The recent in-principle clearance granted for uranium exploration in Telangana’s Amrabad Tiger Reserve, will destroy a landscape rich in biodiversity and one that supports a hunter-gatherer Scheduled Tribe
On the road that pilgrims take from Hyderabad to Srisailam, lies the unassuming lush green forest of the Amrabad Tiger Reserve. Before the separation of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, huge boards would suggest that you were in India’s largest tiger reserve.
Despite the division, it still happens to be India’s second-largest tiger reserve, next only to its sibling, the original Nagarjunasagar Srisailam Tiger Reserve. Together they form what is probably India's largest protected dry forest.
During my early days as an activist way back in 2003, I was part of a kindred group that opposed the original proposal of the Peddagatu-Lambapur uranium mining site, 1.6 kilometres (km) from the Nagarjunasagar reservoir. Despite the spirited opposition led by active public participation, all mandatory clearances were given to the project.
However, people were steadfast and continued their agitation, forcing the YS Rajasekhara Reddy-led Andhra Pradesh government to not allow mining as part of keeping his electoral promise. The mining never started, yet the proposal was not disposed. It was a moral victory.
However, alternative sites continued to be explored silently. The Uranium Corporation of India (UCIL) continued searching for uranium ore, first in Kadapa district and then in the Amrabad Tiger Reserve.
Amrabad Tiger Reserve lies in the Nallamala hills, a landscape that is recovering after over two centuries of degradation by the British and the Nizam of Hyderabad. It is a mystifying landscape of lofty hills and cavernous valleys, perennial rivers and exciting winding roads that have thick, forested topography on one side and deep and vast valleys on the other along with different hues to mark the seasons.
Inhabiting this mesmerising forested landscape is the most charismatic cat of the world — the tiger. Richness is synonymous with this tiger reserve as it harbours great biodiversity, comprising of around 70 species of mammals, more than 300 hundred avian varieties, 60 species of reptiles and thousands of insects, all supported and nourished by more than 600 different plant species.
Amrabad was selected for a reason. The Peddagatu-Lambapur area was dominated by the politically active Lambadas, who enjoyed Scheduled Tribe (ST) status in united Andhra Pradesh. Amrabad, on the other hand, is dominated by the Chenchus, a ST, who are less affluent and are the most under-privileged group in Telangana.
During the reign of the Nizam, on the recommendation of Austrian anthropologist Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf, the Amrabad plateau was designated as the Chenchu Reserve for securing the lives and livelihood of Chenchus. The status was soon abolished because of the reservation of forests and later, the declaration of the tiger reserve.
The degradation of forests and loss in rainfall has caused the Chenchus, who are a hunter-gatherer community, to lose their livelihood. In search of work, some of the Amrabad Chenchus moved to the forest’s fringes in the 1980s but their domicile officially remains in the villages they originally belonged to.
After the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act came into force, many of the Chenchus now spend at least four-five months in the forests and live in makeshift camps just for securing the daily wages given under the rural employment guarantee.
In certain seasons, many Chenchu people go as far as Hyderabad and Vijayawada, to work as private watchmen in farms and orchards. However, still a substantial part of their incomes come from forest produce and livestock that graze in forests.
Although the proposal for mining in Amrabad suggests that the site is of no archeaological value, this area is, in fact, renowned for its archaeological significance. It contains ruins of the ancient Nagarjuna Viswa Vidyalayam run by the great Buddhist scholar Nagarjunacharya (150 AD).
The relics of the fort of Ikshwaku Chandragupta, a ruler of the 3rd century BC are also found. The ancient fort of Pratap Rudra, a king of the Kakatiya dynasty of Warangal and many other forts are seen on the banks of the Krishna river. An ancient wall of length of 105 miles, constructed by the Kakatiyas is an interesting feature.
Geo-morphological rock shelters and cave temples such as Akka Mahadevi Bhilam, Dattatreya Bhilam, Umaa Maheswaram, Kadalivanam, and Palankasari are characteristic of the area.
The current move to start uranium exploration on 83 sq km will unleash a Frankenstein and create major distrust between the people and the government.
K Kavitha, former Member of Parliament and daughter of Chief Minister K Chandrasekhara Rao and her party, the Telangana Rastra Samithi (TRS), in power since 2014, had vehemently opposed the move to start uranium mining in Amrabad. Chenchus have high hopes on their chief minister yet again this time.
The area proposed for mining falls under the Amrabad and Nudigal Reserved Forests of the ‘core area’ of the tiger reserve. It has a good diversity of forests and wildlife.
The area lies along a patch where the Nallavagu and Dindi rivers merge, forming a major tributary and catchment of the Krishna river. The forest here is pristine. Some of the areas have been given as pattas under the Forest Rights Act.
The rich diversity of wildlife includes tiger, leopard, dhole, wolf, Indian fox, jackal, honey badger, nilgai, sambar, chowsingha and sloth bear. There is also the endemic yellow-throated bulbul and the star tortoise.
Despite the rich wildlife, there is very little human-wildlife conflict. The streams and rivulets drain into the Krishna, which has an amazing diversity of acquatic life including the mugger crocodile, water monitor lizard and turtles. The forest area is pristine and provides numerous ecosystem services like being the major catchment of the Krishna, which quenches the thirst of the two Telugu-speaking states.
The proposed area is hilly and highly undulating. The drilling of 4,000 deep holes will disfigure the reserve, ruining the wildlife habitat. Proposed to cover 20,500 acres, the project seems poised to destroy the ecology of the entire tiger reserve.
The exploration will expose and pollute surface water, ground water and leech the minerals and dangerous chemicals into the Nagarjunasagar dam. The roads will fragment and degrade the dry forests, which may never recover after such a massive exercise.
The proposal to mine for uranium in this Eden will not only kill its wild denizens but will also take away the livelihoods of the Chenchu, besides exposing them and hundreds of others to uranium contamination. Is it a bit too much to ask for the rescinding of the proposal? If India's largest tiger reserves are not sacrosanct then the future of tiger is really bleak in the new India we are making.
Chenchus are perhaps the first habitants of mainland India. In Tribes of India: The Struggle for Survival, Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf describes Chenchus: "They are short and slender in stature, with very dark skin, wavy or curly hair, broad faces, flat noses, and a trace of prognathism (extension or bulging out of the lower jaw), which is a sign of their connection with ancient human beings that roamed the Earth".
He adds: "There are no people in India poorer in material possessions than the jungle Chenchus; bows and arrows, a knife, an axe, a digging stick, some pots and baskets, and a few tattered rags constitute many a Chenchu’s entire belongings. He usually owns a thatched hut in one of the small settlements where he lives during the monsoon rains and in the cold weather. But in the hot season, communities split up and individual family groups camp in the open, under overhanging rocks or in temporary leaf-shelters".
The basic unit of Chenchu society is the nuclear family, consisting of a man, his wife, and their children. Each such group holds hereditary rights to a tract of land, and within its boundaries, its members are free to hunt and collect edible roots and tubers. These used to be the Chenchus' staple food, though in recent years, there has been a change in their diet and ways of subsistence.
Imran Siddiqui is the co-founder of the Hyderabad Tiger Conservation Society (HyTiCoS)
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