Bio-Diversity of Western Ghats

The year 2010 is being observed as the Year of Biodiversity.

by - Kalpana Palkhiwala
*Deputy Director, Press Information Bureau, New Delhi

The Western Ghats region runs to a length of 1600 kilometres starting from the river Tapti near the border of Gujarat and Maharashtra to Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of India in Tamil Nadu covering six states namely - Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat (portions of Dang Forests). The region covers an area of about 1.60 lakh square kilometers.

The Western Ghats are rain rich region. Most of the rivers in peninsular India have their origin in Western Ghats, of which Godavari, Krishna, Kaveri, Kali Nadi and Periyar are of inter-state importance. These rivers are harnessed for irrigation and power.

. Biodiversity profile of Western Ghats
Western Ghats are one of the four globally recognised biodiversity hotspots in the country. A biodiversity hotspot is a bio geographic region with a significant reservoir of biodiversity that is threatened with destruction. The varied topographic, climatic and geological factors make significant contribution to their rich biodiversity. About 30% of the area of this region is under forests, which includes tropical wet evergreen forests and moist deciduous forests. The Shola grassland ecosystems found in the higher reaches of Western Ghats are unique to this region.

. The percentage of endemic species is very high in this region. About 78% of all amphibians, 62% of reptiles, 38% of angiosperms, 53% of fishes and 12% of mammals found in the country are endemic to the Western Ghats. . The Western Ghat region has one of the world’s highest concentrations of cultivated plants. The traditional crops grown in the region are areca nut, pepper and cardamom in the hills, and coconut in the coast along with mango and jackfruit. The important plantation crops grown in the region include tea, coffee, rubber, cashew and tapioca. . The Government has drawn up action plan for the conservation of biodiversity of the Western Ghats. The National Biodiversity Action Plan was prepared in 2008. This Action Plan describes the major threats and constraints facing biodiversity conservation and identifies action points for conserving biodiversity of the country.

. Given the ecological significance and sensitivity of the Western Ghats region, the Government has recently constituted a Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel to assess the current status of ecology of the region, to demarcate and recommend areas within the region .

. Which need to be notified as ecologically sensitive and to suggest measures for conservation of the Western Ghats region.

. Major Ecological Problems.
The main ecological problems of the area include increasing pressure of population and industry including tourism on land and vegetation; submergence of forest areas under river valley projects, encroachment on forest lands; mining operations, felling of natural forests for tea, coffee, rubber, eucalyptus, wattle and other monoculture plantations; infrastructural projects such as railway lines and roads; soil erosion, land slides etc,.

. Financial Assistance
Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve covering an area of 5520 sq.km in the Western Ghats region spread over the States of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka, was the first Biosphere Reserve in the country. The Central Government provides financial assistance to these States for conservation of the ecosystem, to conduct research, monitoring, and promoting sustainable development.

. In addition, over 10% area of the Western Ghats (approx. 13,000 km) are under legally designated Protected Areas. Some important and well-know National Parks in this region include: Nagarhole, Bandipur, Periyar, and Annamalai.

. The Government also implements the Eastern and Western Ghats Research Programme here. Under this programme, grants are provided for undertaking research projects for studies relating to biodiversity, land use, impact of developmental activities etc., to address location-specific problems of resources management in the Eastern and Western Ghats region.

National Action Plan on Biodiversity
The Government has prepared a National Biodiversity Action Plan (NABP) which was approved by the Cabinet in November, 2008. The NBAP draws upon the main principle of the National Environment Policy that considers human beings as the centre of concern of sustainable development, entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature. The NBAP document is broadly based on the evaluation of existing legislations, sectoral policies, regulatory systems, implementation mechanisms, existing strategies, plans and programmes. It proposes to design actions based on the assessment of current and future needs of conservation and sustainable utilization, and of physical and fiscal instruments. (PIB Feature)

Andamans – A Sea of Change in 30 Years

by - S. Balakrishnan

It was a revisit to India’s emerald islands in the east embellishing the Bay of Bengal. Reflections of life and times in Port Blair three decades ago flashed through the mind as Indian Airlines carrier touched down Veer Savarkar airport.

