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For diversion of 10,000 acres of forest land Karnataka Govt On Sticky Wicket

Updated: April 20, 2013 5:46 pm

Karnataka government’s decision to divert of ‘Amrit Mahal Kaval’ (forest) land for defence, nuclear and industrial projects in Chitradurga district has turned out to be a controversy. Karnataka National Green Tribunal has constituted fact finding committee to determine ecological and environmental consequences of the massive diversion.

Under the scanner now are Defence Research Development Organisation’s mega projects—Advanced R&D complex, a 3.5 km runway and test centre for long-endurance (48-72 hours) UAVs and UCAVs (4290 acres)— Indian Institute of Science Bangalore’s Synchrotron, Energy Research Centre and Advanced Aerospace Research Centre (1500 acres), Bhabha Atomic Research Centre’s Special Material Enrichment Facility (Uranium) (total 1810 acres), Indian Space Research Organisation’s spacecraft Technologies project (total 573 acres), Karnataka Small Scale Industries Development Corporation’s various industrial ancillary units (total 300 acres), Sagitaur Ventures India Pvt. Ltd.’s Integrated Solar Park Development along with Grid Connected 25 MW Solar PV Power Project (total 1250 acres) and Karnataka Housing Board’s Developing Housing Layout and sale of constructed villas (total 50 acres).

The South Zone Bench of the National Green Tribunal comprising Justice Mr M. Chockalingam (Judicial Member) and Prof Dr R Nagendran (Expert Member) recently set up a two member committee of experts to visit Challakere Taluk in Chitradurga district and study the ecological and environmental consequences of diversion of 10,000 acres of ‘Amrit Mahal Kaval’ (traditional pasture grassland ecosystems and District Forests) for a variety of defence, nuclear, industrial and infrastructure projects. The expert members named by the Tribunal are Dr S Ravichandra Reddy, Retd. Professor of Ecology, Bangalore University and Dr KV Anantharaman, Deputy Director, Scientist “C” (Retd.), Central Silk Board, Bangalore.

The decision to constitute the expert team was taken based on applications filed by Leo F Saldanha and Environment Support Group before the Tribunal. The Applicants have consistently pointed out that the Karnataka Government comprehensively violated various forest, biodiversity and environmental protection laws while diverting about 10,000 acres of ‘Amrit Mahal Kaval’ for defence, industrial and infrastructure development projects. All this has also been done, without any Statutory Public Hearings, in total secrecy thus comprehensively violating the Principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent that forms a major basis of various environmental and human rights protection laws. Further, it has been vehemently contended that this diversion is in absolute contradiction to various policies of the Central Government that seek to protect grasslands and livelihoods of pastoralists.

The Applications contended that all these gross illegalities have been committed despite the widely known fact that these ecologically sensitive grassland ecosystems serve as a special and critical habitat to a variety of flora and fauna; large herds of the highly threatened antelope species such as the Black Buck (Antilope cervicapra) graze these grasslands, and the ecosystem is a typical habitat for critically endangered birds such as Great Indian Bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps, only 250 individuals known to survive in all of South Asia) and Lesser Florican (Sypheotides indicus).

These grasslands ecosystems have for centuries supported the rearing of drought tolerant locally bred variety of Amrit Mahal Cattle, besides providing a wide range of livelihoods opportunities for communities in about 60 directly impacted villages located around the Kaval. It is in consideration of all these values that the Karnataka Government had designated such Kaval land as District Forests per the Karnataka Forest Rules, 1969 and their protection was made sacrosanct by directions of the Karnataka High Court in 2002 and subsequent orders of the State.

The Challakere Kaval land is spread over 12,000 acres, and constitutes the last remaining large contiguous semi-arid grassland in Karnataka. The State which boasted at the time of independence of possessing about 4,00,000 acres of ‘Kaval’ grasslands, is now, per the Forest Department submissions to the Supreme Court, left with only about 45,000 acres of such habitat.

Producing incontrovertible evidence before the Tribunal, the Applicants demonstrated that the beneficiaries of the illegal transfer of such ecologically precious grassland/forest land include Defence Research Development Organisation (for drone testing and development), Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (uranium enrichment facility), Indian Institute of Science (Synchroton), Indian Space Research Organisation (satellite centre), Sagitaur Pvt. Ltd. (Solar Farm), Karnataka Housing Board (township), and Karnataka Small Scale Industries Association and Karnataka Udyog Mitra (for a range of private industrial and ancillary units related to the defense sector). All of these proponents have been provided such ecologically precious land at a pittance of a cost: Rs 30-35,000 acre.

The Applicants have also produced evidence that despite statutory notices of violation of environmental law from Karnataka State Pollution Control Board issued about two years ago, none of the project proponents have complied with any of the mandatory environmental and forest clearance norms and standards. Instead, a variety of project activities have commenced including the building of a 30 kms long high wall by DRDO in comprehensive violation of the Environment Impact Assessment Notification 2006 which categorically bars commencement of any project activity until environmental and forest clearances have been granted. Such developments have blocked local pastoralists’ access to their pasture land and to lakes and streams which are critical drinking water sources for cattle, especially during the long periods of drought affecting the region causing extensive distress to impacted families.

Besides, the wall has seriously constrained the movement of the highly endangered Black Buck, and could potentially isolate the population, thus weakening its genetic vitality. In addition, DRDO is on record to have conducted various bombing sorties in the grasslands, none of which appear to have been with any consent from civil and military authorities.

The Applications have also prayed for interim relief of stay on ongoing illegal activities and for allowing access to grazing pastures for local pastoralists.

By Rajesh Kamath from Bengaluru

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