The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has issued notices to the governments of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala based on a report by the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) that highlights a significant reduction in green cover in the Cauvery basin over the past five decades.
The notices, directed to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change, the Director General of Forest Survey of India, and other relevant authorities, were taken up suo motu by Justice Prakash Srivastava.
According to the IISc report, the Cauvery basin has witnessed a substantial loss of 12,850 square kilometers of green cover between 1965 and 2016. The NGT expressed deep concern over extensive agricultural and horticultural activities covering 73.5% of the Cauvery basin, with only 18% remaining as forested areas, and dense forests limited to just 13% of the region.
The report highlights that natural green areas have significantly diminished, declining from 28,154 sq km to 15,345 sq km over the past 50 years. In Karnataka alone, 57% of the green cover, equivalent to 9,664 sq km, has been lost. Tamil Nadu has seen a loss of 29% (2,905 sq km), and Kerala has lost 27% (279 sq km) of its green cover during the same period.
The NGT underscored the urgency of addressing the environmental challenges facing the Cauvery valley and safeguarding its ecosystems, categorizing the issue as a matter of environmental law. The Supreme Court has affirmed that voluntary cases can be filed in such instances.
The alarming situation extends to prominent national parks and wildlife sanctuaries in the Cauvery valley. The report found that the forest area in Bandipur National Park has decreased by 15.19% in 50 years, primarily due to development activities and forest fires. Nagarhole National Park has experienced an 11% decline in forest cover due to human intervention and increased horticulture activities.
The Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary faces a threat to its forested areas due to population growth and encroachment, resulting in an 18.43% reduction in greenery between 1973 and 2016. Bannerghatta National Park has seen a significant decline in dense forest cover, to 28% in 2016 from 50.40% in 1973.
The Cauvery basin’s deforestation is primarily caused by illegal tree fellings, wildfires, encroachment, and other factors. Additionally, the pollution of Cauvery water due to the discharge of waste water into the river is exacerbating the environmental concerns, as noted in the report.
A study from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (IIT-B) reveals a concerning picture, showing that deforestation in the Western Ghats is negatively impacting water-scarce regions like Tamil Nadu. The Western Ghats, a recognized biodiversity hotspot, has lost 33,579 square kilometers of green cover since 1920, translating to a 35% loss driven by plantation expansion, agriculture, and hydropower dam construction.
The IIT-B study emphasizes that deforestation in the Western Ghats influences the monsoon patterns, contributing to 25% to 40% of Tamil Nadu’s monsoon rainfall between June and September. The study warns that this ecological unraveling poses a dire threat to regions already grappling with water scarcity and inter-state disputes over Cauvery River sharing.
Efforts to address the issue include projects like the ‘Rally for Cauvery’ by the Isha Foundation, which claims to have raised funds for planting over 46 million trees in the Cauvery basin. However, concerns have been raised by environmental experts and scientists, questioning the project’s efficacy and long-term impact.
In response to the environmental challenges, the NGT has urged prompt responses from the concerned states, and the case will be heard at the Chennai bench of the Tribunal due to its jurisdiction over the matter. The tribunal emphasizes the critical need to address the environmental challenges facing the Cauvery valley and protect its ecosystems. Experts stress that afforestation alone may not be a sufficient solution, and a holistic approach addressing various challenges, including urbanization, groundwater depletion, and dam construction, is crucial for the sustainable management of India’s rivers.