The images of the past and the realities of the present were quite striking. The transformation that the Andaman Islands have gone through was palpable during a recent week-long crisscross of the islands. From buildings to bridges, from roads to bye lanes, beaches to skyline, the canvas of this coral island portrayed a sea change.

Transport
For an island territory lying away from the mainland and spread North-South across the deep sea over a length of 800 kilometers, transport is the lifeline. Whereas initially there was only a once-a-week flight from Kolkatta, and later from Chennai, now there are daily flights from these two cities, even by private airlines. Additional services are also operated as and when necessary. Similarly, for inter-island transport, helicopter service has been introduced linking Diglipur, the farthest town of North Andamans to Campbell Bay located in the southernmost part, in Nicobar Group of Islands. Talking of sea cruise, both the mainland to island service and inter-island services have improved a lot. As far as surface transport is concerned, privatization has eased the problem to a great extent. The ubiquitous auto rickshaw has also reached the islands. Construction of Great Andaman Trunk-road (now National Highway 223) has certainly paved the way for improved infrastructure. However, the road building, which started in 1970s, had turned controversial as it cuts through the ‘reserved’ forest areas of the Jarawa tribe, a Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) group. The current plans to widen the road have further aggravated its impact on the habitat of the Jarawas.

Communication
The advent of cell phone has turned out to be a great boon to the nearly four lakh population in the islands. Not only one could converse with people in the mainland at the press of a button, but could also speak with the same ease and clarity to an acquaintance in the southernmost island of Great Nicobar, where the inter-island ferry takes two days to reach. Postal facilities have also markedly improved, the efficient speed post service scored where a private courier service failed to reach the remote Baratang.

Tourism
With silver sands, lagoons and enchanting seamless greenery, Andamans had always been a destination worth visiting. Tourism is the bread butter of the people of these exquisite islands. Unlike the vignettes of Port Blair more than a quarter century ago, one can today find many eateries and lodges that suit one’s taste buds as well as budget.

Over the years, new places have been thrown open to the tourists, like the Ross Island where the settlement’s headquarters was first established, the Viper Island where penal settlement was first established, and Chatham Island where Asia’s first and biggest saw mill was established and is still functioning. New museums like the Samudrika marine museum, forest museum and aquarium boast of rare collection of flora and fauna of Andamans. The Anthropological Museum is worth a visit, what with Old Stone Age Jarawa and Sentinel tribes still surviving in the islands against all odds.

Snorkeling and cruising in glass-bottomed boats and scuba diving for the trained and experienced are the new attractions. Watching lakhs of jelly fish gently float by in the waters of Mahatma Gandhi National Marine Park was like watching Discovery Channel live. Near Baratang, the Parrot Island, mud volcano, limestone cave and mangrove canopy walk are the added attractions for tourists who love to be with Nature.

At the same time, responsible tourism that protects and conserves nature is also strictly followed. Tourists are not allowed to pick and bring back prohibited sea shells and corals.

National Memorial
A lot of renovation and beautification works have been done in and around the cellular Jail, now a National Memorial in honour of our freedom fighters who languished under colonial oppression since 1857. A museum has been created depicting the history of penal settlement and the sacrifices made by our freedom fighters so that we could be free. Watching the sound and light show in the premises of the Cellular Jail that chronicles the courage and sacrifice of our freedom fighters was a time worth spent.

Social life
Cut off from the hustles and bustles of mainland, the social life on the island, lacks luster. However, it is made up by satellite and Cable TV and DVDs, that throw open the whole world at the flick of the remote. Take a stroll through the National Highway 223 - the memories etched thirty years ago get overlapped by the transformation over the years. The look of the bazaars has changed. From what used to be a lazy marketplace that got to life only when ships from the mainland arrived, is now bustling with regular shops that include gold jewellery marts and mini supermarkets stocking almost everything and anything. Local handicrafts sector has improved vastly. LPG cooking gas has reached the islands and so has milk, where milk powder was the only source for milk then, Local production of fruits and vegetables has seen a marked improvement yet, much of the demand is still being met from the mainland and hence a bit costlier.

