July 4, 2013
Report Submitted to Expert Committee Appointed by National Green Tribunal
“Forfeiting Our Commons: A Case for Protecting and Conserving Challakere’s Amrit Mahal Kavals as Livelihoods-Supporting, Biodiversity-Rich and Ecologically-Sensitive Grassland Ecosystems”
During the years 2009-2010, at least 10,000 acres of precious, biodiversity-rich, grassland ecosystems, protected for centuries as Amrit Mahal Kavals – grazing pastures in Challakere Taluk of Chitradurga District, were diverted by then Deputy Commissioner of Chitradurga, Mr. Amlan Aditya Biswas, IAS, for various defence, industrial, infrastructure, institutional and commercial purposes. Though these decisions may have had the approval of the Karnataka Cabinet, the entire exercise was undertaken in comprehensive violation of various laws and without involving any of the local elected governments, local MLAs, and relevant departments dealing with forests, lakes, agriculture, animal husbandry, horticulture, commons lands, planning, etc. As a consequence of the secretive and unilateral decision-making that was engaged with in diverting the said Kavals, the true nature of the environmental and social impacts of the project has been hidden from directly and indirectly impacted communities, relevant regulatory authorities, and the public at large. The proposed investments are all highly sensitive, hazardous and will destroy the grasslands, its rare biodiversity and livelihoods of thousands in over 70 villages.
This massive illegal diversion of the Kaval commons, also designated “District Forests”, has been undertaken to allow Bhabha Atomic Research Centre to establish a massive nuclear enrichment centre, Defence Research Development Organisation to test its drones for civilian and military surveillance, Indian Institute of Science to establish a Synchrotron and a satellite application centre of Indian Space Research Organisation, all for a paltry payment of Rs. 30-35,000/acre. In addition, Sagitaur Ventures Pvt. Ltd., a IT real estate developer has been provided 1000 acres of this biodiversity rich grasslands to site a solar pond and at a ridiculously low lease rent of Rs. 45 lakhs (USD 75000/-). In anticipation of these developments, Karnataka Housing Board has already constructed villas and neighbourhoods illegally in the grasslands and it is speculated that the Indian Army may demand another 10,000 acres to establish its camp. None of these developments have complied with any of the statutory clearance requirements required under laws protecting grazing pastures, forests, environment, biodiversity, forest rights, etc. Besides, land for the projects has been promoted in patent disregard of specific directions of the High Court of Karnataka and Supreme Court of India that such ecologically sensitive grassland ecosystems should not be diverted for any purpose without judicial approval.
Environment Support Group challenged these decisions before the National Green Tribunal (Southern Zone, Chennai), and a copy of the applications and the objections of respondents is accessible here. In response to the Applications, the Tribunal directed by its order of 21st March 2013 that a fact finding Expert Committee constituted by Dr. S. Ravichandra Reddy and Dr. K. V. Anantharaman would visit the impacted areas, interact with communities and provide a report on the scales of the projects and their impacts on communities and sensitive ecosystems, about the nature of the controversial decisions, as also any other matter the committee felt fit to address. In conformance with this direction, the Committee visited Challakere on 23rd May 2013 to study the impacts and also held public interactions on subsequent days.
“Forfeiting our Commons” (185 pages) is a comprehensive critique and expose’ of the gross illegalities that have formed the basis of decisions resulting in the diversions of these ecologically sensitive and heritage Kavals. The report provides a deep understanding of the extensive environmental and social impacts the projects have caused even as preliminary project activities are being initiated illegally. The report makes a very strong case for the conservation of these biodiversity rich Kavals as it is a crucial habitat to support the revival of the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard, Lesser Florican, a variety of endemic flora found only here, and also the highly threatened Blackbuck, Deccan Wolf, etc. The report demonstrates that the high degree of care for and wise use of these commons by local pastoral and agrarian communities over centuries is the reason why these grassland ecosystems have survived. Diversion of these commons to defence, institutional, infrastructure and urban developments would not only amount to violation of directions of the Courts which has cast a duty on the Government to protect such ecologically sensitive areas, but would also result in the destruction of one of the last remaining large and contiguous grassland ecosystems of Karnataka. The report demonstrates that the Government is promoting water intensive developments in a water starved region even though fully aware that such decisions is fraught with very high risks of causing social unrest and ecological disaster.
A copy of this report submitted by ESG to the Expert Committee is accessible here
Leo F. Saldanha, Bhargavi S. Rao, Abhayraj Naik, Mallesh K. R., Shashikala Iyer and Davis G. Thomas
Environment Support Group