Study of Western Ghats sheds new light based on 125 years of rain data

Kalkuli Vittal Hegde with his pathbreaking study - Malenadu Adhyayana(Left); Kalkuli Vittal Hegde receiving the D Litt degree from Thavar Chand Gehlot, Governor of Karnataka(Right)

Kalkuli Vittal Hegde with his pathbreaking study - Malenadu Adhyayana(Left); Kalkuli Vittal Hegde receiving the D Litt degree from Thavar Chand Gehlot, Governor of Karnataka(Right)


This temple town known for its Sharada Peeta consecrated by Adi Shankara is in the lap of one of the rainforest complexes in India if not of the world.

This temple town known for its Sharada Peeta consecrated by Adi Shankara is in the lap of one of the rainforest complexes in India if not of the world. A silent revolution has taken place in shedding light on what it means to have rainforest and what is it trying to tell us especially when unseasonal rains have become a cause for worry.

The monumental study made by Dr Kalkuli Vittal Hegde of Sringeri on this aspect has earned him a D Litt honour by the Kannada University of Hampi in Karnataka. The study carried out by Dr Hegde is in Kannada and in the process, it has brought out the ecological glossary of and best practices of environmental protection taken up by the hyper-local tribal people in their own dialects which adds to the relevance of conserving the Malenadu (hilly region). It is the first academic degree as high as D Litt given to any author exclusively for the study of the conservation of Malenadu.

Dr Hegde and his eco-push

Dr Kalkuli Vittal Hegde is known for his love and concern for the rainforest of Western Ghats and has led to many environmental struggles, most important among them being the protection of tribal villages and habitats inside the Kudremukh National Park, strong opposition to the removal of roughly 15,000 forest inhabitants residing in 36 revenue villages within the protected national park. The campaign retains a democratic face in the form of the Kudremukh National Park Virudhi Horata, a coalition of socially diverse organisations fighting for the rights of the Kudremukh forest inhabitants.

Dr Hegde's work -Malenadu Adhyayana- is a study of the rainforests of Western Ghats concentrating on the Malenadu-Hilly region of Karnataka. It studies wide-ranging aspects of the South Asian monsoons that have ramifications not just for South India but the entire Southern Hemisphere and is a part of the world rain eco-system. Dr Hegde has also led a struggle against the eviction of tribals from the Kudremukh National Park which had attracted national-level attention. He also presided over the Sringeri taluk Kannada Literary festival. Excerpts from an interview with The Hans India at his house in Sringeri.

Your study 'Malenadu Adhyayana' sheds light on the rainforest ecosystem and its global spread and manifestations. What does it recommend?

Dr Hegde: This rain system has a history of over 20 lakh years. This rain ecosystem is as important and as old as the Himalayas both having great significance to the world weather and rainfall. These 100 days of rain is like the elixir of life not just for humankind but also for an entire gamut of life forms, plant and tree diversity. I have found on my many trips into the deep Western Ghats that even tree species of the Jurassic period are still present of course in a mutated form there are scientific evidence to believe that the South Asian Monsoons had wider importance to the world ecology".

"I have studied the rainfall pattern for 125 years between 1895 and 2020. Also, the variations, spread and their effect on not just vegetation but also on the culture of the human beings staying inside the rainforest complex of Malenadu. My study might have examined a micro area when compared to the world ecology, but a similar parallel is found in the Amazon rainforest complex of Brazil where it is established directly to be correlated with the extent of the green cover and the survival of the biodiversity.

If we see the spread of biodiversity starting from the Pangea period and later to the Jurassic period and to our modern world, the environment and ecology had taken root on a single landmass and later evolved into different weather systems after the continental drift that makes it plausible that the global rainfall pattern with examples of Southwestern monsoons and the one we see in Amazon rainforest complex are the two identical rainfall systems, both are now two of the largest rainforest ecosystems".