Power & Water
Despite a manifold increase in power consumption, diesel generators are still the only source of power supply. Other sources of energy like gobar/bio gas, solar, wave, and wind can be tried in a big way. Similarly, there seemed to be a perennial shortage of water despite rains for more than six months a year. Saline water treatment plant could be established and water harvesting, even in small quantities, should be encouraged.

Though life in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands has improved a lot in general, development is always at the cost of Nature. We have to tread very carefully, at least as far as the tribes are concerned. (PIB Features)

India’s Promising Economic Outlook

by - Ashok Handoo
*Freelance Journalist

The fiscal year 2009-10 that has just gone by, has been a difficult period for India. The country had to bear the impact of the global financial crisis. What stood India in good stead was its strong economic fundamentals but despite that it could not save itself entirely from the impact. It, however, goes to India’s credit that while the world economies went into the red with negative economic growth, India continued to maintain a respectable growth rate. Though the final figures are yet to come out the estimates are that we will post a 7.2 percent growth for this period.

A sectoral analysis makes the picture clear. Take for instance the industrial production sector. The figures released by the Government show that the production slipped to 13.5 % in March compared to over 15.1% in February. But actually, the sector recorded a 10.4 % increase in the full financial year against just 2.8 % in the previous fiscal. That indeed is a big jump, considering the global economic down turn. This was possible largely because of the massive fiscal and monetary measures the Government took to boost both demand and the supply side.

In the agricultural field, the picture has been somewhat disturbing. That is because of a bad monsoon which affected agricultural production. The country received 22 % less rainfall during the year. The latest advance crop output estimates indicate that there may be a shortfall of 7 % in grain output. Despite a poor monsoon, there has been a record wheat output but shortfall in rice and coarse cereals may bring down the total output from 229 mt. To 218 mt.- a shortfall of 11 mt. What is gratifying however is that the Indian Meteorological Department has forecast a timely and normal monsoon for the current year. It has predicted that monsoon would hit Kerela on May 30 with an error of plus or minus four days.

Fortunately, the forecasts of the Department about the arrival of monsoon have been correct for the last 4-5 years. The department has predicted a normal rainfall this year with a precipitation of 98 % of the Long Period Average with an error of plus or minus 5 percent for the entire season and for the country as a whole.

If the country actually receives a timely and good monsoon this year, we will be able to mitigate, to a large extent, the dreadful effects of the deficient monsoon that we experienced last year. In the export sector, the story has been both encouraging and discouraging. Discouraging because this is the sector which bore the brunt of the economic slowdown leading to drastic fall in exports with consequent job losses and fall in foreign exchange earnings.

Encouraging, because despite these odds, the sector put up a brave front and withstood the global challenges, firmly. As a result of this, exports have been posting a consistent increase for the last 6 months recording a 54 % increase in March this year. But the annual trade figures released by the Government show that there has been a shortfall of 4.7 percent in 2009-10 compared to the previous financial year.

The total exports stood at $ 176.5 billion. There are also concerns about the side effects of a steady appreciation of the rupee, which affects the competitiveness of the exports. The rupee has gained 5 % against the dollar, this year. But there is a silver lining too. The imports also fell by 8.2 % in 2009-10 on a year on year basis standing at $278.7 billion. Because of this, the trade deficit also came down to $102 from $118 billion in the previous year.

The Commerce Ministry has now set an export target of $200 billion for the current fiscal. But the most challenging area has been high inflation which is touching the double digit mark with annual food inflation going as high as about 19%. This has been the most worrisome factor for the Government as high inflation affects adversely the lowest and the most vulnerable sections of our society.

