The Department of Environment, set up in 1980 and subsequently upgraded to Ministry of Environment and Forests serves as a nodal unit for planning and protection. Other government departments like Archaeological Survey of India, Anthropological Survey of India, Botanical Survey of India, Zoological Survey of India are also engaged in environmental protection and preservation work in tandem with the Ministry.
A map of India, shows eco-sensitive zones , both natural and industrial. However, heritage sites, forests, national parks, biosphere reserves, wild life sanctuaries, lakes, wetlands, mangrove forests, coral reefs, areas with specialised skills, tribal areas, areas of tourist interest, archaeological monuments, etc., have not been included – due to paucity of space, although the discussion on sensitive areas remains inconclusive without their inclusion. Both environmental and cultural elements need conservation and have been discussed in brief.
The country has a total forest cover of 7.74 lakh square kms, of which 3.99 is classified as reserved and 2.38 as protected and unclassified forest area is spread over 1. 3 lakh square kms as per the State of Forest Report 2003. The thrust of our forest policy is on protection, conservation and development of forests. It aims at maintenance of environmental stability through preservation of ecological balance; conservation of natural heritage; check on soil erosion; limit of extension of sand dunes in desert areas and along coastal tracts; and, increase in forest cover through afforestation programmes.
Specialised forest ecosystem of tropical and subtropical regions bordering the sheltered sea coasts and estuaries, mangroves stabilise the shoreline and act as barriers against encroachment by the sea. Salt tolerant inter tidal halophytic plants dominate mangrove forests. At present India has about 4461 sq kms under mangrove forests (2003 assessment by the Forest Survey of India) which is about 0.14 percent of the world’s total mangrove area.
Based on the recommendation of the National Committee on Wetlands, Mangroves and Coral Reefs, 15 mangrove areas have been identified for intensive conservation and management. These are northern Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Sundarbans-West Bengal, Bhitarkanika-Orissa, Coringa, Godavari and Krishna Delta -Andhra Pradesh, Pichavaram and Point Calimar -Tamil Nadu, Coondapur -Karnataka, Ratnagiri-Maharashtra and Vembanad -Kerala, Goa and Gulf of Kachchh,. Management action plans for these areas cover survey, demarcation, natural generation in selected areas, afforestation, protection measures and awareness programmes.
Twelve multi-purpose protected areas, which preserve the genetic diversity in representative eco systems have been set up. These biosphere reserves are in the Nilgiris, Nanda Devi, Nokrek, Great Nicobar, Gulf of Mannar, Manas, Sundarbans, Simlipal, Dibru Saikhowa, Panch Marhi, Dihang-Dibang and Kanchenjunga. Comprehensive guidelines have been prepared for eco development projects, development of database, conservation plans of key species and establishment of research stations.
Transitional areas between aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems where the water table is usually at or near the surface include marshes, swamps, floodplains, bogs, peat lands, shallow ponds, littoral zones of larger water bodies, tidal marshes, etc. The wetland ecosystems are distributed in different geographical regions – from the cold desert of Ladakh in the north to warm humid zone of southern peninsula and from the wet montane climate of Imphal in the east to the hot arid environment of Rajasthan in the west. The Ministry of Environment and Forests estimates that the country possesses about 4.1 million hectares of wetlands (excluding paddy fields and mangroves) of which 1.5 million hectares are natural and 2.6 million hectares are man-made. The Rann of Kachchh is one of the most remarkable wetlands. It is a cluster of salt soaked, low lying flats that are innundated periodically by the sea and inland rivers like Banas and Luni.
Shallow water, tropical marine ecosystems, characterised by a remarkably high biomass production, rich fauna- floral diversity and a structure formed by calcareous skeleton that houses corals is categorized as a coral reef. The Andaman and Nicobar and the Lakshadweep Islands contain some of the finest coral formations in India apart from reefs that are found in Gulf of Kachchh and the Gulf of Mannar. A national level strategy for conservation of corals and coral reefs has been formulated to preserve these fragile marine ecosystems, presently deteriorating rapidly.
Under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, a notification on Coastal Zone Regulation has been issued declaring coastal stretches of seas or bays, estuaries, creeks, rivers and backwaters within 500 metres of high tide line as ‘Coastal Regulation Zone’. Setting up of new industries or expansion of existing industries excepting those directly related to waterfront; manufacturing, handling, storage or disposal of hazardous substances and setting up of units for disposal of wastes, effluents, etc. are prohibited within the Coastal Regulation Zones. There are four Coastal Regulation Zones. CRZ I denotes ecologically sensitive and important areas and areas between low tide line and high tide line. No construction work is permitted here. In CRZ II developed areas close to shore, mainly urban or built up areas has been included. CRZ III comprises of undistributed areas and those areas which do not belong to either category I or II. CRZ IV classification is for coastal stretches along Andaman, Nicobar, Lakshadweep and small islands.
The heterogeneous population of India is composed of diverse biological, cultural and linguistic heritage. For instance, there are about 250 identifiable communities in Northeast India alone (report of Anthropological Survey of India, 1992). Among various other clans and castes, tribal people deserve special protection. After Independence, various tribal development schemes have been launched under the broad framework of the Five-Year Plans. Certain administrative units have been selected as tribal sub plan areas for integrated tribal development projects. Each identified area contains a tribal concentration of 50 percent or more. Environmental protection is a serious issue for tribal districts and special permission needs to be procured from local administrative body for setting up large scale industries within tribal areas.