"During my study, I have learnt from various geological, biological, botanical, entomological and zoological studies made earlier by other experts that the Western Ghats had 5 per cent of the land mass of India, and 27 per cent of biodiversity destinations. The ecosystem of Western Ghats has over 15,000 living beings, 7402 types of flowering plants, 1,814 types of birds, 190 types of frogs, 290 types of sweet water fishes, 139 types of animals, 350 varieties of moths and ants and 6000 and more types of insects, 330 types of butterflies, and many other diversity factors make the Western Ghats of India as one of the 8 top biodiversity hotspots of the world. Malenadu parts of Karnataka get over 4000 millimetres of rain which is the highest among the region sharing the Western Ghats

Coming back to your area of study - the Malenadu- as we know it, have you found any reasons why in recent times the unseasonal rains have become common in your study area? Are there any variations in the rainfall pattern? What does the data you have studied between 1895- 2020 indicate?

Dr Hegde: In my area of study there are already enough variations. In what we call Malenadu there are three types of hilly areas -totally hilly, partly hilly and densely hilly. There are areas that traditionally get just 50 inches of rain then there are areas that get 100 inches of rain and there are 400 inches of rain. But during the last 200-250 years especially in the British era, modification of vegetation had happened in a gross manner.

Sandalwood, teak, rubber, coffee and tea were planted that altered not only the vegetation but also the cultural aspects of Malenadu. Changes in the vegetation had an effect on the rainfall as well as the culture. Along with plantation crops new vegetation and commercial interests and people from other regions well versed in new plantation crops work, their cultural traits also entered the Western Ghats enriching the already rich tribal culture in many ways.

Your study also mentions the vagaries of rainfall in Malenadu, and since you have linked the micro rain system to a larger and global rain system, what should the rain watchers lookout for?

Dr Hegde: But that is not the question that is on top of my mind and also on the minds of world environmental activists right now! Nature also thinks globally and acts locally. Why have there been so many cyclones in recent years, my study has counted them, - in 2021 there had been 26 cyclones in the South Asian rain system, those bigger and with more power have been named and those smaller ones have been dismissed as upper area circulation and assigned some insignificant nomenclature. But it is true that so many cyclones mean that there is a serious change in the weather as we know it.

The unseasonal cyclonic circulation in the South Asian weather system invites or forces the South Western Monsoons into the South Asian system way too soon. This is why we have unseasonal rains and the subsequent changes in vegetation. Let us not forget the great meltdown in the South Pole and its effect on the Pacific countries and developments like El Nino and Doldrums effects, all these speak of global warming in common terminology but out there there is only one thing we as environmental thinkers can think of is that the "Earth is taking measures to cool off" and we must understand it and facilitate it before we reach the point of no return.

In sections of your study you have expressed serious concerns over changes in vegetation in the rainforests. Any notable changes?

Dr Hegde: There are many instances, in one grave case the tree that is called 'Balige' is facing an extinction-level threat. These trees are native to Karnataka's rain forests and used to grow naturally and lush all around the Bhagavati Forest ward of Kudremukh National park. Back in mid 20th century, they used to use the timber of the Balige tree for making sleepers for railway tracks and the Karnataka Electricity Board used to make electric poles.

The tree was so dense and so big in size with a large canopy used to grow as monoculture species. It had so much oil even the living tree used to catch fire. When I was a young boy I had seen the entire forest of Balige trees burning due to a cover-up by the timber mafia of those days. That tree is now highly endangered. I have not seen that forest re-grow again.

The Malenadu Adhyayana has expressed serious concerns about clear cutting the forests and its effect on several species…

Dr Hegde: Yes the concern is genuine and the threat is real. The Western Ghats have many infrastructure corridors running through it and every time the forests have been clear-cut exposing the earth very deep. The pipelines, the highways, the powerlines, and hydro projects all demand clear felling of the forests. During my study for Malenadu Adhyayana, I have found that once clear felling is done the same species never grow again naturally. The vegetation undergoes changes, the tall trees with wide canopies that stood there will give way to various other species many times the new species totally transforms the endemic vegetation this will have a telling effect on the ecology. And this is just one system in the world, imagine if this happens all over the world!

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