As the Fiance Minister Shri. Pranab Mukherjee put it while addressing the National Conference on ‘Implementing Inclusive Growth and Development’ in New Delhi recently, despite a high level of economic growth the benefits do not percolate to the bottom levels and a significant chunk of our population has yet to benefit from our growth story. He however expressed confidence that with a good monsoon this year, food inflation, would come down substantially in a few months. The trend seems to have already begun. In April inflation softened to 9.59 % against 9.90 % in March. It is estimated that inflation will continue to fluctuate for the next three months before it begins to fall. The Government is confident that it will be able to bring down the inflation rate to 5.5 % by the end of the current fiscal.

The stimulus packages given by the Government during the last year to boost demand have indeed done the trick, but it has also contributed to the inflationary pressures and the fiscal deficit. The Reserve Bank began the process of liquidity regulations last month by raising modestly, the Repo and Reverse Repo Rates and the Cash Reserve Ratio. But major steps could perhaps be taken only later. The world Economic Outlook has projected India’s GDP growth to be 8.8 percent in 2011.

In fact the Government is hoping to do even better and move up to a double digit growth rate in the subsequent years. The key to achieving this lies in right policies, timely action and above all a benevolent weather God.
(PIB feature)

Urbanization and Health

by - A.N. Khan
* Senior Scientist & Former Assistant Director, National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, Nagpur

Rapid urbanization and the increase in the population of cities are recognized as being among the major challenges of health development. Between 1990 and 2025, the total urban population in developing countries is projected to increase threefold to almost 61% of the population.

It is associated with many health challenges related with water, environment, violence and injury, non-communicable diseases and their risk factors like tobacco use, unhealthy diets, physical inactivity and the risk associated with disease outbreaks.Time and again, the bright lights of the city prove an irresistible attraction for families living in the surrounding countryside. They converge in ever-growing numbers on the already over-crowded cities, only to face shortcoming in housing, water supply, sewage disposal, local transport and job opportunities.

The urban poor suffer from a wide range of diseases and other health problems, including chronic diseases and for some, communicable diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. The increasing concentration of people in urban centers has strained the capacity of most governments to provide basic services. Illegal slums and settlements are common. In such areas, people are usually deprived of access to the basic facilities of drinking water and waste disposal.

Resources are not adequate for removal or disposal of waste. Residents have little access to facilities which make for a reasonable quality of life and human development. Thus they often suffer from greater exposure to dust, unpleasant smells, chemicals and noise pollution, and the nature of dwelling makes them less able to withstand such hazards. There is direct link between people dwelling in such conditions and cholera, viral hepatitis, typhoid fever, schistomiasis, dirrhoeal and parasitic diseases that are carried by water or poor sanitation, overcrowding and poor diet.

They are also exposed to health risks of modern cities – traffic, pollution etc., and suffer the consequences of social and psychological instability as the traditional support structures of rural areas steadily disappear. Most people in such cities struggle to survive by participating in the informal economic sector where exposure to occupational hazard is of very little concern. Long – term exposure to high levels of air pollution in build up areas can cause respiratory disease, persistent decline in lung function, carcinogenic effects, effects on the nervous and immune systems, and development of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

The growing realization that most of the improvements in health which has occurred in the recent past has come about because of action outside the medical sector – economic development, better nutrition and education, better housing, and a cleaner environment - has fostered renewed interest in Preventive Medicine. To make cities healthy, we must, all those who deal with aspects of the urban system that directly or indirectly affect health, involve themselves in urban health planning.

Urban planning can promote healthy behaviour and safety through investment in active transport, designing areas to promote physical activity and passing regulatory control on tobacco and food safety. Improving urban living conditions in the areas of housing, water and sanitation will go a long way to mitigate health risks. Building inclusive cities that are accessible and age-friendly will benefit all urban residents.

Such actions do not require additional funding, but commitment to redirect resources to priority interventions, thereby achieving greater efficiency.
(PIB feature)
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