Natural Hazard prone areas
Certain areas of our country are more prone to natural hazards like, earthquakes, cyclones, drought, floods and tsunamis. Cyclones, a recurring natural hazard, have a disastrous effect on the lowlying plains of Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and West Bengal. The coastal regions of these three States experience the frontal disturbances originating in the Bay of Bengal. The Arabian coast is affected to a lesser degree. Drought and desertification on the other hand, is directly connected with precipitation and climate change. Large variations in total rainfall in each geographical division, from one year to the other, cause floods and droughts. A prominent belt comprising of drought prone districts spreads from Gujarat and eastern part of Rajasthan in north and towards the interior parts of peninsula in the south. Outside this most conspicuous zone are a few dry districts of Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Jammu and Kashmir that suffer this calamity. Like droughts, floods too are annual events that especially affect the riverine and coastal areas of Bihar, Assam, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and West Bengal. It is estimated that annual losses from the floods amount to Rs. 2,104 million causing suffering to about 50 million people and affecting over 10 million hectares of cropped land. Of the country’s total geographical area of 328 million hectares, 40 million hectares have been assessed as prone to floods, out of which 32 million hectares can be taken as protectable. So far, 14.4 million hectares have been provided with a reasonable degree of flood protection. Several Commsission and Boards have been set up to prepare comprehensive flood mitigation measures. Tsunamis have also emerged as a potential risk along coastal areas and are being addressed in a significant way.
Our country is a grand repository of ancient cultural treasures. Pre historic and proto historic remains have been excavated from many parts of the country. Of the historical period, ruins of monuments dating back to 500 BC still exist. Monuments of Maurya period (270 BC) are appreciated for their superior quality; the finest examples being the Sarnath Pillar and Sanchi Stupa. Contributions of the Gupta period (320 AD to 600 AD) include Buddha images of Sarnath and iron pillar of Delhi. The period between AD 600 and 1000 bears testimony to monuments like the Lingaraja and Rajarani temples at Bhubaneshwar, Khajuraho temple in Madhya Pradesh, Jagannath temple at Puri, Dilwara temple at Mt. Abu, etc. The Dravidian style of architecture is visible in the temples of Mahabalipuram, Kanchipuram, Tiruttani, Tirukkalukkunram, Madurai and Tiruchirappalli. Sravana Belagola complex with the colossal finely polished statue of standing Gommatesvara on the crest of the Indragiri hills and the granite temples at Nandi are other noteworthy monuments. The monuments constructed between 1000 and 1500 AD by the Vijaynagara emperors are found at Hampi, Penukonda, Chandragiri and Vellore of south India. In the period between Qutb-Id-Din Aibak’s rise (1210 AD) and invasion by the Mughals, north India witnessed the development of Islamic architecture. The Qutb group of mosques offers the best specimen. The architecture of the Mughal period (after 1526 AD) represents a mingling of Indo Persian styles. Some of the examples are Fatehpur Sikri, Agra Fort, Mausoleum at Sikandara, Taj Mahal and Moti Masjid at Agra, Diwan-i-Am and Diwan-i-Khas at Delhi. The specimens of Tibetan architecture include monasteries found in Sikkim and Ladakh. All these monuments and more need to be protected from a deteriorating environment which hastens their decimation. The Archaeological Survey of India is the apex body for preservation of historical monuments.
World Heritage Sites
There are altogether 290 world heritage sites-cultural as well as natural wonders. Out of these, India has 15 cultural and 5 natural heritage sites. The cultural include Ajanta Caves, Ellora Caves, Agra Fort, Taj Mahal, the Sun Temple (Konark), Mahabalipuram monuments, Sanchi, Hampi monuments, Fatehpur Sikri Mughal city, group of monuments at Pattadakal, Elephanta caves, Brihadisvara temple, Thanjavur, Churches of Goa, Khajuraho group of monuments, Qutb Minar and Humayun’s Tomb at Delhi.
The natural sites are Keoladeo National Park in Rajasthan, Manas and Kaziranga in Assam and Sundarbans Biosphere Reserve in West Bengal. The International Council of Monuments and Sites, a wing of UNESCO, has declared April 18 of every year as World Heritage Day. The Department of Culture and Archaeological Survey of India, observes this World Heritage Day and augments various practical measures in respect of conservation of the World Heritage Monuments.
The sensitivity of certain areas requires special policy level interventions to reduce the environmental damage accrued to it. The drought prone and flood areas, forested zones and tribal dominated regions seeks attention to protect them from damage from industrialisation and urbanisation. Like endangered flora and fauna, protection of ancient monuments needs to be addressed as rising pollution levels deteriorate exteriors as well as destroy habitats. The environmentally sensitive areas are pertinent to legislators with the objective to identifying regions that fall under one or more parameter and relocate industrial areas from such sensitive regions. Policies need to be frames to clean up critically polluted areas closest to sensitive locations and provide them with a new lease of life.