra’s Sindhudurg district in the classification. While the proposed Western Ghats ESA for Maharashtra is spread across 17,340 sqkm, this is the second time this corridor has been left out after a similar draft notification in 2015.
The wildlife corridor, home to tigers, leopards, elephants, sloth bears, civets, pangolins, several resident and migratory bird species, and even the Indian giant squirrel (Maharashtra’s state animal), connects the Radhanagari Wildlife Sanctuary in Kolhapur in Maharashtra to Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka. The state forest department confirmed the area has 22 to 25 tigers and the recent record of a family of four elephants.
Environmentalists said the area was left out by the Centre despite a Bombay high court (HC) order from 2012 that banned tree felling in the Dodamar taluka based on a petition by NGO Awaaz Foundation, and another order from 2015 declaring it an ESA.
“The Centre is violating the HC order on finalising the ESA for this tiger corridor. They have deliberately left out villages in this area to allow the mining lobby to enter Maharashtra as they had done in Goa,” said Stalin D, director, NGO Vanashakti, petitioners in HC who got Dodamarg-Sawantwadi declared an ESA.
Vanashakti, petitioners in the matter, shared satellite images of one of the villages Dodamarg-Sawantwadi – Udeli – which has been included in the Centre’s draft notification, but over the past three years have fallen prey to large-scale tree cutting. “Other villages such as Gharpi, Kumbral and Shirval are also witnessing the same pattern. The loss of primary forests will soon dry up the water resources of the region, causing siltation of the reservoirs, rivers and will impact movement of wildlife,” said Stalin.
Declaring an area as ESA means restriction on projects such as mining, quarrying, thermal power plants, setting up of industries and construction. The latest draft notification was a result of a National Green Tribunal order from September 4, following the Kerala floods, directing the environment ministry to finalise the ESA at the earliest.
“The draft has been made based on the 2013 report of the high-level working group under former ISRO chairman K Kasturirangan. We have also incorporated inputs from states. Those that oppose the draft can submit suggestions and objections till the first week of December,” said a senior official from the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change.
Madhav Gadgil, ecologist who headed the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel formed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2010, confirmed the mining mafia had been eyeing the land for years. The Gadgil committee report was scrapped after states such as Kerala objected to its recommendations, citing dilution of development activities.
“In our report, we had quoted petitions from gram sabhas across 25 villages in Dodamarg-Sawantwadi that had passed resolutions asking their areas to be declared ecologically sensitive. Currently, such democratic processes have been completely sabotaged, and the current process of declaration is improper,” said Gadgil. “Mining mafia is very likely involved and this kind of imposition of such activities is unconstitutional, considering the area is wildlife hotspot.”
Senior forest officials said they were aware of the ecological significance of Dodamarg and had directed the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) to carry out a detailed study to find out whether the area forms an elephant and tiger corridor. “A preliminary site visit by experts has been completed. We have asked WII to submit a project proposal with estimated cost of the study, and this is in process,” said Virendra Tiwari, chief conservator of forest (Mantralaya), state forest department. “The HC has already given express directions to protect this region, and our department is ensuring its full safety.”