Underestimation of the Eastern Ghats

Manoj Misra

Udgams (origins of rivers) fascinate me no end. Either in the form of a spring, a marshy bog, hundreds of falling droplets (sahastradhara), a waterfall, or just a hint of a slope they carry a special charm. Often these locations are known and carry a temple or two advertising their sacred status.

It was 2012. I was back in Odisha on an assignment and was amongst other things looking for river Rushikulya’s udgam and traveling for the purpose from Parlakhemundi, the district headquarters of Odisha’s Ganjam district to Daringbadi, a hill station of sorts in the Kandhamal district. I had been told that the udgam lay close to Daringbadi. I had also been told that the region was amongst the favourite haunts of anna log (Naxals). 

So as the shadows grew longer and the single lane road’s condition worsened with a climb up the hilly and well-wooded terrain with not a soul in sight to even give directions the priority shifted to reaching Daringbadi before nightfall or face worse. 

To cut the story short we did manage uneventfully to find a warm bed at a fairly high (915 m) Daringbadi town. We also visited the udgam of one of the headwater streams of Rushikulya at a place called Mandasur. I am tempted to continue this story into greater detail but this piece is not really about the river Rushikulya but of its mother mountain range namely the Eastern Ghats. 

Straddling the eastern coast of India and spread over some 75,000 sq km in the states of Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the Eastern Ghats, unlike the Western Ghats its western counterpart is composed of a discontinuous range of mountains running over some 1,750 km distance. 

It begins at the Simlipal massif in Mayurbhanj district of north Odisha and continues till the Sirumalai and Karanthamalai hills in Namakkal & Tiruchirapalli districts of central Tamil Nadu near Madurai where it is in handshaking proximity with the outliers of Western Ghats.      

Not many are aware that the Eastern Ghats with tectonic origins were once part of the landmass that included east Antarctica and Australia dating to some 1.9 – 1.5 billion years. Southern Eastern Ghats were first to evolve and northern the last. This fact makes the Eastern Ghats much older than its western counterpart and perhaps the oldest in the land with the sole exception of the Aravallis which are amongst the oldest on earth. 

While ‘The Eastern Ghats’ is a generic name given to the region it is actually some 25 ranges/hills with individual names which constitute it. Prominent amongst them are Simlipal, Garhjat, Madugula konda, Maliya, Papi, Kondapalli, Velikonda, Nallamala, Thirumala & Mettur hills. Arma Konda at 1680 m in Madugula Kondas range in the Visakhapatnam district (AP) is the highest peak. Other well-known peaks are Mahendragiri and Malaygiri in south Odisha. 

Due to an eastwards tilt in the Indian landmass, most of the peninsular rivers cut across the Eastern Ghats to reach the Bay of Bengal. These include Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna and Kaveri. Some picturesque gorges have resulted from this passage. Satkosia Gorge (22 km) created by the river Mahanadi in Odisha is one of the most famous of them.  

The Eastern Ghats themselves have given birth to several rivers like Baitarni, Budhabalanga and Rushikulya in Odisha; Vamsdhara, Palar and Nagavali in Andhra Pradesh; Sabari and Sileru in Chhattisgarh and Vellar and Penna rivers in Tamil Nadu.

Floristically, the Eastern Ghats are extremely rich. At 3,200 species of angiosperms, it constitutes about 16% of India’s flowering plants, some of which are endemic and rare. Forests in the region range from evergreen, semi-evergreen, moist deciduous, dry deciduous to even dry evergreen forests. Sal (Shorea robusta) with its associates is the dominant tree species in the northern Eastern Ghats. 

Phyto-geographically it is postulated that it is via the Eastern Ghats that plants of the Himalayan region have migrated to the south and vice versa. The fauna of Eastern Ghats is also varied and rich though still to be fully investigated. Similarly, the fish life of the region is poorly documented. 

Over time the forest cover in the region has seen drastic fall and developmental pressures have taken a further toll. It is heartbreaking as one motor along the eastern highway often sees hills broken and even flattened for extraction of various raw materials. 

There are 62 different tribes in Odisha and most of them live in the Eastern Ghats. Similarly, there are 27 tribes in Andhra Pradesh (including what is now Telangana). Most notable amongst them are Khonds, Soara, Kolha, Bhuinya, Kharia, Koya and Kol in Odisha and Bagatas, Chenchus, Jatapas, Kondas in Andhra Pradesh. Malayalis and Paliars are the key tribes in Tamil Nadu. 

They have a distinctive culture including customs, religious rites, taboos, legends and food habits. They also possess a rich knowledge of local flora and fauna including medicinals. Some of them traditionally indulge in slash and burn agriculture.  

Clearly, the Eastern Ghats is an ecological, geological and ethnological gem. It is also gravely threatened by developmental pressures as is the Western Ghats.

It was in 2010 that an expert panel under the chairmanship of Prof. Madhav Gadgil was set up by the MOEF (Ministry of Environment & forests) to investigate and recommend the threats being faced by biodiversity in the Western Ghats. A report was submitted by the panel on 31 August 2011 to the MoEF. Now without going into the details of the said report or into the subsequent events it is notable that neither was such an expert panel ever set up or even considered for the Eastern Ghats.   

The decade of 2020s has been designated by the United Nations as the decade of Ecosystem Restoration. Many terms this decade in the light of climate change as the ‘make or break’ decade for the long-term survival of life on earth. Fittingly the theme for the World Environment Day (5 June 2021) of the first year of this decade has been set as “Reimagine, Recreate, Restore”.  

Interestingly a 2016 seminar held at Chennai, came to a unanimous conclusion that the wild flora and fauna of the Eastern Ghats is far less researched than that done in the Western Ghats. This is a confirmation of the poor cousin status accorded to the former by all concerned. 

This is an appeal to all (governments, scientists and civil society) concerned to reimagine, recreate and restore the Eastern Ghats.   

Often something that is little understood is neglected and allowed to get exploited and degraded by default. Let it not please be the fate of the Eastern Ghats. Amen.  

First Published in The Dialogue: the Eastern Ghats Are Older And Richer Than Western Ghats But Less Studied One, on June 5, 2021

About The Author

Manoj Misra - Author Biography | Down To Earth

Manoj Misra, Manoj Misra is the Executive Director of the PEACE Institute Charitable Trust and Convenor, and head of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan, the Yamuna Forever Campaign.